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A Hill to Die On ©

As I write it is Monday, April 10, 2017.  Yesterday, I worshipped on Palm Sunday with my wife.  The children paraded through the sanctuary waving their palm branches.  It was glorious; a joyous expression of the faith!  I was sitting on the aisle and as they went past our row, I tried to catch the eyes of kids streaming past.  When I connected eye to eye, I would wink and wave at the littler ones.  Big smiles greeted me in return.  I told friends of ours in Jolynn’s Sunday School class that I wanted one of our grandchildren to be with us on such a great day.

And yet today, I read my paper as I ate my cereal.  I prayed for the Christian churches in Egypt that were bombed.  I prayed for those regardless of their faith commitment who suffered from violence and terror.  I prayed for U.S. troops overseas that they might be safe and return home soon.  I prayed for our President and leaders of both parties.  I prayed for our churches that the Lord might find us faithful in this tumultuous Holy Week.

As I looked up in conclusion, it was the cross that caught my eye.  You see, this week we call Holy exists in the shadow of the cross.  So much of modern living has the taste and even texture of tragedy and trial.  Much of life has the grip of struggle and strife.  We too have hills to climb as did Jesus that Holy Week so long ago.

My mind came back to a story that Rev. Ben Disney had shared in a sermon at the start of Lent.  He passed it on to me, and I share it without editing.

“It went on for ten straight days. May 10-20th 1969.
It was known as Hill 937
The battle was part of the Vietnam War – for ten days North Vietnamese fought soldiers from the United States over control of the hill.
In the end 72 Americans died- 372 wounded.
Losses on the North Vietnamese side was estimated at 630 dead.
The hill had no strategic value.
Two weeks after the Americans took it – they abandoned it.
It was known as Hamburger Hill
And it became a metaphor of the insanity and futility of war when there is no clear purpose or mission.

There are some hills worth dying on
Some causes worth giving our lives to
Some principles worthy of our highest calling

But I need to know in the course of my life –
Which hills are worth dying on and which ones are not?
Because the truth is there really is a hill worth dying on

How do I know that?
How do I know which hill matters most?

Because the one we follow – Jesus –
Has gone to great lengths to die on that particular hill
And he invites me to take up my cross and do the same.”
(Rev. Ben Disney, March 19, 2017; Arborlawn United Methodist Church)

This my friends is the call and claim of this week which we call Holy.  Jesus has died on that hill for us and challenges us now to follow Him in service and love of a broken humanity.  We climb the hill not as those without hope but rather with our eyes fixed on the Cross of Christ.  How does that great old hymn put it?

“In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.

When the woes of life o’er-take me,
Hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.
Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 295, “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” John Bowring, 1825)

Guest Post from Rev. Frank Briggs

Below is Rev. Frank Briggs’, Lead Pastor at Lighthouse Fellowship, Day 6 of Lent, which he posted March 6th. He is posting on Facebook a Lenten devotional to help and guide us through this season of remembrance of the sacrifice of Jesus for all.

Lent- Day 6   Three Little Words

Krissie [Briggs] says that though this is longer than most, it’s worth the read, I pray you agree.

“We are lost.”  I’m not sure that those three little words are welcome at any time, but in my lifetime, this time, they caused me concern like I’ve not experienced it before.

On my recent trip to Kenya, two of us on the mission team were privileged to accompany our Bishop, Mike Lowry, to a very important installation service for a District Superintendent of the Methodist church in Kenya.  With our Bishop from America expected at the event, it was a big deal.  In fact, there were probably between 1000 and 1500 in attendance at the service, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Justice was the name of our van driver; love the name, don’t you?  He was the one who, without fanfare, calmly stated the fact, “we are lost”.  I had ridden many hundreds of miles with Justice by the time this trip took place, and found him to be a strong Christian, a loving husband and father, who was very wise.  He was also a terrific driver who navigated through the absolute chaos of Nairobi traffic, to the miles and miles of dirt roads in and around Maua, where we spent our first week.

To appreciate the magnitude of Justice’s three little words, you need to know that the vast majority of Kenya has few paved roads.  Nairobi, yes, good roads there, but you get away from Nairobi, and it becomes difficult to find pavement.  Consider this, in the larger Maua area, there are at least 100,000 people living, and there is one paved road, the two-lane highway that runs through town.  So, 99% of our driving was down silty roads that hadn’t seen a road grader in what I would guess would have been at least 100 years (but perhaps I exaggerate).  Anyway, these dusty roads twist and turn and there are no road signs, so navigation along them comes by way of experience, and Justice had a full measure of it.

Unbeknown to his three passengers, Justice had never been to Tharaka, where the installation service was to be held.  And though we all knew that the route to Tharaka would take us off the main highway (the one previously mentioned), what none of us knew was that this journey would require us travelling down 60 miles of some of the dustiest, siltiest roads you’ve ever seen (think of the famous Baja 1000 off-road race).

