Why Did Jesus Come? (Matthew 9:14-17)

Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (New International Version)

The late Abigail Van Buren, better known in her day as the columnist, “Dear Abby,” was the person who made famous the phrase, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.”

We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s that are reminders of why Christians and Churches exist in the first place. The Church does not remain on this earth solely for its own benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the benefit of doctors or insurance companies. 

The Church exists to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of the gospel, the good news of forgiveness and new life in Christ. The Church calls people who are ensnared, entrapped, and in bondage to guilt and shame, and who need the restorative touch of grace. 

Our calling is not to find out what others can do for us (e.g. tithing and attendance) but what we can do for others. That’s why we are the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth as the temple of the Holy Spirit. 

Even though I am a church pastor, it is not my church. The church is not your church. It is Christ’s Church and we are to act in accordance with that truth.

Some of you reading this blog post are unhealthy. Some of you are sick with sin; some are heart-sick; others are just plain sick and tired of being sick and tired. Jesus (nor me!) is not looking to heap on you a load of expectations and guilt for things you are not doing; but instead is pointing you to the source of healing and change and inviting you to admit your need and come to him. 

Conversely, you may be healthy, spiritually alive and well. Therefore, it’s your job to roll up your sleeves and serve, to participate fully in the mission of Jesus for the church and the world.

Why did Jesus come? 

Jesus came to set up a new structure that could embrace his mission of bringing new life to people.

Christ used the occasion of John’s disciples asking him about fasting to communicate that his mission of reaching people through mercy and forgiveness will need a significant structural change. 

The two illustrations Jesus used – cloth and wineskins – is to simply point out that old and new wineskins are incompatible; and old and new pieces of cloth don’t go together. I would put it this way: You don’t put a new collar on a dead dog.

The Lord Jesus didn’t come to this earth just to perpetuate the status quo; he didn’t enter this world through the incarnation to simply dress up the Jewish religion, or to make a few minor adjustments to what already is going on. No! Christ came to change the old and do something new so that his mission could go forward through us.

We need a structural system which can accommodate the finished work of Jesus on the cross.

The entire sacrificial system and ritual laws of the Old Testament were only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings – external regulations applying until the time of the new order.(Hebrews 9:10)

Christ is the one who arranges a new covenant, so that those who have been called by God may receive the eternal blessings that God has promised. This can be done because there has been a death which sets people free from the wrongs they did while the first covenant was in effect. (Hebrews 9:15, GNT)

Jesus canceled the first covenant in order to put the second into effect; the old is obsolete and has served it’s purpose. Now, Christ’s new covenant is in effect – a system big enough to hold the mission of the Church. (Hebrews 8:13; 10:9)

I wonder:

  • Is there anything in your life or in your church that is obsolete?
  • Is there a practice, ministry, system, or structure that is ineffective and not contributing to the mission that Jesus has for us in reaching others? 
  • Are there any dead dogs you keep trying to prop up on its legs?
  • Are you focused on what is important to Jesus? Do you know what’s important to him?
  • Do you keep performing the same rituals over and over because that is what you’ve always done?
  • What needs to change in your life to accommodate the mission of Jesus?

If the mission of Jesus is to occur we must develop:

  1. A relationship with Jesus. Engaging in spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading and meditating on Scripture, are activities that put us in a position to know Christ better and respond to what is important to him.
  2. Relationships with each other that are not superficial but help one another to grow in Christ. We need to hold one another accountable for how the mission of Jesus is being accomplished, or not.
  3. Relationships with those outside of the church. This world is filled with sick, needy, hurting, lonely, unhealthy people who are stuck. They need a major change of life that can come from Jesus working through his followers. 

May it be so. Soli Deo Gloria.

The Church Playground (Galatians 1:6-12)

I’m surprised that you’re so quickly deserting Christ, who called you in his kindness, to follow a different kind of good news. But what some people are calling good news is not really good news at all. They are confusing you. They want to distort the Good News about Christ. Whoever tells you good news that is different from the Good News we gave you should be condemned to hell, even if he is one of us or an angel from heaven. I’m now telling you again what we’ve told you in the past: If anyone tells you good news that is different from the Good News you received, that person should be condemned to hell.

Am I saying this now to win the approval of people or God? Am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s servant.

