On Knowing Christ

Pietà by Elisabeth Frink

The ancient Philippian church had lost sight of their purpose, of what is the primary reason for their being in existence. Simply put, they needed to unify around what is the central and most valuable core of Christianity: knowing Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, Jesus was so valuable that he literally gave up everything to become a Christian and follow Jesus. (Philippians 3:4-14)

It was no little thing that Paul did, converting in such a completely life-altering way to Christ. Paul had everything going for him. He was the up and coming star in Judaism. Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time. And yet he forsook it all to pursue and know Christ. 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was. On a much smaller scale, it would be like Green Bay Packer quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, at the height of his career, leaving football altogether to become a missionary to some remote place few people have ever heard of. Most might likely think he lost his marbles and was throwing away (pun intended) something valuable and important. So, it was with Paul.  Everyone thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

However, this would be to misunderstand what is really of greatest value. There are plenty of people in our society telling us what we need. With all the noisy rhetoric, from political pundits to commercial marketers, the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competing voices. On a practical level, it can be far too easy to simply toss Christian discipleship on the smorgasbord of good ideas we get handed each day. Jesus might get misplaced and forgotten on our plate of life because of the mass of other food that is piled alongside him.

World Communion Sunday (always the first Sunday in October each year) reminds Christians that Jesus is our surpassing greatness, the highest and most worthy asset we possess. When we come to the Lord’s Table, there is nothing else to feast upon except Jesus, and Jesus alone. In the act of receiving the common elements of bread and cup, we proclaim that we need no one else and no other thing to make us happy in this life. Jesus is enough for us. What is more, we stand united with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world in a common purpose and value of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The Elements of Holy Communion by Jacques Iselin

The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know him. This was the heartfelt cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so meaningful to him that he gave up everything to pursue Christ and follow Jesus.  If we ever strip Christianity of this core value and stray from knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like the sheer duty of perfunctory prayers, clean living, and dispassionate robotic service. 

Paul longed to know Christ better. There are two words in the Greek language for “know.” One word refers to information; the other refers to an experiential knowledge – and that is the word Paul used with the Philippians. He deeply desired an intimate experience of Jesus. And Paul craved this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, was “rubbish” to him. 

In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps – the street served as the place people threw their garbage. The trash then got trampled into the ground, along with the generous amounts of animal dung. That is how Paul thought of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst. There is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny. There is no comparison between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (sorry Chi-Town). And there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the fifth century, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.” By that he meant we pursue whatever our affections are set upon. One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, yet if Jesus is absent or must compete for our affections in the middle of those things, then it is a disordered love. The solution, for Augustine, is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection. The New Testament frames it this way: Repent and believe the gospel.

To have “disordered love” is a nicer way of saying “spiritual adultery.” Using this metaphor, the appropriate response is to return to our first love. “You have forsaken your first love,” said Jesus to the church in Ephesus.  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). 

Christianity is not some religion in which we strike a deal with God to go to heaven if we accept Jesus. Rather, Christianity centers all of life in the person and work of Jesus. The Lord is a jealous God, feeling slighted when Christians moonlight with the world at night while acknowledging Jesus during the day.

Specifically, Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. He yearned to experience a supernatural change from the inside-out – to be a new person in Christ. Paul did not simply turn over a new leaf; he did a dramatic 180 degree turn and went hard after Jesus. A desire and/or decision to know Christ is to be more than a milquetoast “I’ll try to do better.” Christianity, at its core, is dying to self and being reborn in Jesus with new life.

Furthermore, Paul wanted to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul ached to know Jesus so much that he embraced suffering, just as his Lord did. Paul was not some spiritual masochist; he rightly recognized that spiritual growth and intimacy with Jesus largely comes from the harsh realities of life’s trials and difficulties, as faith is stretched.  We would not know Christ the healer if we were not broken; Christ the provider if we were not in want; and, Jesus Christ and him crucified unless we were aware of sin in the world along with our own personal sin.

