Two for One

concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 1:3-4, ESV)

When people looked at Jesus – the carpenter from Nazareth, Mary’s boy – they saw a human being. With His posse of disciples, He rolled into town on two legs, walking like anyone else would. He didn’t float, fly, beam in, or suddenly appear. He ambulated.

That’s what we were supposed to see.

God’s Son came, according to human reckoning, as a descendant of an ancient earthly king that nobody in the world cared about beyond Judea. David died too long ago to matter, especially since Rome had its foot on Jerusalem’s throat. Most Jews cared, of course, but they prayed for a type of Messiah that God never intended. Romans yawned, all while keeping a careful eye out for sedition.

But when Jesus appeared – first as a baby and then in the wilderness with John the Baptist – human eyes couldn’t see what the Father could. Human eyes couldn’t see that the Son had always been the Son, had created everything from the rings of Jupiter to the bubble of air under our fingernails, had voluntarily put aside the glory of heaven to make a much anticipated appearance and bring about the climax of history.

Human eyes can only see flesh, dirt, and blood. So, God gave us that. He put on the flesh, traveled along the dirty roads, and ultimately let the blood fall. We get to see all of that from our side of the sky – all the tangible evidence of love run wild. God knew we needed a Man from Nazareth to breathe in our oxygen. So, we got it.

When Jesus died, He got chucked into the grave like any other human being. According to the flesh, as Paul put it, everything happened like it always does. Humans die; the world keeps spinning on its axis; and the people in Rome would never have known. What’s one more dead Jewish guy to them?

But human reckoning doesn’t stop God. He knows how to make a point. Jesus said on many occasions, “I’m the Son of God.” The resurrection says, “You bet.” Jesus said, “I am the truth and the life.” The resurrection says, “This guy knows what He’s talking about. Better listen.” Jesus said, “Nobody comes to the Father except through me.” The resurrection says, “Don’t get that one wrong, or you’ll sizzle like an egg on a Texas sidewalk.”

The dual nature of Christ is not an unimportant side issue of salvation. When Paul introduced himself to the Romans, he first of all laid out why Jesus mattered to Jews and Gentiles alike. God became human – specifically a descendant of David – but He was always God. The resurrection makes that part difficult to ignore.

Paul summarizes all of this by calling Him “Jesus Christ our Lord.” You’ve got Jesus, meaning “Savior”; Christ, meaning “God’s chosen”; and Lord – or kurios (koo’-ree-os) – meaning “the Big Guy.”

In other words, Paul’s telling us it matters – it matters more than anything else.

Yeah … That’s a Lie

“For as many of you as were baptized in Christ have put on Christ. Now there is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are in Christ, you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.” Galatians 3:27–29

When I’m asked to tell my “religion” or “religious preference,” I like to say that I’m “clothed in Christ,” a phrase that comes from the tender-yet-scathing book of Galatians. When Paul tells the Galatians they have “put on Christ,” he means that they have donned the Savior like some sort of garment. Over their old selves—the sin-filthy, beat-up, idol-worshiping selves—they’ve been covered by the One who is incorruptible—the sin-clean, nail-scarred, idol-destroying One. If you think of those cartoons where the character puts on a suit that looks like another character, you’ve got something close.

In context, it’s important because the Galatians have been hoodwinked into thinking they need to do something more to really be saved. Some religious nuts have popped in to tell them they need to slice some skin here, follow some rules there, and generally look more like the religious nuts. “You can’t get to heaven unless you look like us,” they say.

Yeah … that’s a lie.

When God looks at those who are in Christ, He sees Christ. He doesn’t see your tat or your long hair or that time you woke up in somebody’s bed you didn’t even know. He sees Christ—the new you that grace applied. That’s pretty cool, considering the promise.

Excuses have probably popped into some of your heads. Let’s deal with them.

“But you don’t know what I did.”

Jesus.

“But I need to get myself cleaned up first.”

Jesus.