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the Good News I have spread is not a human message. I didn’t receive it from any person. I wasn’t taught it, but Jesus Christ revealed it to me. (God’s Word Translation)

At first glance, driving by any school at recess, the whole thing looks like a bunch of random kids descending into chaos bordered by a fence to keep it all from spilling out into the streets. But there’s more going on than the quick peek tells you. There are all kinds of petty little groups that make up the playground. 

It kind of reminds me of church.

The Presbyterians head outside to recess and cannot believe the lack of order going on. They try their darnedest to get some organized games happening.

But the Baptists aren’t having it. They’re too far separated from all the other kids to care about playing with any of them. Besides, nobody is playing by the rules and if there’s one thing Baptists can’t stand, it’s a lack of legalism. 

The Pentecostals all seem completely oblivious to anything that’s going on. They’re just having too much fun going as fast as they can on the merry-go-round to see that the Catholics are totally aghast at their lack of guilt feelings over hogging the equipment.

The little group of Episcopalians are lost in some morbid inferiority complex and retreat into their liturgical games.

Meanwhile the popular kids, the Non-denominational group, break out singing Chris Tomlin songs so loud that the Methodists go scrambling for their Book of Discipline to see what to do about it. 

The Lutheran kids are so busy fighting each other about who is the true Lutheran that they don’t hear any of the kids anyway. 

And the Reformed are those annoying kids who keep acting like the teacher instead of just enjoying being a kid on the playground.

The Church playground includes:

  • Groups of kids who don’t seem to play very well together; they all think they’re better than the other group.
  • Cliques who believe they’re the only playground in town; they don’t realize there are other playgrounds with all kinds of other kids.

How we interact with others in the world is going to determine if the school gets shut down, with no more playground. After all, what parent wants to send their kid to the school where nobody gets along with each other?

How we interact with each other on the playground of Christianity says a lot about our view of God. For many, God is the high and lofty Principal who’s only seen when something goes wrong, not realizing that God is really the encouraging teacher who’s daily in the classroom offering kind words and self-sacrifice that changes your life forever.

Instead of lamenting that Christendom has vanished from its grand position in society and that the moral fabric of our country is down the toilet along with the janitor’s cigarette butt, maybe we should stop giving the other kid a swirlie long enough to see that our bullying and belligerent ways are anything but the words and ways of Jesus to a world who needs spiritual care, not spiritual abuse.

I’d suggest we use our detention time to think about what we’ve done. And the Apostle Paul is here to help us do just that.

Paul was willing to tolerate a lot, but when it came to taking good news and twisting it into bad news, he was downright beside himself with shock and anger about the entire situation.

The Apostle had absolutely no tolerance for a bunch of honyocks who take spiritual deliverance and turn it back into spiritual bondage. It’s as if a group of immigrant refugees have been rescued from their terrible plight of homelessness and poverty to another gracious country; and then are deceitfully convinced to return to that previous state and leave the good confines of their new home.

It’s so appalling to Paul that he pronounced a severe curse upon them for doing such a thing. To emphasize his point, he belches out the curse a second time.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that there is forgiveness and deliverance from sin, death, and hell. It’s a gospel of grace that mercifully gives to us – a spiritual amnesty declaring us new citizens of God’s benevolent country of love.

Yet, many people are deceived with the legalist’s bargain from the devil: Take a nice handy list of do’s and don’ts and you will become godly. he false teacher is quite glad to provide the list so that there’s no guessing about what to do. And, for some reason, it seems it’s that teacher who always has playground duty at recess.

The list is presented as either principles to change your life; or rules to follow; or particular prayers to pray; or an approved list of things to give your money to. In other words, check off the items on the list and all will be well.

In reality, however, it’s a highway to the grave. And those who lead the way to death with their accursed legalistic ways will find themselves condemned by their own words and actions. In the end, the teacher will be dismissed to a very different school.

There is a need to repent of religious lists, political agendas, and teachings which ignore and demean the gracious good news of Christ’s person and work.

One telltale sign of holding to a conjured list is not being honest with one another about our struggles. The bald fact of list-living is that we cannot fulfill it. So, when we know we are not measuring up to the list, the temptation is to keep up appearances as if we are.

List-living eschews showing any weakness or imperfection and creates unholy disconnections between people:

  • I cannot admit my sin to anyone because the list pronounces me a failure if I do. 
  • I cannot enter a deep and prolonged grief over my loss because the list says I need to stay strong. 
  • I cannot profess my doubts about God because the list says if I doubt, I am not a real Christian.

