martyr

Body of Christ

Romans 12:3-8 (NLT)

Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us. Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other.

In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.


 

A good dose of humility solves a whole lot of problems.

You don’t hear much about people pursuing humility. If you do hear about it, the pursuit can seem odd, along the lines of monks cloistered from worldly pursuits or Mother Teresa relocating to Calcutta to serve the poor.

As Christians, however, we are called to incorporate humility into our lives. First of all, we try to keep ourselves humble in an effort to imitate Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Despite being God in flesh, the only way Jesus allowed himself to be lifted up was on the cross, a horrible, painful humiliation preceding his death. He lowered himself for our sakes.

Paul was big on the importance of humility as a way to imitate Jesus. In a different letter, one he wrote to the church at Philippi, Paul says, “Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.” (Philippians 2:3-5, NLT.)

Humility is a concept for everyone. Across-the-board humility will be an important idea later in Romans, when Paul tells us about Christians relating to government. In the secular world, leaders often pursue titles and fame to lift themselves up. Christian leaders have a different mandate, however: The best of them are servant leaders, people who sacrifice to help others succeed.

In regard to troubling events of the last couple of weeks in our nation: Lord, give our leaders humble servant hearts, hearts aligned with yours. And as I pray, I have one leader in particular in mind.

Paul also seems to be saying that humility walks hand-in-hand with a second virtue, self-awareness. Where are your strengths? Where are your weaknesses? And maybe the most important question: Are you fooling yourself about yourself? He is talking about spiritual and moral strengths and weaknesses, of course.

I have a humorous book titled “Crazy Talk: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Theological Terms.” Some of it borders on silly, but I like the entry for “Pastor/Priest.” The definition: “A sinner who is so aware of the power of sin in his or her own life that he or she feels called by the Holy Spirit to announce that God loves sinners.”

A call to ministry of any sort is impossible unless the person first becomes acutely aware of his or her own sinfulness. You cannot describe the wonderful flavor of Christ’s living water until you have felt a desperate thirst for forgiveness.

As we search for deeper self-awareness, I should add, once again, how incredibly helpful the Bible is. If we judge ourselves simply by what we consider right and wrong, we are unlikely to make much progress. It’s hard to measure anything with a broken ruler. We need a holy standard.

The climactic moment of the Bible is the story of Jesus, who fulfills the promises of the Old Testament. Jesus, God in flesh, is the holy standard for living.

When performing a little self-assessment, I find it useful to turn to Matthew 5 through 7, The Sermon on the Mount, a summary of Jesus’ teachings about how we are to live our lives as lovers of God and one another.

I’m not talking about doing a simple read-through of what we already know is there. I’m talking about reading it slowly, meditatively, letting each teaching challenge every aspect of our lives. It does not take long for our minds to find humility as we are reminded of our dependence on God for help.

And dependent we are. We cannot save ourselves; that’s why Christ came to die on the cross and save us from sin. On our own, we cannot even respond adequately to Christ’s gift. That’s why the Holy Spirit came after Christ’s ascension to guide us, sustain us and empower us.

An exciting thing happens in the midst of all this humbling self-awareness, though. Despite our inability to measure up, God’s Spirit lifts us up and makes great use of us. The Holy Spirit works among us to assemble the global church into something very much like the body of Christ.

Filled with the Holy Spirit, we now do globally what Jesus did with the limited reach of his body. We are called to lovingly declare the growing presence of the Kingdom of Heaven in this world, helping people find truth and eternal life.

No one person can come anywhere close to carrying the load, certainly not in the global church and not even in a small local church. The work of the church is something we do together, and everyone has a role.

Do you know what your role is? You have been made to do something in this effort. If you’ve joined Luminary United Methodist Church, the Holy Spirit is shaping you for the particular work we are doing in the area of Ten Mile, Tennessee.

Paul gives us just a few of many examples. Some of us have to speak God’s truth directly, inspired as God’s grace flows through Scripture, prayer and worshipful practices. Some of us need to be knowledgeable enough to teach. Some need to have those humble hearts—I think of Stephen in Acts—where acts of service flow naturally into declarations of who Christ is, regardless of the cost to the servant.

If you don’t know your role, there are all sorts of ways to discover it. Often, we explore possibilities with tests or in small groups. Start here: Understand the mission of the church clearly—we offer people a relationship with Christ—and then pray for guidance about your role in that mission.

You also can talk to your pastor. As a pastor, I know for certain part of my role is to help those I serve discern God’s calling.

Bad People

1 Timothy 1:12-17
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.


Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most terrible days in our national history, what we simply have come to call 9/11. All of us who were old enough to know what was going on have powerful memories of that Tuesday.

