Right Here and Everywhere

Historic orthodox Christianity at its most basic core believes that God is both infinite and personal and wants to have a relationship with us.  The Bible tells us of a God who is the uncaused first cause, who preexisted the universe that we know and inhabit.  Beyond the limitations of the physical, and in fact the creator of the physical world, God is in no way limited by space and time; He created it all.  The immense and wonderful universe that exists is a display of His infinite intelligence, power, and creative ability.  He “spoke” all that exists into existence out of nothing that previously existed – He willed it and it was so.  An incalculable number of unfathomably complex atoms came into existence, formed into billions of galaxies, stars, and solar systems, in immeasurable space.

Many, maybe most, today believe that it is not reasonable to think that in the vastness of the cosmos there simultaneously exists a God who relates to individual people.  The authors of a social media post somewhat mockingly expressed this commonly held idea:

CHRISTIANITY: Belief that one God created a universe 13.79 billion years old, 93 billion light years in diameter (1 light year = approximately 6 trillion miles), consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing an average of 200 billion stars, only to have a personal relationship with you.

While not agreeing with all of the stated presuppositions here, I think this statement about Christianity is essentially correct.  Christianity fundamentally believes that God is both infinite and personal and wants to have a relationship with us.

Creation has a divine purpose beyond merely manifesting God’s infinite glory to Himself and to His created beings.  He created the universe of “93 billion light years in diameter (1 light year = approximately 6 trillion miles), consisting of over 200 billion galaxies, each containing an average of 200 billion stars” as the perfectly designed home for humankind.  He created all that exists within our observation and comprehension for a great divine purpose that is in truth even beyond the glory of creation.  He designed us for the grand purpose that demands that we know Him, love Him, and worship and serve Him.  He created human beings in order to manifest His grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love.  Mankind, created by God, did the unthinkable, as God knew would be the case even before creation.  Mankind sinned and rebelled against the Creator.  Far more wonderfully than even creation itself expresses, God in turn has done the unimaginable.  He has made a way for us to be spared the consequences of rebellion against Him.  In Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Triune God became incarnate.  God stunningly became a man in order to be the requisite Savior.

Jesus Christ told us of God.  He taught us great high ethical standards.  He told us of God’s majesty and holiness.  He told us of the grace and love of God.  But supremely, He, God incarnate, submitted to a tortuous death on a crude Roman cross to demonstrate the monstrous consequence of human rebellion against creator God and to be the perfect sacrifice to provide the necessary atonement for human sin.  He died and resurrected in victory over death and sin for anyone who will but end rebellion against God, turn to Christ and embrace His gospel, recognize Him as Savior and Lord.  Yes, “only to have a personal relationship with you.”

Space and time and life on earth is a great display of God’s glory, and of His attributes of transcendence, unlimited knowledge, unlimited ability.  But surpassing that is the fact that God in Christ has Himself atoned for human sin and rebellion.  His redeemed people will know and love and worship Him eternally as Creator, but even more as gracious Redeemer.  A contemporary hymn writer has beautifully reminded us,

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure.

God’s love, expressed in Christ on the cross, is “vast beyond all measure.”

What one believes about the anti-Christian sentiment and doubt expressed in the referenced social media post has great philosophical and practical implications.  Without an infinite personal god, human existence and life becomes vain and purposeless.  A human is but a tiny meaningless speck, an accumulation of a few trillion atoms, existing in a vast eternal cosmos of meaninglessness.  The uncomfortable but necessary conclusion is that there may be no answer in the quest for purpose and meaning.  Ethics and morality become relative.  Absolutes have no basis.  If I as an individual have no meaning or objective value, why might I assign value or purpose to others beyond what they can do for me?  The existentialist’s though of individual personal autonomy, of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die, and when I die I shall but rot,” becomes completely reasonable.  Love, hate, or indifference become merely highly complex chemical reactions in the brain of an individual.  The immaterial aspects of a human being that make one human – intelligence, emotions, thoughts, logic, will – have no explanation.  A purely naturalistic worldview cannot account for such realities.

