Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Our Great Need - True Reality with God

There is a tremendous need in the Church today.  Okay, I will pause here, because I see you out there asking what that need is, I see your denominational sign around your neck, and I see your Bible in your hand ready to thump me (making you a Bible thumper like me) at the first hint of heresy.  You’re making my point for me, really.  This need transcends denomination and goes right to the root of the Christian faith, and has no place for the modern phariseeism that pervades most evangelical churches and traditionalism that pervades all forms of orthodoxy, be that Roman, Greek, Russian, Coptic, or otherwise.  That need is so foundational that it applies to ALL forms of Christianity – it is the need to be real with God.
Do not misunderstand me.  I applaud the efforts of the countless Catholic or Anglican or Orthodox priests at serving their congregations and being an example of Christ.  I enjoy reading Canon Law and Church History of all sorts.  I am completely onside with evangelical pastors of all denominations doing the same thing.  However, following these roads and becoming a mere adherent of a philosophy, even the “right” philosophy, does not guarantee the reality God requires when He says his followers must worship Him in Spirit and in Truth.  (John 4:24)
What does it mean to “be real” with God?  The first thing it means is to come as you are to God.  Some religions put conditions on spirituality like bathing in a certain river, or going on a journey to a certain place, or performing some great deed to make oneself worthy to enter into God’s presence.  Christianity is unique in that it teaches that God came looking for us!  We didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything, God saw an issue and fixed it Himself by sending His Son to deal with the problem.
What was the problem?  I’m about to use a very unpopular word – Sin.  Some have conjectured that sin is an outdated concept that results from a negative self-image.  If that were true, then I wouldn’t be able to pick up any newspaper and read about sin in the headlines.  Even if some acknowledge the concept of sin, they still don’t like to talk about it, and relegate it to a status of non-importance.  In reality, sin is a very serious concept that affects every person on the planet negatively because it separates us from God who created us.  Sin is the violation of the holy standard of God.  Have you ever told a lie, even just a little “white” lie to “protect someone’s feelings?  Then congratulations, you have joined the rest of us among the ranks of the sinful.  Have you ever stolen something, even a cookie from the bag your mom told you was for after dinner?  Again, welcome to the ranks of the sinful. 
Okay, okay, I hear you out there – I have never murdered anyone!  I’m not as bad as that!  Oh, okay, I’m glad you mentioned that.  Have you ever been angry with someone without a good reason?  Jesus said that was equal to murder in His eyes.  Or have you ever looked on another human being (to whom you are not married) with sexual desire?  Jesus said that you have already committed adultery in your heart.  Welcome aboard, sinner.  Romans 3:23 says that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” and without dealing with that sinfulness, we cannot have any kind of reality with God.  That is a real problem, because we are unable to deal with our own sin.  The first half of Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death,” so in order to deal with it we would have to be executed.  That is not what I would call a pleasant thought.  However, the second half of Romans 6:23 says, “…but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  What?!?  What does that mean?

It means that Jesus paid the penalty for us.  Because our sin demanded a death, He died in our place.  Think of it like this – you just got pulled over by the police and were given a traffic ticket.  You choose option three, meaning that you want your day in court (and we will all have one).  You show up, and the officer that wrote the ticket is there and able to provide incontrovertible proof that you are guilty.  The court orders that you pay the penalty, say $300.  When you go to pay the bailiff, he tells you that another person heard that you were guilty, and out of the goodness of his heart, paid your fine for you.  That is what Jesus Christ did for us, only on a much larger scale.  He died to pay for all sins for all time.  He rose again three days later to show that we had been set free from their power.  For those who choose to accept that payment on their behalf, that freedom is theirs to claim.  
If you are sitting there reading this and you have never heard it before, or if you have heard it and discounted it as I once did, let me encourage you and challenge you to consider the implications of all this.  Okay, if I'm wrong, what am I really out?  Not a great deal, because real Christianity teaches the doing of what is right for all anyway.  But what if I'm right?  Please - think about it honestly.
If you are reading this and you have made that choice already, but you are not living it, and you are discouraged and at the end of your rope as I once was, then let me say to you that it is not too late and that there is hope for you.  You can turn to God and claim that freedom that God promises to all who will turn to Him.
If you're reading this and it makes you angry and makes you hate God because of all the wrong you have suffered in your life, I know how you feel because I've been where you are too.  All I can say to you is that your pain is not God's doing, although He has allowed it in your life for some reason that maybe we don't know and can't understand.  What I can tell you is that God is there for you too if you'll turn to Him.
If you're reading this and thinking that I have some loose screws, maybe you are right, but I'm not making this up.  If it is making you angry at me for even addressing the topic, you're making my point for me about the phariseeism and traditionalism that has bound God's people for centuries - you need to really consider what I have said.  If you can't get past your anger, I understand - I could not get past my own for many years, and I am praying for you, that God would set you free as He has me.
If your head is nodding in agreement and a smile has crept onto your face like it did mine while I was writing this, then hallelujah, brother or sister - let us walk together in the freedom that Christ's historical death, burial, and resurrection has given us and serve Him with gladness and joy in our hearts, even in the midst of our struggles and trials, because ours is the kingdom of heaven.
God bless you, no matter what category you fall into.  Even if you don't believe in God, because that's coming from a really good place in my heart and meant to bless you.
"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
-John 8:32 (NASB)