I also have memories of that following Sunday in 2001. I was not yet a member of the clergy, but I was a certified lay speaker in Georgia, and I was scheduled to fill the pulpit for a preacher at a small church. Needless to say, getting into the pulpit that Sunday was a daunting task for any preacher, and particularly for me, being very inexperienced and not knowing the congregation.

In my sermon, I chose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Fifteen years later, I still choose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Bad people don’t seem to be going away; in fact, in the case of Islamic terrorists, we now experience their impact in ways we could not fully imagine in 2001. Who would have thought the particular form of terrorism that brought down those planes would evolve into an organization capable of streaming its horrors via professionally produced video?

Of course, terrorists are not the only bad people among us. “Bad” simply represents a state of being out-of-sync with God’s will. We all find ourselves being bad from time to time, in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I’m focusing on the people who are “bad to the bone,” the people who commit the kinds of atrocities the vast majority of us could never think of doing—the murderers, the child molesters, anyone who does deliberate, significant damage to another’s life.

These people are not a new problem, of course. Violence has been among us since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found plenty of skeletal evidence. As readers of the Bible, we also have Cain’s murder of Abel to give us what is, at a minimum, a powerful allegory of the origins of emotionally driven, quick and senseless killing.

The Old Testament has some straightforward punishments for the very bad. There is the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” repeated in various contexts with “limb for limb,” “fracture for fracture,” “hand for hand” and “foot for foot” added.

And of course, death sentences were common. In Leviticus 24, shortly after these laws of equitable response are stated, the Israelites take a man out and stone him to death for blaspheming God.

It’s not unusual to hear people go all “Old Testament” when discussing how justice should be doled out today. This is particularly true when the topic of the death penalty is being discussed, or any time people do something so horrifying they trigger in the rest of us a very visceral reaction.

We as Christians have to be careful in such conversations, however. Why? Well, the coming of the Christ seems to have modified the approach God wants us to take.

In our 1 Timothy text today, Paul describes himself as having been among the bad to the bone, calling himself a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” As a good Jew trained in the Law of Moses, he is citing aspects of his former life that made him deserving of death in God’s eyes.

As he dictated these words, he most certainly was remembering how he stood by and encouraged the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He had to have been thinking of all those religious warrants he executed, harassing and capturing early Christians until the fledgling community lived in terror of him.

He is grateful, he writes, because through Christ he has experienced mercy, not getting the punishment he deserves for his evil acts, and salvation, receiving the gift of eternal life he does not deserve.

And here we find our Christian conundrum. If a very bad person like Paul can be saved through a relationship with Christ, should we not treat very bad people first of all as potential Christians, as people who could receive mercy and salvation?

We do need to take precautions against evil. Christians serve as police officers and soldiers with good reason, to stand between the rest of us and the particularly violent forms of evil in the world. We need to be smart enough to take precautions in our homes, places of work, and churches, too, remembering the Cains of the world can strike hard and fast.

But at the same time, we have to maintain the attitude there is hope for even those we consider the worst kind of people. There is a story going around on Christian websites and cable channels about how serial killer (and pedophile and cannibal) Jeffrey Dahmer had what seemed to be a genuine conversion to Christ before he was murdered in prison in 1994. If it’s true, then our Christian understanding of the power of grace tells us Dahmer is in the eternal presence of God—Christians will share the afterlife with him.

Of course, there’s no way for us to know for sure what went on in Dahmer’s heart, just as there is no way for any human to know with certainty what is happening spiritually in another person. But the very possibility of such remarkable turnarounds lets us imagine all sorts of possibilities.

Consider this: What if God raises up dynamic followers of Christ among the Muslims, sending them evangelists who are able to speak to their own people in their own Muslim context? What if Christian martyrs in that culture accomplish what martyrs have historically tended to do, leaving a positive impression on the witnesses? What if more and more of the Muslim world were to begin to see the truth of Jesus Christ as peacemaker and reconciler in this world?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Our faith has repeatedly managed to penetrate what looked like impenetrable cultures, bringing millions to Christ at a time. Roman, Celtic, Germanic and African polytheists have all found the message of Christ attractive at some point in history.

In a more modern context, scholars familiar with China estimate there are between 70 million and 100 million Christians in that very closed Communist nation. Because of the risks they are taking, we would have to classify them as very serious Christians. For comparison, the United States has about 223 million people calling themselves Christian.

We spend a lot of time talking about how it is going to take bombs and bullets to end the threat posed by the particular set of bad people we have faced the last 15 years. Perhaps God will provide another way, though, one we should be seeking through prayer. Here’s mine: Lord, open our enemies’ eyes. Let them hear your voice; let them experience your light. And in turning to you, may they astonish us as Paul astonished the early Christians.


The featured image is “Orfeus or Paradise Lost,” inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. By MarikeStokker, 2013. Used under Wikimedia Commons’ Creative Commons License.

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.