Ultimately, the underlying nature of doubt about an infinite personal god is rooted in the fact that people want to be their own authority.  Jesus said, recorded in John 3:19, “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”  They are unwilling to admit their sin and turn away from their sin.  They are unwilling to acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord; they see no need for a supernatural savior, they want no Lord.

But to the Christian, there is no vain pursuit of meaning.  God values “beyond all measure” the people who He has created and who He has forgiven and redeemed.  He values us so much that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins to conquer sin and its effect, death and eternal separation from God.  He in fact delights in our eternal joy.

God told the ancient prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5).  God knows us intimately and gives our lives purpose and meaning.  He formed us through His wisdom and power, and He sustains every moment of our existence.  Reflecting on God’s sovereignty over our existence, the psalmist David wrote in Psalm 139:17, “How precious to me are your thoughts, God!”  The Creator made us, knows us, and loves us.

Further, the Christian belief in a personal god, the God Who has revealed Himself to us through the ancient Hebrew prophets, through the inspired Scriptures, and supremely in Christ, leads to the conviction that moral authority resides in that personal God.  Man is no longer left to his own devices on questions of ethics and morals.  We can no longer be autonomous.  We cannot act as we please; we cannot treat others as we please.  We are created by God in the image of God who placed within us a moral nature.  He created us as both physical beings and as mind and “soul,” capable of communication, thought, reason, emotions, and will.  God has in fact spoken to us and revealed Himself to us, and we must live in obedient relationship to God as the ultimate authority.  All questions of philosophy, ethics, morals, human relationships and societal construct are subject to Him as Creator, Redeemer, and Supreme Ruler over creation.

 

 

 

 

Faith and the Trust Fall

I once watched the speaker at a post-evangelical megachurch deliver his Easter weekend message.  Broadly, it wasn’t bad, centering on an appropriate Easter theme as he spoke about the concept of faith in Jesus.  At the conclusion of the sermon, he climbed a ladder, perhaps twenty or more feet in the air, and, wearing a tethered harness, fell backward off the ladder, gently lowered back to the stage, as an illustration of faith.  As I reflected on this rather dramatic illustration and the entire talk, I was somewhat troubled.  I thought back to an experience earlier in my business career.

The company for which I worked for many years hired an outside firm to conduct a rather elaborate company-wide training, team building, and motivational series of events.  Always a bit of a skeptic and cynic, I nevertheless played along, as I was a low-level manager at the time, and so had to participate without too much outward protest.  One event was an off-site event for groups of employees, conducted over a few days for groups of several dozen people.  At that event, I was introduced to the trust fall, sort of a highlight of the meetings.  A trust fall is designed to be a team-building group exercise game in which a person deliberately falls backward, relying on a group of a few people standing behind to catch him or her.  We were all encouraged to take a turn as the person falling.  At the end of the day, I thought the whole thing a waste of likely six-figure money, and it didn’t motivate me or any of my peers or subordinates to trust each other.  But again, I plead guilty to being a skeptical cynic.

Back to the megachurch.  There was encouragement in the sermon to have faith in Jesus, but there was little of the concept of turning away from sin and embracing Christ as Savior and Lord.  Likely the word “sin” wasn’t mentioned, or the necessity of Christ dying as the necessary sacrifice for the sin of sinners.  In short, as I reflected on it, it almost came across as faith defined in some manner as “take a chance on Jesus.”  A trust fall.  Biblical faith – saving faith, and sustaining faith for life –  is something profoundly different than that.

The apostle Paul wrote in Romans 10:17, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  When the Gospel of Christ, contained and recorded in the Bible, is internalized by the human mind and heart and applied by the Spirit, saving faith is the result.  Paul further says we are saved by grace through faith which is “the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8-9), a gift from God that is the result of embracing the message about Christ and His salvation.  We hear the message of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the only solution to our alienation from God.  The Word produces faith within us and regenerates us.  We hear the message of the Gospel, we believe it, we acknowledge sin and turn to Christ as Savior and Lord, and the Spirit makes us a new creation in Christ: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17).”  How this gift of God mixes with the human response is a mystery that maybe cannot be totally understood, but salvation is far more than deciding to take the proverbial leap of faith.