Each time a Christian approaches the Lord’s Table, they set aside competing voices and forsake rival gods to have Jesus. For us who believe, let the ingesting of the elements be an act of fellowship with God. May we, along with Paul, Augustine, and all past saints desire to have Jesus completely take over our lives because he is so valuable to us. We never need to be perfect to partake of bread and cup. Instead, we only need to strive toward what is ahead and decide that today we will press on toward the higher goal of knowing Christ.

Hebrews 11:23-29 – Taking the Long View

Enslavement of the Israelites

By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. (NIV)

Faith looks ahead and sees as clearly as is right now in front of your face. Taking the long view of life, the mature person of faith can set aside temporary pleasure to attain a future hope. Moses, held up as such an example, refused to identify himself as the daughter of Pharaoh. He chose to be mistreated in solidarity with his fellow Israelites, instead of having a good time with his high position in the most powerful empire of its day. Moses knew that the treasures of Egypt were not as wonderful as what he would receive from suffering for the Messiah, and he looked forward to his reward.

It is an understatement to say that our contemporary society assumes practicing instant gratification. We want to feel good, and we want it now. Impulse control may just be one of the best life skills that kids (and adults!) need to learn today. A Psychology Today article effectively demonstrates through some classic and current research that “one of the most effective ways to distract ourselves from a tempting pleasure we don’t want to indulge is by focusing on another pleasure.”

For the Christian who desires to follow Jesus in all things, looking ahead to a future heavenly reward which will be shared along with all God’s people needs to be kept at the forefront of our thinking. If we only consider today, there are scant resources for responding to the temptations and fluctuations of life. However, if we will put some energy into clarifying and embracing our most cherished values, we will then let those values inform everything we do, or not do. In the scope of eternity, suffering a bit now is nothing compared to what Christ has yet in store for his people.

Deferred gratification causes us to live differently. In a twist of irony, folks who orient themselves toward the next world are able to effectively impact and change the world they currently reside within – whereas those who focus solely on this present world find themselves falling woefully short with their short view of life. We need the wisdom which faith provides us:

We are always confident, because we know that while we are living in the body, we are away from our home with the Lord. We live by faith and not by sight. We are confident, and we would prefer to leave the body and to be at home with the Lord. So, our goal is to be acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home. We all must appear before Christ in court so that each person can be paid back for the things that were done while in the body, whether they were good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, CEB)

Future hope, fueled by faith, gives shape to how we live today. It enables us to live in solidarity with those who suffer and are mistreated. It ennobles us to live above short-sighted desires and act on behalf of the common good of all persons in the here-and-now.

Lord God Almighty, the One who is and was and is to come, may we, along with your servant Moses, see the plight of all those who suffer in our midst. Give us courage and compassion to live in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the forgotten, and all who live with misfortune and misery. May our hearts, burning with love, bear the burdens of all in our care. And may our loving example ignite the hearts of others to accompany the vulnerable in their affliction. We ask this in the gracious name of Jesus through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 16:21-28 – The Need for Sacrifice

Welcome, friends. Simply click the video below and let us consider together the words of Jesus.

You may also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

For a response in song, click Take My Life and Let It Be arranged by Hymn Charts.

And, also click Jesus, I My Cross Have Taken sung by RYM Worship.

May the Lord bless you
    and keep you.
May the Lord smile down on you
    and show you his kindness.
May the Lord answer your prayers
    and give you peace. Amen.

The Need for Sacrifice

Man of Suffering by Georges Rouault, 1942
Ecce Homo by French artist Georges Rouault, 1942

Christ’s Church is not so much made up of saints or sinners as it is made up of saintly sinners and sinning saints.  The Church is at the same time both beautiful and ugly, holy, and wicked, full of faith and full of fear.  The Body of Christ is the place of spiritual sensitivity as well as a den of depravity.  So, anyone searching for a squeaky-clean church on a nice upward path of success with everything done to perfection and where no one ever gets hurt or unhappy… it does not exist; and, it never did.

Jesus stands alongside his imperfect people, despite their faults and egotism.  Jesus intimately knows our damaged emotions and our open putrid spiritual abscesses.  Yet, he treats us with mercy because he never tires of rehabilitating and reforming his Church.