The folks who “knew” had told Justice it would take us about 2 hours maximum, to get to the church, but in reality it was a three hour journey, one-way.  It was about an hour and a half into the dusty roads, that Justice pulled over where two roads intersected and stopped, to utter those three little words.

I have to admit that when Justice said, “we are lost”, my first reaction was to think to myself, ‘hey, wait a minute, I’m not lost, because I’m with you, I put my trust in you…you may be lost, but I’m right where I’m supposed to be, so there’s no we in this lost business, it is you who are lost’.  But alas, my rebellion was short-lived as I realized that, at the moment, if Justice was lost, so was I.

Justice chose the turn he thought would get us in the right direction and when we came upon the next little village, he conversed with a few of the men, who confirmed that he was going the right direction, and they coached him on which turns he needed to make ahead.  And when we chanced upon another village, Justice asked again, and then again, at subsequent villages, until we finally arrived at our destination, to the cheers and applause of his three passengers.

Though we were under the impression that the service would start at 10, it wasn’t’ actually to start until 11, so our arrival at 10:15 was no problem as they had not served “breakfast” yet.  Being honored guests, we were some of the first in line to get our food.  None of us knew exactly what we were eating, other than the boiled eggs, and I had the privilege of sitting next to the wife (Pauline) of the Bishop of Kenya.  I must admit that I had to regroup a bit after Pauline asked me how I liked the ______ (a word I cannot remember), but when I looked puzzled at her word, she clarified when she said they were “entrails” a ”delicacy”,  which she was enjoying, like I do Oreos.  But I digress.

The service went swimmingly, as much as a six hour service can go swimmingly, in probably 92 degree heat, all of us outside and under tents (praise the Lord).  And oh, did I mention that I was in a tie with a jacket, and the Bishop, along with the probably 200 clergy who attended, were all in robes.  Yes, picture that would you; but I digress again.

Well, Bishop Lowry did a terrific job bringing the message to the crowd and shortly before the service actually ended, Justice came and let us know that we needed to go, as he didn’t want to go the distance that was required of us to get off the dirt roads, before dark.

We of course did arrive safely back in Maua at about 9:30 that night.  It was a day unlike any other in my life…and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Lent is about our willingness to admit that we have strayed from the highway that we know we should be on, and for some of us, it’s about recognizing, “we are lost.”  It is about taking responsibility for our relationship with Jesus and not finding the nearest scapegoat on which to pin blame for our lack of direction.  Do you know where you are? 

Justice did what we all need to do:  own the reality of our position, head the direction that we think we need to go, and find people we can trust to coach us as we find our way.  Have you?

So the next time you find yourself lost, if Justice isn’t around, you can find your own justice, when you seek Jesus.  He will help you utter three other little words, “I am found.”  After all, in this life, there is nothing greater, than being found.  Are you?

Your servant in Christ,

Frank W. Briggs
Lead Pastor
Lighthouse Fellowship
A United Methodist Community of Faith

More than a Metaphorical Aside: The Good News We Dare Proclaim! ©

“They went to the tomb” (Matthew 28:1).

tombHow simply the Easter story opens in Matthew’s gospel.  A tomb-ward journey is one we have all taken all too often.  I can remember full well such a journey in my life as a pastor in Austin, Texas.

He was young; in his thirties, with a lovely wife and two fine boys. He was athletic.  Before moving to Austin they had lived in northern California where he had regularly hiked and fished in the mountain streams. When I first met him, they came to my office in a state of shock.  Feeling poorly the last few weeks, he had been to the doctor.  Routine tests had turned into a more careful examination and then the awful hammer-like blow of the diagnosis.  He had inoperable, terminal cancer and they gave him mere months to live.

I can remember so clearly our extensive time together as this vibrant vigorous man wasted away. Finally the day came and we stood, eyes rimmed with tears, around the grave in the Liberty Hill Cemetery.

As we move through the cross of Good Friday to the tomb of Easter morning, I have no doubt that most, if not all of us, can share some similar story which has touched our life. It may not be a physical loss but instead the death of a relationship.  Perhaps it has been the yawning chasm of personal defeat in moral failure, the loss of a job, or struggle with a loved one.  Maybe it has been the intrusion of evil on either a personal or global level.  Whatever our own experience, Easter begins here.  In almost stark words, the Gospel of Matthew reports of the women, they “went to see the tomb.”

A colleague of mine has pointedly written: “If Christianity has no response to the suffering of the world, it isn’t relevant.  Or, as Monika Hellwig has said, if it doesn’t play in a cancer ward or a shoddy nursing home for the elderly, whatever it is, it isn’t good news” (William Willimon, Sighing for Eden, p. 159).