“But God could never love me.”

Jesus.

Clothed in Christ means you don’t have to fix yourself or follow a system. God’s love in Jesus takes care of it. Try Him on for size—He always fits.

The Missing Beatitude?

[A sermon excerpt]

After Jesus is baptized and gathers up John the Baptist’s disciples, He later heads to Galilee, which at that time was where a large portion of the Jewish population lived. Matthew 4:23-25 says

And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains, those oppressed by demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and he healed them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee and the Decapolis, and from Jerusalem and Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.

At this point, Jesus is famous, rather than infamous. He’s healing, He’s teaching, and He’s gathering a lot of groupies. I say that because most of these people are simply following the buzz. There’s something new, Someone who claims to be Messiah. Their devotion is shallow and self-centered.

But this Guy makes them happy. I mean, He’s healing their broken bodies and creating a stir.

It’s at this very moment that Jesus does something quite astonishing—but only if you imagine it from their perspective. He preaches a message that is completely contrary to what these groupies had been hearing all their lives. The Pharisees and Scribes had been telling them how to please God, and Jesus points to this group of religious experts and basically tears them apart.

Look down at Matthew 5:21 and following. You’ll notice that Jesus says things like “You have heard it said…” over and over. Who said this? The Scribes and Pharisees. So, when you think of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, remember the context. Jesus is not talking into a vacuum; He’s talking into the teeth of years and years of legalistic tradition. He’s telling these groupies not to be like the spiritual leaders of the country, not to ignore the teaching of God for the traditions, the decisions, of humanity.

Now, I’ve said all that to help us get down deeper into what comes at the beginning of His sermon: the Beatitudes, which is a fancy way of saying “the blessings.” You know the ones I mean: “Blessed are the blank.” It’s interesting to note that another way to say “blessed” here is “happy,” and some Bibles have that. So, when you read the Beatitudes, think of Jesus as pointing out to the crowd what happiness means, God-happiness instead of the religion-happiness of the Pharisees (and us as well).

I hope you’re familiar with these beatitudes, and if you’re not, you really, really need to dig in and study these, as they can transform your walk with Christ. But for the sake of time, let’s just do a quick summary: blessed/happy are 1) those who mourn, 2) the meek, 3) those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 4) the merciful, 5) the pure in heart, 6) the peacemakers, and 7) the persecuted and reviled.

That is an amazing list, a list that could only come from God because it is so contrary to everything that we put stock in. How many CEOs of big companies would claim that mourning and meekness and mercy and persecution led to their promotion? How many poor, reviled Christians from India or China become international celebrities? The point is that this list is not going to get you very far in the world’s way of doing things.

In addition, I want you to notice the missing beatitude. Okay, I know that none are really missing, since Jesus said exactly what He wanted to say. The gospel writers present exactly what God wanted us to know. But too often we—even Christians—live as if there is a missing statement here. And if I had to put words to it, I think it would go something like this: “Happy are you when you do what makes you feel good because God wants you to be happy.”

That’s not the way it works.

Not Knowing I Was Dead

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, (Romans 1:1-2, ESV)

In my apartment building, having a dog proves challenging, having a small dog even more so. Since she refuses to learn how to use and flush a toilet, we’re forced to slap the leash on, carry her down three flights of stairs, and hustle her off to a small patch of ground dedicated to doggy calls. Everything else is concrete—and I do mean everything.

In the past, I did my best to avoid actual human contact—other than the practiced smile, jerky nod, and occasional mumbled phrase. I’m introverted, I would think to myself. That was enough of an excuse for me. Plus, most of the other people in the apartment building seemed happy enough that I had the same disposition as them. Thus, the trip to the small patch of dirt involved much hustle and avoidance, a carefully orchestrated dash.

Then, it happened—well, he happened. You know the type of guy I mean. He was not interested in my attempts at momentary eye flicking in his direction or the head turn away from him. He didn’t care about body language. He had a mission, and that mission meant speaking with me—on purpose.

