What difference does the Resurrection make?

sunriseNote to reader: I preached this sermon on Sunday, April 1, 2018 at University Church of the Nazarene on the campus of Africa Nazarene University, Ongata-Rongai, Kenya.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Common English Bible.

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Scripture reading: Acts 2:22-36 (CEB)

–prayer–

I. INTRODUCTION

Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed]. Several times today, we’ve repeated those words. But what would we say to a child who asks: “What difference does the resurrection make?” By the end of this messsage, we’ll know the answer to that question.

II. LIGHT ALWAYS FOLLOWS DARKNESS

Traditions have grown up around Easter that have little to do with the meaning of the day. The word “Easter” itself is of obscure origin. It may have come from an old English word referring to the goddess of Spring.

As a child, Easter meant wearing new clothes, a special outfit bought just for the day. Easter was also the day for the Easter Bunny who would deliver chocolates in a basket that we had to find hidden somewhere in the house. Or maybe there was an Easter egg hunt, children dashing about, looking for colored eggs.

These activities are fun for children but have little to do with the meaning of this day. And so instead of “Easter” we often now simply say “Resurrection Sunday.” For Christians, Resurrection Sunday is the surprise ending in a story that could have turned out much different, much darker. The joy and celebration of our living Christ is only meaningful when you linger at the foot of the Cross and behold the shame of a naked, lifeless Jesus. Only then does our Lord – clothed in glory and majesty, powerful and alive – stand magnificent in contrast. The bright light of Resurrection Morning is to us so precious because we have known the utter darkness of Holy Saturday.

And so here is the first answer to the question, “What difference does the Resurrection make?” It gives us hope that no matter how dark our lives may seem, light always follows darkness. The words of the song by Bill and Gloria Gaither ring true:

Hold on, my child!

Joy comes in the morning.

Weeping only lasts for the night.

Hold on, my child!

Joy comes in the morning.

The darkest hour means dawn

Is just in sight.

Christ is risen! [He is risen, indeed!]

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Exposing the prosperity Gospel heresy

woodbridgeHeresy (false teaching) often arises when one aspect of the truth is emphasized so much – or tweaked in such a way – that other counter-balancing truths disappear. When it comes to the so-called prosperity Gospel, that truth is simple:

God cares for you.

Jesus certainly teaches this in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). We are of more value to God than the lilies of the field or the birds of the air.

Yet while Jesus talks about basic provision, preachers of the prosperity message go beyond needs to desires. In so doing, they shift the center away from God, putting humans and our wants and wishes for success and wealth at the center. In the end, it is no longer Gospel – good news – but for those disillusioned by its unfulfilled promises, it is bad news, a modified strain of Christian faith that leaves little room for sin, repentance, the Cross, or the place of hardship and suffering in the Christian life.

This is the most important take-away from David Jones’ and Russell Woodbridge’s Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Kregel, 2011; Kindle edition). The authors identify their subject:

This gospel has been given many names, such as the “name it and claim it” gospel, the “blab it and grab it” gospel, the “health and wealth” gospel, the “word of faith” movement, the “gospel of success,” “positive confession theology,”and, as this book will refer to it, the “prosperity gospel.” No matter what name is used, the teaching is the same. This egocentric gospel teaches that God wants believers to be materially prosperous in the here-and-now (location 118, italics added).

Particularly enlightening was chapter 1. There, Jones and Woodbridge summarize the teachings of the  New Thought Movement. New Thought gained some popularity in U.S. in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Its proponents included Emanuel Phineas Quimby, Ralph Waldo Trine and Norman Vincent Peale (among others). Explaining what the authors call the “five pillars” of New Thought – a distorted view of God, elevation of mind over matter, exalted view of humankind, focus on health/wealth, and a unorthodox view of salvation – the authors make a convincing case that today’s prosperity preachers have recycled many of New Thought’s dubious ideas, including the importance of speaking words to make things come to be. This seems dangerously close to the use of magical incantations.

Though the authors are unafraid to critique the teaching of prosperity preachers – Joel Osteen receives special scrutiny – I appreciated that the book did more than just point out what is wrong with the prosperity message. In the second half of the book, they construct a positive and biblical alternative, including an excellent chapter on the biblical theology of giving.

There are ways in which the book left me unsatisfied. While Jones and Woodbridge rightly debunk the misinterpretation of the “by his wounds you have been healed” slogan (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24 – see location 720), this overlooks that there is a legitimate doctrine of divine healing in Scripture expounded in passages like James 5. Since the word “health” appears in the title of their book, the reader is justified in expecting at least a few more pages to present a more balanced and comprehensive biblical view of the issue. Unfortunately, what they did well when it comes to giving they fail to attempt on the question of health.

A second unquestioned assumption is that all pastors are male. An example of this gender bias appears at location 1708: “An elder or pastor can reasonably expect support from the church that he serves.” Since the authors are from a Baptist background, at one level, their word choice is unsurprising since many Baptists reject the ordination of women. However, a little effort could have avoided this distraction by choosing gender-neutral wording, i.e. “A elder or pastor can reasonably expect congregational support.”  Since the authors are sensitive to the use of gender-inclusive language elsewhere in the book, including the use of the word “humankind” instead of “man” (locations 178, 187, 306), one wishes they had been consistent.

