Thursday, September 29, 2011

Later and Greater

In Galatians 6:7 Paul says, “You reap what you sow.”  Paul is making an important spiritual point—”If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.”  But “You reap what you sow” is not exactly some deep, profound insight.  It’s actually rather obvious.  Everyone knows that.  If you plant an apple seed, you aren’t going to get an orange tree.  It’s so obvious that I’m not even going to bother with more examples.  The fact that Paul states it, however, means that the Galatians were ignoring this important principle.  They thought that they could live a lifestyle apart from the Spirit and yet reap all the benefits that the Spirit offers.  It didn’t make any sense, and Paul was pointing that out.  “You reap what you sow.”  (You can almost hear Paul adding, “Dummies.”)
This is a basic principle of life.  Jesus spoke to it in different words: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” (Matthew 7:16)  You reap what you sow.  What comes around goes around.  Garbage in, garbage out.  You are what you eat.  It’s basic.
Now, here’s the thing about reaping: you reap later and greater.
You plant corn and it’s three months before there’s anything to eat.  Plant asparagus and it’s two years before there’s anything on your dinner plate.  Graft an apple branch onto an apple rootstock (the apples we eat don’t come from seeds, they come from grafting) and it can take from 3 to 15 years before you are eating apple pie.  There is no such thing as instant reaping.  It’s always later.
Later is why we so easily give up on doing the right thing. We might do the right thing without seeing the fruit of it for days, weeks, months, years.  Later is why we give up so easily on losing weight or learning to play an instrument. Later is why we question our choices: Why am I being so diligent when nothing seems to be coming from it? Later is why we give up too soon.  Later is also why we look at people who are doing wrong and start to envy their seeming good fortune.  The consequences generally don’t happen immediately.  You always reap later.
You always reap greater too.  It’s disproportionate.  From one kernel of corn comes a stalk with two ears, each full of rows of kernels.  Plant one apple tree, and you get lots and lots of apples.
Greater can be harder, because it works both ways, both positive and negative.  This is the emotional part, because it's not necessarily "fair" in our minds.  It's not commensurate. So a person who has been somewhat irresponsible with his money might say, "I know I haven't been responsible, but I don't deserve this." To that I would say, "You're right." The principle of sowing and reaping doesn't understand fair or just or balance; what is reaped is always greater than what is sown.
Look at it this way: you are home with your family when a guy barges in brandishing a gun.  He threatens your entire family, herds you in the basement, locks the door, and then steals your valuables.  The whole incident takes thirty minutes.  The guy gets caught, is convicted at trial.  Does the judge sentence him to thirty minutes in prison?  A thirty-minute sentence for a thirty-minute crime?  Of course not.  For armed robbery he’s probably going to get more like 15 years.  15 years for a 30-minute crime?  Yes.  You always reap greater than you sow.
It works the other way as well.  For instance, when a regular smoker quits, one year later their excess risk of suffering coronary heart disease has decreased to half the risk of a continuing smoker.   And if they live smoke-free for fifteen years, their risk of coronary heart disease is now comparable to that of people who never smoked a single cigarette. Their risk of dying also is nearly back to the same level as that of non-smokers.  Is that fair?  Who cares!  It’s wonderful!
      If there is any area of your life—your finances, your money, your dating life, your relationship, your professional life—in which you are not where you want to be, chances are you have sown and reaped yourself there in some capacity.  And this is also true if you aren’t where you want to be spiritually.  The good news is that you can start sowing to the Spirit right now, and eventually you will see the fruit of the Spirit in your life.  No one has dug a hole too deep for the Spirit of God.  You may have to come from further back than others, but that just means that your later will be later than others.  But the more you stick with it, the greater your greater will be.
     “If you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”
Later and Greater.