There is more to this story than simply a metaphorical tale. There is more to be said than just spring as sprung, or the trivial “it’s always darkest before the dawn,” or just some nonsense about how “it will get better.”  The Easter journey first jolts to a stop at the cross.  Death is real.  Tragedies happen.  Evil stalks the earth.  The cross brings us to the tomb.

We are comfortable, oh so comfortable, with this story of the resurrection. And yet, to absorb its impact is to understand that here the earth and sky change places.  In the simplest terms, the mightiest enemy we know, death, is defeated; not only for one person but for all; not just long ago in a distance land but in all times and for all lands.  Dead bodies don’t usually rise, but this one did!  The rule and reign of the risen Savior starts at the tomb of Easter morning!  The earth shook because victory had been achieved over the hostile powers of sin and death.  The cross of suffering has been transformed into a cross of hope.  This good news of a Savior’s rising is flung into the world’s harsh rage and the paralyzing fear induced by today’s headlines.

Come to the triumphant truth of this day. Here is the good news of which we speak so glibly.  It’s more than simply a metaphorical aside.  It is a defiant triumphant statement about life’s final destiny.  It is our ultimate answer to this worlds tragedies (whether it is a terrorist act or shattering illness).  Sin and death, defeat and destruction are conquered by the risen Christ.  Oh, to be sure, they may still happen, but their word is not the final word.  It is not the lasting mark of the pitiless dark.  The dawn breaks on His rising.

The angelic promise encounters the divine answer in the person of Jesus. “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him” (Matthew 28:9).  He is with us in triumphant glory.  In our graveyards, along the paths of life strewn with rubble and marked with struggle.  He meets us and is with us!

Here is the good news which we dare proclaim. Christ is risen indeed!

The Cross Connection ©

Here we are partway through Lent and I find myself coming back time and time again to what I like to call the cross connection – that is the way we are connected to the Lord at the foot of the cross. After all, whatever you think of the cross, it is a strange symbol for a faith that lifts up the triumphant love of God in Christ through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

The cross connection reunites us with the greatness of God. Here, at the foot of the cross, the relationship between Creator and creature is restored.  It is here, at the foot of the cross, that Jesus says “come, come back into a balanced life with me.”  The cross connection works in some basic ways.

First, it secures salvation. A faithful and righteous God cannot and will not glance away from sin and evil in dreamy irresponsible indulgence.  At the cross Christ suffers for our sin.  In classic theology this is called substitutionary atonement.  The word atonement can be understood if you just break it down into its parts – at-one-ment.  It means to be at one, reconnected, with God.  A restoration of the relationship with God through God’s self-sacrificial love.  God’s greater love breaks the great rebellion by stepping forward to pay the price.

Second, it places life back in balance demanding that we radically trust God and rely on the greatness of God. Think of the connection in this way.  It orders our priorities.  Life as it was meant to be moves in a relationship with God and in relation to those we love.  Through the cross connection those are first order things and the rest of the stuff – what we wear and eat and drink and all the paraphernalia of human accomplishment or lack thereof – follows in its proper subservient place.  It works when we “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, [when we do so] … all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Third, it invites us to follow this Christ in picking up our cross in love for others. The cross  connection calls us to greater service following Christ.  This is our crowing joy and obedience in living.

Posted on the wall of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing site was the following written by an unknown author:

I said, “God I hurt.”
And God said, “I know.”

I said, “God, I cry a lot.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you tears.”

I said, “God, I am so depressed.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you sunshine.”

I said, “God, life is so hard.”
And God said, “That is why I gave you loved ones.”

I said, “God, my loved one died.”
And God said, “So did mine.”

I said, “God, it is such a loss.”
And God said, “I saw mine nailed to a cross.”

I said, “God, but your loved one lives.”
And God said, “So does yours.”

I said, “God, where are they now?”
And God said, “Mine is on My right and yours is in the Light.”

I said, “God, it hurts.”
And God said, “I know.”

It is at the foot of the cross, through the cross connection, that life comes back into its proper focus. Sheila Walsh, in her marvelous recording Hope, offers us this great truth in her song, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean.”

“On the mount of crucifixion
Fountains opened deep and wide
Through the floodgates of God’s mercy
Flowed a vast and gracious tide
Grace and love like mighty rivers
Poured incessant from above
And Heaven’s peace and perfect justice
Kissed a guilty world in love.”
(Sheila Walsh, Hope, “Here is Love Vast as the Ocean,” verse 2)
May the cross connection lead us deeper into Lent.

The Way of the Cross ©

This week we are walking the way of the cross.  Across the globe Christians traverse the week we call holy in a spiritual and powerfully symbolic journey from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the cross of Good Friday.  It is both tempting and easy to forget the original impact and meaning of the cross.  It was the Roman instrument of death designed to be the ultimate deterrent and mark of degradation.