The Apostle Paul’s (and mine, too!) response to the legalistic list-living is this: To hell with the list! 

Instead, give praise to Jesus Christ who has given us the way of freedom and peace! It’s grace which transforms hearts, turns lives around, and provides genuine joy and satisfaction. If grace is not the answer, we aren’t asking the right question.

I’ll take Jesus the Teacher any day over the list-loving false teacher.

Prayer Is the Heartbeat of the Church (Acts 1:12-17, 21-26)

“The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” by Italian painter Fra Angelico (1395-1455)

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers and sisters, the Scripture had to be fulfilled in which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus. He was one of our number and shared in our ministry….”

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus was living among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles. (New International Version)

So, what do you do when you don’t know what to do? And what do you do when you have a problem or challenge?

Good old American ingenuity, the Protestant work ethic, and fixing things is the reflexive response of many people. In the belief that we can solve anything, what typically gets left out of the equation is seeking God’s presence and power in order to rightly discern next steps.

But that wasn’t the response of the earliest church. When faced with their small numbers and a large mission to accomplish, they prayed. They more than prayed. They continually got together, just to pray. Prayer was the air they breathed. The believers understood they needed God (not simply to rubber stamp their plans) for moving forward in mission and ministry.

Christians need the vision and imagination that can only come through consistent daily prayer. Otherwise, they will not choose wisely and find themselves in a quandary of their own making.

Imagine not having to purchase what you need the most today.

Maybe you’re in a real pinch. Your financial budget isn’t budging. Perhaps you’re wondering what items you need to do without for a while. It could be that the bills aren’t all getting paid. Or maybe you’re concerned with how in the world you’re going to buy Christmas presents for the family.

Imagine having all the love you need today without working to earn it.

Maybe you have a strained relationship. It might be that you’re hurt from a marriage or a love that has gone sour. Perhaps a friendship is on the rocks, or a family member won’t talk to you. You’re wondering if it will ever be better, wondering if love will find you again.

Imagine continually having a church experience of being full of the grace of Jesus, the love of God the Father, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

Maybe your church has a legalistic bent. Perhaps the church is withdrawn into cliques and special interest groups. It could be that the Spirit hasn’t shown up since 1959. You’re tired, weary of the chronic sameness and status quo of a stagnant place.

For all these things, and so many more of life’s problems and situations, there is good news… really good news!

Prayer is the currency to what you need most, the means of receiving and giving love, and the path to a gracious and powerful Christian and Church life.

Prayer is the heartbeat of the church. The promise of prayer still stands. God gives. We receive. But we must ask!

You didn’t choose me, but I chose you. I have appointed you to go, to produce fruit that will last, and to ask the Father in my name to give you whatever you ask for. (John 15:16, GW)

Sometimes God just gives without us asking. That’s great. Yet, God wants so much more for you and me and our faith communities. God longs for us to be vitally connected to Christ, and that connection happens through prayer. We can bank on the answers to our prayers when we:

  • Stay joined to Jesus (John 15:4)
  • Let Christ’s teachings become part of you (John 15:7)
  • Remain faithful to Christ’s love for you (John 15:9)
  • Obey Jesus (John 15:10)

Imagine having your will align with the perfect will of God.

Stay joined to me and let my teachings become part of you. Then you can pray for whatever you want, and your prayer will be answered. (John 15:7, CEV)

Perhaps you are skeptical. You’ve prayed a long time with nothing happening. You’re discouraged and feel like prayer doesn’t work, or that something is wrong with you. 

There is a mysterious and mystical aspect to prayer that we will never quite understand. However, I do know that Jesus didn’t put a timetable on the answers – they will come when they come. And they will come. 

Maybe we’ll discover that what we want and need the most is to let God’s will and way be done in us, no matter what it is. Perhaps the point is to change us, and not always to change our circumstances.

We have an incredible privilege; we get to ask, without having to buy answers to prayer.

We don’t have to do backflips to get God’s attention. We simply ask. 

We don’t have to try and work to earn God’s favor. We don’t have to draw up detailed plans like some sort of architectural design to see a fruitful, loving, and powerful church. We just ask and remain closely connected to Jesus. 

O Lord, grant me to greet the coming of this day in peace. 

Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. 

In every hour of the day, reveal your good and holy will to me. 

Bless my dealings with all who surround me. 

Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with the firm conviction that your will governs all. 

In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. 

In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all situations, no matter what, are sent by you. 

Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. 

Give me the strength to bear the fatigue of this day with all that it shall bring. 

Direct my will; teach me to pray; pray you yourself in me. Amen.

 –A Prayer from St. Philaret of Moscow (1782-1867)

To the Family of God (2 John 1:1-16)

St. John the Apostle, by sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911)

From the Elder—

To the dear Lady and to her children, whom I truly love. And I am not the only one, but all who know the truth love you, because the truth remains in us and will be with us forever.

May God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, give us grace, mercy, and peace; may they be ours in truth and love.

How happy I was to find that some of your children live in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And so I ask you, dear Lady: let us all love one another. This is no new command I am writing you; it is the command which we have had from the beginning. This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands. The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.

Many deceivers have gone out over the world, people who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came as a human being. Such a person is a deceiver and the Enemy of Christ. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for but will receive your reward in full.

Anyone who does not stay with the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. Whoever does stay with the teaching has both the Father and the Son. So then, if some come to you who do not bring this teaching, do not welcome them in your homes; do not even say, “Peace be with you.” For anyone who wishes them peace becomes their partner in the evil things they do.

I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink; instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you personally, so that we shall be completely happy.

The children of your dear Sister send you their greetings. (Good News Translation)

The Pastor

Tucked away near the back of the Bible is a short little letter from the Apostle John, identifying himself as “The Elder.” This is meant to convey both his venerable leadership and his affectionate relation as the grandfatherly old man who has something important to say. In other words, John was, in our terms, a Pastor responsible for shepherding the church with care.

The Church and Christians

“The dear Lady” is a metaphor for the church. Through personifying the church, John was assigning worth, respect, and dignity to the mother with spiritual progeny.

“Her children” are the believers within the church, spiritual offspring with the church as their mother. This has been an important motif for most of Christian history – an understanding that has gotten lost over the centuries in much of the Protestant world. Yet, one of the magisterial reformers, John Calvin, retained this view of the church and its members:

“The Church is the bosom which God is pleased to gather his children… who are guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…. How useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us under her care and guidance… Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1, 4)

Indeed, Calvin was merely upholding the words of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c.200-258, C.E.)  who stated 1,300 years earlier than the reformer:

“No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”

St. Cyprian (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, ch.vi)

Love and Truth

The relationship between the mother and her children is to be always characterized by familial love. Everything within Christianity rises and falls with love because God is love.

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving.

In fact, God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

God is not okay with deceit, not at all alright with errant understandings of his Son, Jesus Christ, being made out as a mere phantom without a real flesh-and-blood body. He had to be made like us in every way. Otherwise, there is no deliverance from the deceitfulness of sin, the sting of death, and the agony of hell.

John, as the Apostle of love, consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always, insisted John. Love is only really possible when there is truth in the heart.

The true muster of mother church and of individual believing children is their love. No matter what is done – whether outreach, fellowship, or worship – it is all to be done in love and in truth. It’s not enough to be right; the rightness must be applied with the generosity, grace, and liberality of love.

The telltale sign of the deceiver, the false teacher, is that he proclaims only one without the other, either truth or love, but never both together.  

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is a red flag that impure teaching is happening. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love, neither in word nor deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and truth always go together. A mother is a mother because of her children; and a child is a child because of the mother. You cannot have one without the other.

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions, assumes we already understand their situation without hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love finds itself by carefully applying biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love.

Love must have its way, or it isn’t love.

Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Hope and Happiness

Hope is a confident expectation that promises will be kept and realized.

Happiness is the result.

Hope and happiness go together like bacon and eggs, Tom and Jerry, the moonwalk and Michael Jackson, Friday and fish fry, Harry Potter and Hogwarts, salt and pepper, Adam and Eve, Jesus and the Spirit, and well, I think you get the picture.

Unhappiness is the inevitable result of feeling hopeless. Hope and happiness are both relational terms. They come from having good relations based in love and truth.

Love and truth are very much relational terms, being realized because of mother church’s nurturing.

And the chosen mother came into being because of the Father’s gracious will.

So, tell me, what is your takeaway from this quite brief reflection on John’s little letter?…