Christ’s disciple, Peter, is the poster child for all the mixed motives and imperfect following of God we experience. For example, Peter stepped out of the boat in great faith and walked on the water, only to begin sinking because of his great fear. It was Peter who made a bold and right confession of faith, and then turned around here in our story for today and bought into Satan’s agenda. And Jesus was right there next to Peter all the way. Christ both rebukes and loves, all the while never abandoning us, but always working in and through us to accomplish his kingdom purposes.

Here is what we need to know or be reminded of today: Following Jesus involves pain and sacrifice because we live in a broken mixed-up world, and, on top of it, Christ’s Church is still imperfect and in the process of becoming holy.  If we will admit it, we are all like Peter – a little devil who needs to get in line behind Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-28)

Peter Admonishes Jesus
Peter Admonishes Jesus by Unknown artist

We all, at times, get frustrated and/or disgusted with the whole church thing.  We can whine and complain and even avoid it.  Or, we can commit to taking up our cross, and give our lives for Jesus Christ.  We can choose to put love into the church where love is not, even when we do not feel loved. Priest and professor, Ron Rollheiser, once gave the following analogy about staying together around Jesus:

Imagine that the family is home for Christmas, but your spouse is sulking, you are fighting being tired and angry, your seventeen year old son is restless and doesn’t want to be there, your aging mother isn’t well and you are anxious about her, your uncle Charlie is batty as an owl… and everyone is too lazy or selfish to help you prepare the dinner.  You are ready to celebrate but your family is anything but a Hallmark card.  All their hurts and hang-ups are not far from the surface, but you are celebrating Christmas and, underneath it all, there is joy present.  A human version of the messianic banquet is taking place and a human family is meeting around Christ’s birth….

In the same way, here we are, the community of the redeemed. We gather in our imperfect way, a crazy mix of sinner and saint.  But we gather in and around Jesus – and that makes all the difference.  There is a reason we are here on this earth, a reason much bigger than all our dysfunctional ways and dyspeptic attitudes. Jesus Christ is building-up the people of God and he will keep doing it until the end of the age. In other words, Jesus is not quite finished with us yet; we still have some things to learn about the need for sacrifice.

The need for sacrifice by Jesus. (Matthew 16:21-23)

Jesus stated openly and in detail what must happen.  It was necessary for Christ to suffer deeply and die a cruel death; it was God’s will and plan. Yet, good ol’ Peter was not down for this plan, at all.  He took Jesus aside and rebuked him, believing him to be off his rocker for even suggesting such a terrible scenario.  Jesus, however, turned the tables on Peter and rebuked him right back.  Essentially, what Jesus said is that being Christ-centered without being cross-centered is satanic.

The error of Peter was that he presumed to know what was best for Jesus. He believed the suffering of the cross would “never” happen. Peter’s perceptions were dim and limited; he did not clearly see how broken the world really is and how much it would take to heal it. Jesus needed to offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the entire planet.

Crucifixion of Christ by Georges Rouault, 1936
Crucifixion of Christ by Georges Rouault, 1936

Sometimes, like Peter, we might think that the way I see and the way I perceive is the way things really are, or, at least, how they should be. Peter had been walking with Jesus for a few years, watching and enjoying his ministry of teaching, healing, and extending compassion.  It was all good for Peter, and, therefore in his mind, it should not change. Peter wanted to hold this moment forever. After all, why try and fix something that is not broken? Oh, but broken the world is – so much so that it required the ultimate sacrifice.

Just because it was good for Peter did not mean it was good for everybody or should always be this way.  If Peter were to have his way, we would all be in hell right now; it would not have been good for us.  We, like Peter, are finite humans with limited understanding and perceptions.  We can easily slip into a satanic mode of believing that because something is going fine for me that everyone else is doing okay, too.  I like it, I want it, so what is the problem?