I keep remembering what Dr. Stephen Seamands shared with us on a “Clergy Day Apart” retreat a couple of years ago.  Giving advice both to preachers and hearers on the way of the cross – this annual Holy Week pilgrimage – Dr. Seamands wrote:

Since most modern hearers are largely unaware of that, we must be intentional in making what has become so familiar strange again, helping them recover the scandal of the cross (1Cor. 1:23). Here’s how Fleming Rutledge does that in one of her sermons:

Not even the celebrated film by Mel Gibson, The Passion of the Christ, can convey the full ghastliness of crucifixion to a modern audience. We don’t understand it because we have never seen anything like it in the flesh. The situation was very different in New Testament times…. Everyone knew what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like – the horrific sight of completely naked men in agony, the smell and sight of their bodily functions taking place in full view of all, the sounds of their groans and labored breathing going on for hours and, in some cases, for days. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that no one cared.

We tend to associate the horror of crucifixion with agonizing physical pain – what Mel Gibson so vividly portrayed in his film. That was a major dimension, and it’s no accident that our English word excruciating is derived from crux, the Latin word for “cross.” Yet despite the unbearable physical agony, people in Roman times dreaded the shame associated with crucifixion even more. Since crucifixion was reserved for the dregs of society, outcasts, slaves, and common criminals, the fact that one was crucified defined him or her as a miserable, wretched being that didn’t deserve to exist. By pinning them up like insects, crucifixion was deliberately intended to display and humiliate its victims.  (From Give Them Christ by Stephen Seamands, pg. 56-57)

While the electric chair and the syringe have replaced it as an instrument of the death penalty, the reality of the cross is still around. We live with “little crucifixions” every day: dying by violence, religious and racial discrimination, the agony of the poor. So much of the world’s suffering is rooted in human failure: crimes of passion or greed, wars resulting from lust for power and domination, crooked governments, social injustices, humanity scourged by twisted motives.

In the biblical view the taproot of it all lies in human sin, a deep-seated egocentricity, a bondage to selfishness that separates us from God, from others, and from wholeness.  However distant in time, we know instinctively the way of the cross.

A profound transaction took place on Golgotha that day. There have been various theories advanced to explain that transaction. The great preacher William Quick has written, “Simply put, God revealed in Christ’s death His love for us and reconciled us to our Maker. Paul Tillich said, ‘The cross is the central manifestation of God’s participation in the suffering of the world.’ The Apostle Paul said, ‘He gave Himself a ransom for all.’  Perhaps Jesus put it best of all, ‘greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down His life for his friends’” (“The Cross and the Crap Game”, Signs of Our Times, William K. Quick, pp. 74-5).

However we come to this week called Holy, it is to the cross we march.  Only through the cross can we arrive at the joy of Easter morning.  I absolutely love the way the great hymnist John Bowring puts it:

            In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head subline.

            When the woes of life o’re take me, hopes deceive, and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me.  Lo! It glows with peace and joy.”
(“In The Cross of Christ I Glory, Hymn No. 295, verses 1 & 2, The United Methodist Hymnal; words by Jon Bowring, 1825)


Jesus Takes Command ©

Palm Sunday is upon us.  What a great day!  The Savior’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem hits a high note in the life of faith.

Notice first where the story begins.  “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives” (Mark 11:1a).

Bethany is sometimes translated as the “house of the poor” or the “house of dates.”  It was one of the recognized lodging places for religious pilgrims approaching the holy days in Jerusalem (being just a short mile or so outside of Jerusalem).  Significantly Jesus doesn’t start in the center of the holy city.  Oh no, the action begins where we live!  This was true then and it is true now.  We don’t need to go someplace special to be truly Christian.  It all starts here on the journey of faith from Bethany.

The opening verse might almost be entitled “Jesus takes command.”  Those of you who know your Civil War history may remember a significant turning point early in the Civil War.  It happened when General Johnson, then the leader of the army of Northern Virginia, was wounded and President Jefferson Davis sent for General Lee.  Robert E. Lee took command, repulsed the Union advance, and changed the whole course of American history.  Others might hearken to the Korean War and the genius of General Douglas MacArthur as he took command at Inchon;  or perhaps Patton in Europe with his brilliance, Rommel in North Africa, Hannibal crossing the Alps, or Caesar in Gaul.  They are all illustrations from history of a great leader taking charge.  This is precisely what happens in the opening verse and yet far more.  It is the one true leader who takes command.  “When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples” (Mark 11:1).