After a few moments of small talk, this man from Africa hit me with it: he asked if I knew Jesus. My first thought, of course, was one of indignation. How could he not know that I followed Christ? How could he not know that I worked on a Christian website as an editor? How could he miss what had to be so obvious?

None of that came out. Instead, I calmly explained to him that I was serious about my faith—serious enough to avoid contact with anyone in my apartment complex or to share Christ or to mention anything about Jesus whatsoever outside of my circle of Christian friends. See, that’s serious.

And that compared completely favorably to this guy’s story. After all, he had felt the call of God, hopped on a plane from Africa to America with no place to stay or money, and had been publically sharing his faith with every person he met as a missionary. He lived day to day on the grace of God with all his needs met exactly when they needed to be. He preached, prayed, loved, suffered, all for the glory of God.

What impacted me the most that day is that this faithful brother was called from Africa to America—the very place where I, a Christ follower, live. Perhaps God wanted to shame me for my apathy and my fear. Perhaps He wanted to encourage me. Either way, I realized out there on that tiny patch of dirt how dead I’d been: if I’d been set apart by and for the gospel of God, I had no choice but to share that.

You don’t realize you’re spiritually dead and unfruitful until you see it for yourself. I saw my own death with the help of a brother from Africa. Maybe that’s something you need to realize too.

Mission Trip to America

In the deep shadows of decrepit buildings, ruins of the past, city-dwellers scurry across a bridge built by the people who lived here over a hundred years ago.  The missionaries survey the faces of the indigenous people, each scarred by a life lived hard. Those sent to this place pray for the Holy Spirit to empower them, to give them the words, to help them love like Christ. They’ve studied this culture, and they know how to relate to the hurting, how to share the power of the gospel with them.

They are sojourners without ever boarding a plane. You see, these are American missionaries to America, fellow citizens who know they need not travel anywhere to obey Christ’s command.

My whole perspective changed several months ago when I met someone who had traveled from Africa to share Jesus. Here—he came to my city to share the gospel—he traveled thousands of miles to the very place where I, a Christ follower, lived. I’ve been so conditioned to think of missions work as something super-spiritual people do in countries without electricity that the notion that someone would see America as a mission field rocked me to the core.

Why did he have to come here if I’m here? If millions of people in this country claim Christ?

But I’ve realized this amazing brother from Africa is right. He lives for Christ here because the American church has not. We rarely believe in the power of the Spirit to convict and to transform and to make the grace of Jesus real. We rarely take that knowledge to the people in the next house over.

Instead, people have to come here from Africa to do what we should be doing. If we want a mission field, the harvest is ripe on Twenty-Second Street and Vine.

Bumper Stickers

I argue with bumper stickers. Well, I suppose you could say that it’s more of an internal debate, but the main issue I have is the seemingly smarmy way a huge issue is boiled down to a single phrase or sentence. The variables get in the way.

Today, however, while trekking home, I came across a cracked white strip with faded red letters, and I simply agreed. Granted, I did not agree in the way the clever writer intended for me to do so. But that’s half the fun.

The single rusted pickup truck in a field of Yarises (Yarii?) proudly displayed:

God is too BIG for ONE religion.

I would change that slightly, I think, to say:

God is too BIG for ANY religion.

Jesus didn’t come to bring religion—the Pharisees had the market cornered. He came to bring freedom through His life, death, and resurrection. He asked us to follow Him, keep His Word tucked away inside our heads, and even travel with some pretty great people in His church.

The writer—and displayer—of the bumper sticker have gotten one key point: God’s bigger than religion. He’s also the only One who can solve our religious problem, our futile attempts to get back to Him on our own. Fixing that problem takes a pretty awesome God doing something pretty amazing. (Yeah, that’s an understatement.)

I pray the person in the pick up realizes they only have so much time to meet this God who’s bigger than religion. The bumper sticker by itself won’t do.