Monday, September 19, 2011


The other day I was talking on the phone with a friend in ministry.  He is one of three brothers, all of whom are in ministry here in Maryland, themselves sons of a Baptist pastor (now retired) who spent his entire ministry in Maryland.  He told me that one of his brothers who is a pastor has become very good friends with a Catholic priest.  “My brother said that he has learned things about Christianity that he never knew.”  And he also said that when they were young, this friendship would have never occurred.  They were warned to stay away from Catholics, that they had nothing to learn from Catholics, that Catholics believed in salvation by works, worshiped Mary, and practiced empty worship.  And it’s true.  Thirty years ago it would have been extremely unlikely that a Baptist pastor and a Catholic priest would not only be good friends but would consider one another fellow travelers on the journey of faith, with much to learn and much to teach one another.  They would have instead looked upon each other with suspicion—suspicion born of ignorance.  The Baptist would have questioned the salvation of the Catholic because they didn’t believe in salvation by grace through faith apart from works.  I know this for a fact because this is what I myself was taught.  On the other hand, the Catholic was taught that those outside the Catholic church, like us Baptists, were in danger as well because there is no salvation outside the Church, and there is only one Church.
Thank God, we know better now.  They were wrong about us, and we were wrong about them.  I don't agree with everything that the Catholic Church teaches, but that’s all right—I don’t agree with everything the Baptist church teaches either.  I have learned, as has my friend and his brothers, that none of us have a monopoly on the truth, that we all see through a glass dimly, and that we have much to learn from the different traditions that fall under the large umbrella of Christianity.
As recently as twenty years ago, the information  that was readily available to the average Christian was controlled by the denomination.  We bought all of our Sunday School literature from the Southern Baptist Sunday School board.  When pastors bought commentaries and study aids, they went to the Baptist Book Store and bought commentaries and study aids written by Baptists, for Baptists.  Everything that I learned growing up about Christianity came from Baptist sources.  To me, it wasn’t Baptist theology, it was just theology.  It was Christian theology.  I figured every Christian believed in this particular way and if they didn’t, well, they were wrong.  What was true for me was also true for my Methodist friends—the only religious literature they were exposed was by and large Methodist.  This was how it was for all Christians.
A lot has changed in the last twenty years, and the Internet has been the biggest factor in the change.  If I want to read about a subject, I can order any book I want to from Christian Book Distributors or even from Amazon.  I can find articles on the Internet written by every different breed of Christian that exists.  Through email, blogs, book review postings and other online media I can be exposed to a wide variety of opinion, viewpoints, worldviews, interpretations, etc.  Some of it is insipid, some of it is ignorant and/or ill-informed, but some of it is extremely insightful, extremely enlightening, and extremely helpful.  And like my friend’s brother—I’m actually friends with all three brothers—I enjoy and learn from friends from different traditions.  My closest friends include not only Baptists, but a Catholic, a Methodist, and a Christian who gave up on the church but not on Jesus.  They each bring something different and something important to my understanding of Jesus.  And because I have come to respect them and have seen firsthand that they are serious about following Jesus, I have had to be more respectful and more understanding of their views while at the same time holding my own with more humility.  None of us have it all right, and none have it all wrong, and so—and this is most important—we need to listen to one another and learn from one another.
Because in the end what matters is not our identity as Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Greek Orthodox, etc.  The only identity that matters is that we are followers of Jesus Christ.  

Friday, September 9, 2011

Greasing the Skids

      I concluded the last with this thought: “We need to learn to be the humans God created us to be—made in his image and likeness, good yet with room for improvement.”  The question some may be asking is just what did God do (and still does) to grease the skids for this process? What resources are available that even makes this possible?
The first answer will seem pretty obvious, but it needs to be said: God provided his son, Jesus, for us, but not just as a sacrifice that takes away our sin.  Sin is just part of the problem.   Forgiving sin makes it possible for us to enter the Kingdom of God, but the removal of sin doesn’t show us how to live in the Kingdom of God.  But Jesus is more than our Savior, he is our teacher; more exactly, he is our mentor.  He not only taught us what to do and not do in order to live fruitfully in the Kingdom, he showed us.  His acceptance of society’s outcasts, his concern for the poor, his courage in confronting injustice—whether it came from religious powers or political powers—while steadfastly refusing to resort to violence in doing so, his cutting through religious minutiae to get to what really matters spiritually, his faithfulness to God all the way to his death—in all of these things and more, he didn’t just teach them to us, he demonstrated them for us.  Jesus is our model.  That is why it is absolutely crucial for the follower of Jesus to read the gospel narratives over and over, becoming immersed in the life and teachings of Jesus.  How can you follow someone if you don’t know their teachings and their example?  A follower of Jesus is not just someone who accepts as true the facts about his incarnation, death and resurrection; a follower is someone who actually follows, conforming their life according to the pattern set by Jesus.  Admittedly, this was a tall order even when Jesus was walking around the earth, but he’s not anymore.  Are we then reduced to reading four rather short narratives about his life, as great as they are?  It would have been nice if Jesus had hung around to help us out, wouldn’t it? 
Well, the good news is that he did.  He gave us his Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God.  When his first disciples were upset because he was leaving them, Jesus offered them these words: "And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”  The Spirit of Jesus abides with us, goes alongside us, and prepares the path before us so that we can actually do what Jesus tells us to do.  We have spiritual power to be the followers of God intends us to be.  But not only that, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit will be in us.  Paul puts it this way: I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)  So this new Kingdom life we are called to live we live in cooperation with the Spirit of Jesus living in us.  Like any new life skill we are trying to learn, at first we are pretty incompetent.  An apprentice on their first day doesn’t know how to do anything, and the master craftsman must pretty much do everything.  But as the apprentice learns and masters new skills, the master backs off, letting the apprentice do more and more, correcting, guiding, fixing mistakes, and then teaching new skills.  And even when the apprentice reaches the point when they are so competent at the craft that they need little guidance, the master craftsman is always there, his presence inspiring confidence. 
But not only that.  God has given us his plan for all of creation.  He has revealed his plan, which while we were in sin remained a mystery to us.  But now, with renewed minds and understanding, with fresh eyes guided by the Holy Spirit living in us, we are able to see what God has been up to all along.  He has been guiding history—not through coercion, not through predestination, but through love—toward an end, a fulfillment: the earth as it was created to be, humans as we were created to be.  Paul speaks of this in Romans 8:19-21—For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
This plan wasn’t a mystery because God hid it from us, but because we refused to see it, as Paul says in Romans 1.  But having our sins removed, the life of Jesus before us, the Spirit of Christ within us, we are able to read the story of The Plan—the Bible—and understand what God is doing, and then see where we can fit in and actually be a part of the fulfillment of God’s plan.
Then, we will not only be disciples, we’ll be fully human according to God’s plan; humans in which the image of God in us is undimmed by sin.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The End of Discipleship