“He sent.”  Those two simple words tell us so much.  Scholar after scholar, author after author, notes that this is a crucial turning point where Jesus takes command of events and actions.  Jesus takes the initiative to proclaim and declare for all to see that he really is the savior.  The instructions to the disciples in verses two and three – “go into the village … find a colt … if any one asks” – demonstrate that he is the one in charge.  He who comes mounted on a colt is the supreme commander, the king.

Thus this day we call Palm Sunday invites us in the retelling and rehearing of the story to ask, is Jesus the commander of my life.  Am I willing to march to His orders?

What unfolds in the next verse (Mark 11:4) is the answer of those called disciples.  So often in the Bible these guys – Peter, James, John and the rest of them – got it wrong; but on this day they got it right.  The disciples obeyed the Lord.  Verse four tells us “they went” as instructed.  They trusted Jesus and shared what he had told them in verse five.  In other words they acted as model disciples understanding that faith really is a matter of trust and obedience.  Once again the lesson of the Bible is clear for us.  As we enter Holy Week, are we willing to trust and obey?

What fascinates me here is not only did the disciples’ get it right but so too did the bystanders.  They untie the colt, a valuable possession, and simply say, “The Lord needs it” (Mark 11:3).  The amazing example for us is the response made in verse six.  “They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it” (Mark 11:6).

The Palm Sunday road from Bethany challenges and invites us to respond in faith to God’s call and claim on our life.  The Lord has need not just of the colt but of you and me.

Notice how the crowd responded. “Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields.  Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“‘Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!’
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (Mark 11:8-10)

A famous Methodist preacher of an earlier age, Halford Luccock comments: “There was no debate about it; no cautious trial and balance to see whether or not the risk to the clothes was really called for; no wondering if some show of respect at a cheaper price might not be enough.  These people were lifted on a tide of hope and joy and love. . . . The life that never forgets itself in a great lift of devotion is poor, no matter how richly upholstered its furniture” (Halford Luccock, Interpreter’s Bible, Mark, Vol. 7, p. 826).

That day they gave Jesus a conqueror’s welcome.  The shout was actually a reference back to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

There is this punctuation of praise in the word “hosanna.”  It literally means “Save Now!”  It is a shout of adulation to the Lord.  Thus here at this start of Holy Week we are reminded that worship always begins in praise.  When we praise, we remember who God is and recommit ourselves to the one who alone has the full right to command our allegiance.

Their cry has it right.  “Hosanna! [Save us now!]  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9).  I dare to say it is the same cry we bring to this day, however deeply that cry may be buried in the secret places of our heart, both in praise and as a plea.

Jesus rides the road from Bethany to enter the Holy City this day.  He rides that road to enter the holy city of our hearts and minds, our wills and way.  He comes as commander, the leader, the Lord.  However we might break down this day; however we might celebrate and seek to understand it, the one unmistakable truth is the claim Jesus makes about himself for the disciples, for those in the crowd so long ago and for us.  He is the king, the commander, the ruler, the Lord.    This is the cardinal creed of the Christian faith.  In fact the earliest Christians didn’t have the Apostles’ Creed.  They used a three-word affirmation.  “Jesus is Lord.”

That is what this day is about.  He rides from Bethany and enters the holy city of our lives proclaiming that he is the Lord, the ruler and commander.  He rides down the road of our life and says, “Will you follow me?”

Lenten Musings – The End of Casual Christianity

Casual Christianity as we know it is dying.  For a good decade now carefully observant pastors have noticed people who typically would worship a couple of times a month moving to worship patterns that are more episodic.  A variety of studies (Pew, Barna, Gallup, etc.) have reported changing patterns of worship attendance.

While much attention is given to decreasing worship attendance, less attention is given to a counter trend of people who are moving more deeply into faithful worship, prayer, ministry to those in need, missional outreach etc.  I confess that I am less able to document this trend.  Rather, I sense it unfolding.

I keep remembering that my predecessor at University United Methodist Church in San Antonio, Dr. Steve Wende, used to tell the congregation (my dimly remembered paraphrase) “how can you call yourself Christian if you don’t go to the cross with Christ on Good Friday before you show up at Easter?”  His call to take seriously the call to Holy Week worship (Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter) was a grace-filled yet clarion claim to deeper discipleship.  The United Methodist Church is gaining significant clarity around its core mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Tire kickers and test drivers are always welcome in our worship but the goal is disciples – committed disciplined followers of Jesus Christ.

I think there is a quietly growing depth to many who have stayed faithful in deeper ways.  There is a counter trend emerging from the end of casual Christianity which is a good, godly, Holy Spirit-induced thing.  The recent overwhelming response to my study of Calvin versus Wesley provides some evidence.  I thought 8 or 9 people would join me.  Was I wrong!  We’ve had a large group at Texas Wesleyan University; multiple simulcast sites, many following the online streaming, and Sunday School classes using the material.  I believe this is a sign of the hunger for deeper discipleship and a closer walk with Christ.