The prosperity message is not just a North American phenomenon but has gained traction elsewhere in the world, including across Africa, introducing an incomplete and shallow version of Christian faith. As diseases like Ebola have ravaged parts of West Africa, one church leader on the ground observed that prosperity teachers have been notably silent. Is this because their message cannot stand up under the sobering realities of pain and suffering? Health, Wealth and Happiness is a well-written book that will open the eyes of many around the world who have bought into a skewed and superficial prosperity message that – though alluring – offers little comfort in the crucible of life.

Comfort or hardscrabble? Comparative views on evil and suffering

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Young boys in the Muthare slum of Nairobi, Kenya

If you want to chew up a church in America, hire a missionary who has just returned from Africa. When you’ve witnessed abject poverty and the resilient spirit of many who live in it, you may be tempted to ask a well-off U.S. church member complaining about petty things:

Would you like a little cheese with your whine?

As a theology teacher, I often include a section on theodicy in courses I teach pastors here in Africa. Theodicy is the doctrine of evil and suffering, especially attempts to justify God whom we believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – is both Almighty and good. It’s the old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But I’ve noticed across the years that theodicy doesn’t cause the angst in my African adult students that it causes in me. In fact, I’ve yet to come across a book written by an African theologian on that topic, though it’s a perennial favorite among American Christians, including the latest by Pastor Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (2013).

Why is this the case?

Many Americans I know (including myself) are accustomed to comfort, growing angry at God when difficulties unexpectedly arise. In contrast, many Africans I know are accustomed to a hardscrabble life and praise God heartily when they receive unanticipated blessings.

My wife and I went to the Muthare slum in Nairobi for church a few years ago. Eighty of us were packed tightly into a small room with a tin roof and a dirt floor. We sat on wooden benches in their humble church. At the end of the service, they wanted to celebrate Christmas early since the children in their church-run primary school were at the end of their term and would soon scatter. Two women brought out a white 12″x 12″ frosted cake. Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to cut such a small confection into eighty slices, but they masterfully pulled it off, gingerly wrapping each morsel in a napkin and passing it to the children. The young ones’ eyes lit up in delight at the sugary treat! I thought how as boys my five brothers and I easily devoured a birthday cake twice that size and with a fraction of the gratitude that those Kenyan children showed.

What was the difference? My brothers and I expected comfort as life’s default setting and so took cake for granted. As for Muthare churchgoers, they seemed to expect tough times as the norm and so were elated to find an exception to the rule.

Regarding theodicy, the apostle Peter lived closer to the dominant African view than the dominant American one. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 he writes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (TNIV, italics added).

How can I who have received so much so easily fall into a complaining mode? My prayer is that God will help me to see the world with new eyes, as a place where tough times are normal and good times are a serendipity. Then, let me as I am able and directed by God’s prompting, be a channel of God’s good gifts.

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Photo credit: Journey of Hope

What is a Nazarene? (preceded by the case of the secret panel)

Greg discovers Tracy & Ingersol's What is a Nazarene? at a Johannesburg secondhand bookshop
Greg discovers Tracy & Ingersol’s What is a Nazarene? at a Johannesburg secondhand bookshop

Note: This sermon inaugurated a series entitled “Christian, Holiness, Missional: Core Values in the Church of the Nazarene” at the Maraisburg Church of the Nazarene in Johannesburg, Republic of South Africa. What follows is not a word-for-word transcript, but captures the essence of what I said.

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Opening remarks

It’s  a joy for Amy and me to be with you today. We’ve visited several churches in Johannesburg area, and knew when we worshiped with you that this would be our church home.

When I was a boy, for a period of about 10 years, my family traveled around to various churches and gave Gospel concerts. Looking at this building this morning, which used to belong to a Dutch Reformed congregation, I’m reminded of one of those concerts in Marion, New York. We sang at the Dutch Reformed church, and as usual, set up our sound equipment on the platform prior to the concert. Some of you who know sound equipment might remember high impedance systems. One curious thing about them was the microphone cords couldn’t be longer than 15 feet, or you would lose signal. Because of this, my dad that Sunday morning had to stretch the microphone cords about 4 feet high across the paneled wall at the back of the platform to plug into the amplifier.

My older brother, Mark – probably 11 or 12 at the time – was an avid reader of the Hardy Boys detective series. One of the books was entitled “The Case of the Secret Panel.” As we sat listening to the organist play the prelude, and the congregation filtered in, Mark looked at that front panel where the microphone cords were stretched taut. “Dad,” he said, “I think there’s a secret panel on that wall.” My dad rolled his eyes and said: “Mark, I think you’re reading too many Hardy Boys books.”

Strangely, we hadn’t seen the pastor in a while. All of the sudden, can you believe it? A panel in that platform back wall opened up, and out came the pastor. When he saw the cords there, much to the delight of the congregation, he nimbly hurdled them like an Olympic champion!

I want you to know this morning that I’ve checked the paneled back wall here at Maraisburg church, and I can assure you that there is no secret panel.

SCRIPTURE READING: 1 Peter 4:12-19 (TNIV)

– Prayer –

I.  INTRODUCTION

Today, we begin a series on the core values of the Church of the Nazarene.

That’s a fancy way of answering the question: What is a Nazarene?

You may have seen the booklet a few years back, authored by the General Superintendents of the Church of the Nazarene. Here’s how they answered that question, “What is a Nazarene?”

Nazarenes are…

1) Christian

2) Holiness

3) Missional

In coming weeks, Pastor Kenneth and other preachers will address the second and third points. Today, we’ll look at the first one:

What does it mean to say we are Christian?

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