What is the goal of discipleship?  If a disciple-making process or system is going to be implemented, you need to know what you are striving for.  I have found, however, that the answers to that simple question have often been inadequate.  They tend to be so obvious that they say nothing: “The goal of discipleship is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.”  That’s the very definition of begging the question.  Or they are fuzzy: “The goal of discipleship is to draw a person closer to Christ, to conform a person into the image of Christ.”  Yes, but what does that mean?  What does “closer to Christ” mean, and what exactly am I supposed to do?  Conformed to what image of Christ?  The image of Christ on the cross?  Cleansing the temple?  Eating supper with prostitutes and tax collectors?  And here’s the other problem with that: Jesus wasn’t some ordinary guy.  He was God incarnate.  I’d have a better chance of playing basketball like Michael Jordan than I would of living my life like Jesus lived his.  Think about it: the disciples, the original 12, who lived with Jesus for almost three years, listened to him day after day, watched his miracles—these guys couldn’t pull it off.  They misunderstood him, betrayed him, denied him, abandoned him—and we’re talking about Peter and John and James, guys who weren’t spiritual lightweights.  What possible hope do any of us have that we could be like Jesus?  That’s like taking a bunch of people to a cliff and telling them to fly.  The most committed will end up as broken heaps at the bottom of the cliff; the rest will wisely walk away in hopelessness.  We aren’t birds, we’re humans.  We aren’t humans who are also part of the Trinitarian Godhead.
We are merely humans.  And that’s a problem.  And it’s a problem that discipleship often tries to solve by implying that in becoming disciples of Jesus we can be more than merely human, we can become something supra-human.  We can become more spiritual, less earthy, maybe get to pull off some miracles, certainly get to live forever like God does in the place where God lives.  And yet, no matter how much we try, no matter how many discipleship classes we take and books we read, we find we are still, somehow very, very human.  Very, very flawed.  Very, very body-bound and spiritually anemic.
We are still merely human.
But the problem isn’t that we are merely human.  There is no such thing.  God created humans, and nothing God creates is merely anything.  Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, we were created for fellowship with God.  We were never created to become God-like.  We were created to be made-in-the-image-and-likeness humans, and that should be good enough for us.  But it’s not.  We don’t like that we aren’t God-like, and so we call ourselves merely human, and set as our goal to become God-like, and that’s where things get messed up.  “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.’”  The Original Sin begins with the dissatisfaction with being merely human and the desire to be like God.  And in striving to be like God, we no longer are even merely human.
We have become less than human.  The Original Sin, the violence that we humans commit against one another, begins when we consider others to be less than human and we begin to treat them inhumanly.  That’s our problem.  We are inhumane. 
Jesus came to deal with this problem, our inhumanity toward one another, toward God’s creation, even our inhumanity toward God.  The fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control—these aren’t spiritual qualities, these are humane qualities.  And yet we struggle with them.  We struggle with being human.
This is what Jesus came to teach us.  This is what a disciple must learn.  This is what a disciple must strive for.  This is the goal of discipleship—to learn to be human. 
But not merely human.  There is no such thing.  We need to learn to be the humans God created us to be—made in his image and likeness, good yet with room for improvement.  Because you can always learn to love more.  You can always learn to be more forgiving.  You can always learn to be more peaceful.  You can always learn to be more patient.  You can always learn to be more kind.
You can always learn to be more human.  That’s what Jesus came to show us.