One of the books that I am casually dabbling with (actually occasionally listening to on my phone) is Radical by David Platt.  While I have some strong theological disagreement with what I am hearing/reading, I am attracted by the way he too sees an end to casual Christianity and the growth of discipleship.  The subtitle of the books speaks volumes — Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream.  Somewhere along the line, I ran into some quotes in a review from a newer book Platt has written that resonate with me.  The book is entitled Follow Me:

  • “There is indescribable joy, deep satisfaction and an eternal purpose in dying to ourselves and living for Christ.”
  • “Jesus is not some puny religious teacher begging for an invitation from anyone. He is the all-sovereign Lord who deserves submission from everyone.”
  • “Our greatest need is not to try harder. Our greatest need is a new heart.”
  • “We cling to the person of Christ as life itself.”

C.S. Lewis’ comment about Jesus echoes through my musing about the end of casual Christianity. “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

My musings led me back to my faded copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship.  It is to the cross that our Lenten journey takes us.  I do know that I need to remember what Bonhoeffer wrote:

“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with His death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow Him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”  (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)

Even more, I remember what Jesus said, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them’” (Mark 8:34-35).

There is much to think upon, pray about, and engage in action on the way to the cross and beyond.

Heading Towards the Cross: The Offense of Substitutionary Atonement

I readily confess that one of my favorite more contemporary Christian hymns/songs is “In Christ Alone” (written in 2001).  Its emphasis on the centrality of Christ and the trust the Lord rarely fails to move me to a deeper conviction and engage me in a stronger commitment.  It is one of those songs that feeds my soul.  Even typing the words, the great, first verse anchors my being and brings me before the Lord in peace.

“In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.”

The second verse moves into an affirmation of the incarnation. “Christ alone, Who took on flesh, Fullness of God in helpless babe!” Yet, from there it plunges into claims of atonement that are often an offense.

“This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid –“

The third verse embraces the resurrection in full-throated glory and the fourth verse moves the listener to the heights of discipleship in sanctified commitment.  Yet the last half of the second verse remains as an in-your-face declaration of substitutionary atonement.

In my last blog, “Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement” I noted the variety of metaphors which speak to the issue of how the cross “works” or how we are atoned – if you will, “at-oned” with God in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. I made no claims that my list was exhaustive (the list was largely, though not exclusively, taken from the writing of Scot McKnight in his book A Community Called Atonement). I emphasized how the earliest Christians refused to settle for a single metaphor or image understanding of atonement and salvation.  Through a refusal to settle for a single metaphor and an equal refusal to jettison any one biblical image under the inspired guidance of the Holy Spirit, those earliest Christians led us to a great and uncomfortable truth.  We wish to pick the image we like and slide quickly by the rest. Such is a mistake of biblical proportions.

In particular this conflict can be noted around issues relating to substitutionary atonement.  Substitutionary atonement is the notion (metaphor or image) that Jesus did something we could not do for ourselves.  He paid the price for our sin.  In short form it goes something like this.  A righteous, just, and holy God cannot simply ignore the disasters and evil consequence of sin.  The price of sin must be paid.  Christ, the one sinless human being (fully human and fully divine!), on the cross paid the price that just and righteous God required. God’s wrath is not against humans but against sin.  It is the logical consequence of love’s full embrace.  To demand that God’s wrath towards sin be ignored is effectively to live in a delusion of sin’s effect on human life and living.  By way of illustration of sin’s power we simply need to point to the civil war waging in Syria this very day.  Or, should we chose something closer to home, we can easily note the rising homelessness in the world’s most prosperous nation (including right here in Fort Worth!).  These are the real world consequences of sin and they can be ignored or papered over.

Yet notions of a wrathful God make us, especially those of the old mainline (now sideline) – shrink back in unfeigned disgust.  We recoil at the very idea of God’s wrath needing to be satisfied.  It makes God look vengeful and needless cruel. (Years ago I heard someone refer to it as “divine child abuse.”  In a recent article Dr. Bill Bouknight recalled that “back in 1993 at the infamous Re-Imagining Conference, a Union Seminary professor said, ‘We don’t need to hear about somebody hanging on a cross, and blood dripping, and all that stuff.’  And when those words were spoken, the interdenominational audience exploded into applause.  Obviously, the message of the cross is still as offensive as St. Paul found it to be—‘a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’ (I Cor. 1:23).”  He went on to note that “The official position of the UMC is clearly stated in Article XX of the Articles of Religion: ‘The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction but that alone’ (Bill Bouknight, The Atonement Controversy).”  Furthermore, scriptural references are too numerous to be ignored.  “God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us” (Romans 8:3, CEB).  “…he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:2, NRSV).  “People are destined to die once and then face judgment. In the same way, Christ was also offered once to take on himself the sins of many people. He will appear a second time, not to take away sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).  “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals, because you were slain, and by your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe, language, people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9, CEB). The list could go on but the reader can get the drift.