Faith is the Spirit-given conviction that the Gospel is true, that the resurrection is a fact, and then acting on that conviction.  Saving faith does not simply originate within a person.  It doesn’t just sound good or inspiring or reassuring or affirming and so make us want to jump on the bandwagon or trust our teammates or join a club.  It is the gift of Jesus Christ and of the Spirit.  It is Christ who is both the source and object of faith.

Often, we hear people say that “their faith” has sustained them in a time of difficulty.  I would be so bold as to suggest that such an attitude can in fact be a feel-good deception.  In Luke 7:50, it is recorded of Jesus, “Then He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you.  Go in peace.””  She did not here merely show faith in faith.  She had come to Jesus.  Beginning in verse 44, the account tells us, “Then He turned to the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head.  You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in.  You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.  Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”  The object of her faith – was Jesus.

It is Jesus – the real Jesus Christ of Scripture – God the Son Who atoned for my sin on the cross and has conquered sin and death – that has saved me and will save all who will but end their rebellion against God and embrace Him as Savior and Lord.  It is He – the object of true faith – Who saves and sustains.

The Methodist Bishop

Recently on a local television newscast I saw a story that featured an interview with the first openly homosexual bishop of the United Methodist Church.  She told the reporter that in her view the group’s pending split over LGBTQ+ acceptance in the church was the result of a principle listed in the foundation of the denomination’s values when it was formed in 1972, which stated that the church considers the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.  “At that point, we turned from a very grace-filled understanding of human sexuality to one of condemnation for a group of people,” she noted, and admitted that she was biased on the topic, as she has been married to her female partner for many years.  However, she said many pastors she works with throughout Colorado are traditional, and represent a significant portion of the denomination that believes homosexual marriage is prohibited in the faith and hold “very closely to a more literal reading of scripture, ”  while noting that she and other liberals “look at it through church tradition, reason and human experience.  And, our traditionalists look toward the Bible first and only.”  She said the split, if approved by vote later in 2020, was sad, but could also help Christians reach more people with the love of God.  “We can free one another to live in to the ministries we think God calls us to.  It is a huge moment in the life of our denomination.”  “What will emerge from this separation is a strengthening of a commitment to extend God’s love to all people, and that to me is where I find hope.”

I recall at the time briefly wondering just what I might say to her in a conversation on the topic.  She seemed like a pleasant person.  She is certainly better educated than I am, and likely my superior in intellect.  I soon forgot the news spot.

         

I recalled the report about the bishop when I was perusing a magazine recently.  In the publication “The Week” for January 17, 2020, in a short piece headlined “Irreconcilable:” was a report that

“The United Methodist Church announced plans last week to split into two branches, in a schism over same-sex marriage.  The country’s second-largest Protestant denomination, with roughly 9 million members, expects to let a “traditionalist” wing break off and take $25 million.  The remaining United Methodist Church would allow gay marriages and LGBTQ clergy for the first time, but any local church could vote to defect with the traditionalists (and take its buildings with it).  The announcement heads off contentious sanctions that were set to take effect against pastors who officiated at gay weddings: a one-year suspension without pay for a first offense and removal from the clergy for the second.  The Nashville-based church’s large following in Africa has fiercely opposed liberal reform.  Church leaders will vote on finalizing the split at their worldwide conference in May.”

I hope this denomination does indeed split.  But I think it needs to split over issues even more fundamental than the aforementioned.  Over what issues should this denomination split?  Issues such as the questions of –  Who is Jesus Christ?  Why did He come?  What is the Christian Gospel?  Do individuals need to be “saved,” and if so what does salvation entail, and how does one obtain it?  How has God spoken or revealed Himself to us; what is the Bible, and is it inspired, authoritative, primary, and sufficient?  It is in the answers to these questions that we find the basis of all true Christian unity, and that require division when there is disagreement.  It is only on the basis of the answers to these questions that the issue raised by this bishop can be addressed.