The problem is that we too easily look at life through narrowly selfish lenses, and then cannot see other people’s needs; cannot perceive the lost world around us with any sense of reality; cannot see that Jesus has an agenda very different from our own.  Our limited perceptions come out in saying things like, “Oh, she is just depressed because she is avoiding responsibility.”  “People on government welfare are lazy.”  “He’s addicted because he doesn’t want to help himself.”  “They’re demonstrating on the streets because they are a bunch of malcontents.” These, and a legion of statements like it, betray a satanic worldview devoid of grace and a compulsive need to find blame, believing that if there is personal suffering there must be personal sin.

In truth, we are all part of one human family, and we are all in this together; one person’s joys are our joys; one person’s struggles are our struggles. We really are our brother’s keeper. The detachment we can have toward other human beings is completely foreign to the words of Jesus.  The Christian life involves suffering, and Jesus invites us to follow him in his way of sacrifice.

The need for sacrifice by the followers of Jesus. (Matthew 16:24-28)

There is a way to reverse demonic thinking.  Jesus issues an invitation to practice self-denial, to fall in line behind him, and walk with him in his suffering.  Self-denial is not so much doing something like giving up sweets for Lent as it is giving up on ourselves as our own masters.  It is the decision to make the words and ways of Jesus the guiding direction for our lives.  It is the choice to quit holding onto the way I think things ought to be, and to take the time to listen to Jesus.

The logic of Jesus is relentless.  Life comes through death, so, we must give up our lives to find them.  It does us no good to adulterate our lives by serving the gods of success and perfectionism.  Jesus invites us to quit our moonlighting job with the world and go all in with him.  Only in this way will we truly find life.

Jesus was saying more than just submitting to suffering – we are to embrace it. In doing so, we will find reward and joy.  For those familiar with this path, they can tell you that suffering is a blessing because they have found the true purpose and meaning of life.

Crucifixion with Lamp by Colin McCahon 1947
Crucifixion with Lamp by New Zealand artist Colin McCahon, 1947

Few people have suffered as much as the nineteenth-century missionary medical doctor to Africa, David Livingstone.  He was a pioneer explorer who opened the interior of Africa to the outside world.  He had two reasons for doing so: To be able to take the good news of Christ’s suffering to the African people; and, to open Africa to legitimate trade so that the illicit slave trade would end.

Dr. Livingstone’s hand was once bitten and maimed by a lion; his wife died while on the mission field; he was most often alone on his travels; the one house he built was destroyed in a fire; he was typically wracked with dysentery and fever, or some other illness in the jungle.  Someone once commented to him that he had sacrificed a lot for going in the way of Jesus. Livingstone’s response was, “Sacrifice? The only sacrifice is to live outside the will of God.”  When asked what helped him get through so much hardship, he said that the words of Jesus to take up his cross were always ringing in his ears.

We may believe we must watch out for ourselves; that we need to push for our personal preferences; that if I accept this invitation to follow Jesus in the way of self-denial I will be miserable and people will walk all over me. Such thoughts are demonic whispers in our ears.

There are two ways of thinking and approaching the Christian life: There is the way which believes success, perfection, and a pain-free life is the evidence of God’s working; while the other way believes that suffering is right and necessary to connect with God and to be in solidarity with those who suffer.

Suffering, rejection, and execution did not fit into Peter’s church growth plan or factor into his view of Messiah. So, I will say it plainly: We do not exist only for ourselves. We do not exist to be a spiritual country club.  We do exist to follow Jesus in his path of sacrifice and suffering for a world of people who desperately need to know the grace of forgiveness and the mercy of Christ. Jesus died.  We are to die to ourselves. Christ lives; so, we are to live a new life.  In God’s upside-down kingdom, joy comes through suffering. We are to follow Jesus as the mix of sinners and saints that we are.

Peter eventually learned his lesson from Jesus. After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, Peter caught fire with courage and boldness – which landed him in hot water with the Jewish ruling council. As a result, he was severely whipped and flogged and told to keep in line. Peter’s response demonstrates how far he had come. He left the experience rejoicing that he had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name of Jesus Christ. (Acts 5:41)

May dear old Peter’s spiritual tribe increase.