Whether we like it or not, substitutionary atonement cannot be ignore.  H. Richard Niebuhr’s great quote will preach at lent!  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross” (H. Richard Niebuhr from The Kingdom of God in America).  At the same time it is important, vitally important, that we do not boil our whole understanding of salvation down to substitutionary atonement.  What the first Christians refused to do, so should we refuse to do also.  There is room and application needed for all of the various understandings (theories/metaphors/images) of atonement.  We need to embrace the whole of the gospel not just part of it.

The offense of substitutionary atonement comes for much of our age because it, substitutionary atonement, takes sin so seriously.  This is a truth we need to recover not only in our peaching and teaching but in our lives and confession.  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (I John 1:8-10).  We suffer from a surfeit of cheap grace.  A grace that costs little and means less.  Paul had it right, “we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom” (I Corinthians 1:23-24).

The song, In Christ Alone, has it right, “Here in the death of Christ I live” (verse 2, last line).

Heading Towards the Cross: The Workings of the Cross – Atonement

There is an old story passed on to me years ago by an Army veteran in a congregation I served.  If I recall it correctly, a company of soldiers was dug-in on a hill and receiving a great deal of lethal shelling from the enemy.  Through the explosions, a soldier dived into a foxhole.  Hugging the ground his fingers touched metal.  He pried up a little pocket cross.  As the shelling lessoned, he look across the foxhole and notice that the person he shared it with was a chaplain.  “Say Chaplain,” he said, “how do you make this thing work anyhow?”  Atonement is about how this thing – the cross, crucifixion and resurrection – works.  It is about how we become at one with God.

Make no mistake about it.  The cross looms over the landscape leading to Easter.  How the cross works in the equation that leads us from the incarnation of Christmas to the joy of Easter morning and beyond is what this journey called Lent is about.

The cross is the epitome of Roman power and might.  It is the essence of human sin and suffering.  It is an unescapable reality of the Christ faith.  “Jesus said to everyone, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them’” (Luke 9:23-24).

I like the way the famous Anglican Church pastor John R. W. Stott put it: “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” Or take the great quote of the German Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer who so valiantly resisted the evils of Nazi Germany: “The cross is laid on every Christian…. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 89).

That phrase of Bonhoeffer’s – “he bids him come and die” – is justly famous for this is exactly what Bonhoeffer did.  Furthermore it is justly famous because it pushes us back on the meaning of the cross and the basic teaching of Jesus – “take up [your] cross.”

All of this is a way of getting at how salvation becomes effective, how it all “works.”  It is significant, I think, that the early church insisted on doctrine of incarnation with Jesus confessed as fully human and fully divine as embedded in the great creeds. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; … he came down from heaven, was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed). They battled over the precise meaning of the Holy Trinity giving us the great threefold rendition of the Apostle Creed. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; … I believe in the Holy Spirit” (The Apostles Creed).

But, when it came to understanding salvation, what we properly call atonement or at-one-ment.  They reached for a series of metaphors and refused to adopt just one definition or understanding.  Each metaphor points back to the crucial transaction that takes place in the crucifixion and in the resurrection.  Consider the listing that Scot McKnight lifts up in his marvelous book A Community Called Atonement.

  • Recapitulation – “he [Jesus] became like us that we might be like him” (Attributed to a number of early church theologians including Irenaeus and Athnasius)
  • Ransom/Christus Victor – Jesus’ identification with us in death breaks our captivity to sin
  • Satisfaction – Jesus identifies with our sinful nature (this metaphor is closely akin to Substitution)
  • Substitution – Jesus did something for us that we could not do for ourselves, “He died instead of us and for our sins so that we could be raised with him to new life” (McKnight, p. 111).
  • Representation – “We both die and rise with Christ (inclusive representation) and he dies and is raised instead of us but for our benefit by incorporation (exclusive representation)” (McKnight, p. 112).
  • Penal Substitution – Christ died instead of us and died for us by paying the “price” for our sins.
  • Demonstration – Jesus’ death was the supreme demonstration of God’s love making it possible for us to take up our cross and live a life of love & service to others.

The list is hardly exhaustive and is fraught with complexity.  I would argue that the early church got it right in insisting on not just one metaphor but a series of metaphors.  Put differently, it is a serious mistake to take one of the above (or some version) and lift it alone as the sum total of what we understand atonement – at-one-ment – to be.  The “way it works” to go back to my opening image is more complex and more varied than any single metaphor.  In its great wisdom the early Church understood this truth.  My plea is that Lent finds us wrestling with these great themes.  They are still vitally the stuff of life today … especially in this bruised and battered world of ours.