I am, frankly, highly unlikely to ever converse with this woman or any other Methodist bishop.  But, hypothetically, what would I say to her?  In all probability she is not a regenerate, born-again believer.  I would attempt to kindly share with her the Gospel, perhaps from Romans 3, perhaps from Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, perhaps from John 3, though understanding that she probably does not recognize the authority of those passages.  I would share with her that Jesus Christ was the virgin born Son of God and God the Son who died on the cross to atone for human sin and rose triumphantly from the grave, that human sin and rebellion against God requires punishment and separation from God, and Christ has provided the only solution for that sin.  Turning from sin and turning to Christ as Savior and Lord in faith is the only hope any of us have.  I might further invite her to examine the teachings of early Methodist John Wesley, to consider the lyrics of some of the great hymns written by his brother Charles Wesley.

          

While I will never meet this bishop, I do meet people who are rebels against God and are part of the fallen human race.  People who are sometimes less than honest, sometimes less than truthful, thieves, materialists, proud, self-sufficient, individuals caught up in unwholesome compulsions or aberrant sexual behavior, but mostly people who are unbelieving or spiritually dull but really nice people.   And regardless of their particular situation in life, regardless of their religion or morality or individual failings or virtues, people who need to turn to Christ in faith and repentance as their only hope.  People who need to become convinced that the Gospel is true, and call out to God with utmost sincerity, repentance, and faith,

“Dear God, I know that I am a sinner.  I’m sorry for my sin.  I want to turn from my sin.  Please forgive me.  I believe Jesus Christ is Your Son, that He died on the cross for my sin, and You raised Him to life.  I trust Jesus as my Savior and Lord and want to follow Him from this day forward.”

 

 

 

 

 

Observing Communion

The church in which we hold membership observed communion on a recent Sunday night.  We’ve been present as the ordinance has been observed a few times since we began attending the church, and these services are substantive and meaningful.  For whatever reason, I was reminded of the contrast between this Lord’s Supper service and a time a couple of years ago that we attended a local megachurch on a Saturday night to observe, and they had communion.

          

Entering the megachurch’s expansive venue, I noted on the hand-out that they were going to have communion at the end of the event.  They were having a global outreach month, as I recall.  The speaker that weekend was a thirty-something who was involved with a project in Mexico, and must have had an ongoing relationship with this megachurch.  The topic for his talk centered on the value of remembering Jesus as our friend.  He was an able and articulate speaker, but I began to wonder if there might be any use of the Bible before he referenced a few verses well into his talk.  In the end, I wasn’t sure what his purpose might be for his mission or ministry.  He did not really mention anything of the Gospel; I wondered if perhaps his concern was primarily social or benevolent.

At the end of the sermon, the lead pastor returned to the stage, and he and the speaker sat for a few minutes and chatted; I don’t recall much of the topic of the conversation, likely related to the value of the concept of Jesus as my friend.  At the end of their chat, the pastor indicated that the communion elements should be distributed, and he reminded the crowd to remember the similarity between “communion” and “community.”  I assumed that when the distribution of the elements was completed, the pastor would return, and there would be an explanation or discussion of the meaning and purpose of the ceremony.  The band began to play a bluesy version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” as volunteers circulated buckets of pretzel chips and individually-packaged communion juice.  A few people soon got up to leave, perhaps in a hurry, I thought.  Then, as more people began to leave, I had an almost visceral reaction, as it occurred to me, this is over!  These people in a supposedly evangelical church, designed to attract people who might not like “church,” have participated in a communion ritual without hearing anything of the Gospel, nothing about what the elements might mean.  Volunteers at the doors collected the empty juice containers.  I remarked to my wife that it would have been better to skip the communion elements and just distribute granola bars at the door at the conclusion of the chat.

           

The recent service at our home church was decidedly different.  It was neither somber nor cheery.  The congregation sang joyful and reverent songs appropriate to the occasion, songs about salvation from sin, songs about the body and blood of Christ that the elements depict, songs about Christ’s sacrifice on the cross as payment for our sin.  The pastor didn’t preach, but worked through the Gospel of Matthew, following Jesus’ movements that ended with his death and resurrection at Jerusalem.  The elements were distributed by the deacons after the pastor spoke, and prayer was offered.  Congregants were invited to stand and offer public prayers as we held the bread and juice and reflected on the symbolic meaning of those items before taking them together.  The Gospel was declared, and God was worshiped as we participated together in this remembrance, as we considered the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the atonement for our sin, just as believers have for two thousand years.  My thoughts went to I John 1:9, the joyful promise that “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

 

 

Crossing An International Border

My wife and I recently visited Niagara Falls for a quick vacation.  We flew to and from our destination, and both times we presented documentation and were screened before we were able to board the plane.  It was inconvenient, but in the age of terrorism not unreasonable.  From the New York side where we stayed, we crossed into Canada twice, once with our rental car, and once on foot.  We paid a small toll at the bridge, and both times we presented our passports and were briefly questioned by border patrol agents on both sides of the border.  This is exactly what should happen when one crosses an international boundary; crossing without proper documentation should be allowed only rarely for limited reasons and with intense scrutiny.

The Canadians were happy to have us as American tourists.  I am confident we could have stayed in that country for an extended period of time if we wished to do so and followed Canadian law.  Every time we might make a financial transaction, we would pay taxes and support an employed Canadian selling us a product or service.  Should we have required emergency medical care, I am confident we could have secured it.  Beyond that, I have doubts as to our eligibility to receive Canadian welfare-state benefits or “entitlements” at the expense of the Canadian taxpayers.  I have not investigated it, but I am confident that I could not secure employment there without some sort of additional documentation or work permit.  I doubt that I would have been recruited to vote in the next election.  Canada is a sovereign nation of which I am not a citizen.

Meanwhile, hundreds of undocumented aliens pour into the United States each day, from who-knows-where, for who-knows-what reasons, carrying who-knows-what contraband.  Most are simply poor and uneducated and seek to come to a place of affluence.  They are not scrutinized, almost welcomed into the country, and recruited to claim their “entitlements” from the American taxpayers, settling into sub-cultures that continue to divide society.  Most remain in the country permanently to bear or father children who will be financial wards of the American taxpayer.  The social and economic costs are enormous.  Progressive politicians seem to favor open borders, almost as if they wish to profoundly change the country according to their vision, through a flood of illegal immigrants.  Progressive religious leaders seem to be in favor of this as well.

Something is not right here.

                                                                          

There is no illegal immigration into the Eternal Kingdom of God.  All who enter God’s kingdom are immigrants.  No one is born a citizen, and entrance into eternal life is not universal.  All who enter into God’s kingdom must submit to the One who is Sovereign over that Kingdom and enter in by the manner He has proscribed.  Jesus said, recorded in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  The body of Scripture affirms this.  Peter spoke, as recorded in Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”  Romans 3 spells out the necessity of faith and repentance, predicated by God’s grace, made possible by the atonement that Christ has made for us.  The gospel – the good news of eternal life – is that Jesus has atoned for the sins of all who acknowledge their sin and inability, repent of their sin and call out to God for salvation.  And the Scriptures tell us that He wants us to come.  He seeks us; He has commissioned the church to actively proclaim the gospel and take it to all the world, near and far.  But without the proper “documentation,” if you will, we are not citizens of God’s kingdom and cannot enter into eternal life.  We must enter on His terms.   

The American church is forgetting this message.  There is much talk of God’s love, much about health and happiness and about what He wants to give us in this life.  We hear from liberal churchmen of the universal fatherhood of God but not much of the unique fatherhood of God toward those who believe.  This is a deficient message, leaving out a biblical view of the saving gospel.  The same liberal post-christian religion that seeks to facilitate illegal immigration into the country deceives people into believing that they can enter into an eternal kingdom of God that is without borders, with no entrance requirements.  Increasingly, this message is permeating evangelicalism.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote, in chapter 11,

13 These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth. 14 For those who say such things declare plainly that they seek a homeland. 15 And truly if they had called to mind that country from which they had come out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.