On a very different subject, I want to pass on some good news.  The Central Texas Conference has received a grant from the General Board of Global Ministries.  The RELCC (Racial Ethnic Local Concerns Committee) grant is for a part of the covenant relationship with the Eastern Mexico Conference in which Eastern Mexico sends a team of worship leaders to lead a weekend worship retreat at El Buen Samaritano.  The retreat is designed for worship leaders seeking training/resources for leading Hispanic worship.  Rev. Sam Macias and Rev. Lilliana Padilla were instrumental in the development of this idea and have worked with the Conference centers of both Mission Support and Evangelism & Church Growth to set up this ministry project.  We give thanks for the generosity of GBGM and all here who have worked on setting this up!

Heading Towards the Cross: The Seriousness of Our Separation

As we continue heading towards the cross in our Lenten journey, those who claim to be Christ-followers traverse a landscaped called atonement.  We cannot help but do so.  We may argue at length with each other on just how a new relationship with God, with self, with others, and with the world has come about. But the unshakable reality is, that in some way, Jesus Christ dying on the cross atoned for our sins.

I like to think of atonement by simply breaking the word apart: at-one-ment.  Through the cross we become at one with God.  In the one person who was both fully human and fully divine we are reconnected with our maker. As John Richard Neuhaus put it, “what was separated is now at one” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, p. 15).

Today we often stumble in our failure to take seriously our separation; namely sin.  We tend to slide by theories of atonement and settle into a facile understanding of Jesus the great teacher because we are uncomfortable facing the reality of our lives.  We are sinners.  I am a sinner.  I have within me a propensity to place myself ahead of the Lord God. So do we all.

Think of the standard images for atonement.  The term salvation comes from the battlefield.  We are knocked to the ground and about to be run-in by a spear-wielding enemy.  Just then, someone steps into to take the blow and dies to save our life.  We are saved!  Or think of redemption, the image comes from the slave market.  It is an especially powerful image for those caught in the grip of an addiction.  We are being auctioned into slavery for our sins  – our willful separation from God.  Someone, Jesus Christ, steps in and pays the price for our freedom.  Or again, consider the term Paul uses in Romans – Justification.  We are in court and held to account for our failures, our sins.  Any plea that we are mostly a nice person is easily thrust aside.  The evidence is clear.  We are guilty of sin, of separation, from God.  As the gavel is pounded down, Christ steps in and sets the verdict aside declaring us justified, that is made right by his actions.

While hardly a complete list, each image referenced points to the seriousness of our separation from God.  They signal a far different reality than the need for just a little correction.  They give evidence of a radical flaw in our makeup; a flaw so deep that none escape.  This truth was demonstrated recently by Pope Francis when he posed the question about himself.  “‘Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?’ I am a sinner. This the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

It is the cross rising before us in the distance that makes us face fully and truthfully the reality of sin; our propensity to be our own gods.  It is the cross standing before us in the distance that challenges our naïve assumptions of our own essential goodness.  Consider just one list of false gods that clamor to reign over us, over the very best of us!

  • Individualism – the story that “I” am the center of the universe
  • Consumerism – the story that I am what I own
  • Nationalism – the story that my nation is God’s nation
  • Moral relativism – the story that we can’t know what is universally good
  • Scientific naturalism – the story that all that matters is matter
  • New Age – the story that we are gods
  • Postmodern tribalism – the story that all that matters is what my small group thinks
  • Salvation by therapy – the story that I can come to my full human potential through inner exploration (taken from The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight; pg. 157).

The Christian conviction wrapped up in the theological concept called atonement is that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus somehow this sin has met its match.  Sin is still real.  It is still present.  It still needs to be faced, confessed and repented of; but its power is ultimately broken.  Heading towards the cross we are challenged to face the seriousness of our separation.  Only then can the joy of Easter morning be fully embraced.

I will continue on the theme of atonement in my next blog as we together head toward the cross … and beyond!  I close with a pungent quote from Stephen Seamands:  “For at the cross we see Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, being mocked, tortured, and finally murdered by the sons and daughters of men. We see humanity defiantly turned against God, the creature, in all of its prideful arrogance, seeking to annihilate the Creator. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “think of all the hostility he endured form sinful people” (Heb 12:3) as he endured the cross. Here our deep-seated, burning hostility toward God is fully exposed: Our hatred is so intense we would kill God if we could. In our determination to be autonomous and independent, to be our own gods, we would go so far as to get rid of God so we could take his place. Here we see not “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” as Jonathan Edwards put it in his famous eighteenth-century sermon, but “God in the hands of angry sinners.” The cross reveals how hell-bent we are and how heinous and horrible sin is” (Stephen Seamands, Give Them Christ, pg. 62).



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