Monday, September 24, 2012

If being a Christian was against the law, would you be convicted?

Back in 1991, an artist named Steve Camp wrote a song that has the following words:

Could I be called a Christian if everybody knew
The secret thoughts and feelings of everything I do
Could they see the likeness of Christ in me each day
Or could they hear Him speaking in every word I say? 
Could I be called a Christian if my faith I did not show
If I did not go to places where the Lord would have me go
If I do not love His truth, if I do not guard His trust
If I cherish more than Jesus my greatest hidden lust 
To be all He's commanded, to do all that He's said
To be His true disciple and place no confidence in the flesh
To glory in Christ Jesus - It's He who justifies
Oh to find your life you must lose it
To live you first must die -
Let every man examine his own life -
Could I be called a Christian? 
Could I be called a Christian and believe not His Holy Word
If I take Him as my saviour and then refuse Him as my Lord
If I do not love the outcast and am not burdened for the lost
If I fail to deny myself and each day take up my cross?  
To be all He's commanded, to do all that He's said
To be His true disciple and place no confidence in my flesh
To glory in Christ Jesus, for it's He who justifies
Oh to find your life you must lose it
To live you first must die -
Let every man examine his own life -
Could I be called a Christian?

I think it's a fair question.  Christianity that makes no difference in your life is not really worth living.  You cannot invite Jesus into your life as mere fire insurance.  Mark 8:36 puts it this way in the words of Jesus Himself - "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?"  Verse 37 adds emphasis to that question with another like it: "For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?"  There are serious consequences involved for your destiny, and this passage says so in very clear terms for the believer:  "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."  Clearly, our words and deeds matter, especially when we claim to be followers of Christ.

The apostle Peter put it this way in his first letter to the churches:  "For it is time for judgement to begin with the House of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?"

When I first became a Christian in 1985, I started going to a particular place of worship, and I was taught that Christians are blessed of God.  That part was true, and I thank God for it.  Then I was also taught that trouble couldn't touch a child of God.  That we would always have good health, that we would always have enough money, that we would be blessed in everything we put our hand to, so to speak, and if your situation was different, there was something wrong with your faith.  I can now tell you after 27 years that this is unequivocally untrue.  There used to be a commercial for Coca Cola that said "things go better with Coke."  Well, it got turned into a theology - "things go better with Jesus."  I'm not sure I can agree with that statement.  It took 27 years of trial and hardship to get my attention on this fact - real life is all about how you DEAL with trials and hardships, not about their presence or absence in your life.  There was nothing wrong with my faith because God allowed me to experience financial collapse - God was teaching me to do without.  There was nothing wrong with my faith when I was diagnosed with diabetes - it was God teaching me that I have limits and that I truly need Him.  "Unless the Lord builds the house, we labour in vain." (Psalm 127:1)

This teaching did have a really negative result - when the trials came thick and fast, it sidelined me from living victoriously for YEARS.  Then a very good friend of mine pointed out that God was teaching me how to rejoice in Him in any circumstance, and the trials and hard life I had lived to this point were all about getting fruit from my life - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Read Gal. 5:22-23)

Let me return to my original question:  If being a Christian was against the law (and it may be someday), would you be convicted?  I can't speak for everyone, but I know a few Christians, and I know I'm speaking for them as well as myself here - inviting Jesus into our lives has made an amazing difference IN our lives.  I have a friend that was delivered from great rage (we weren't friends in high school when we encountered each other, but we are now), I was personally delivered from great bitterness and a lot of other things, I have friends that were delivered from addiction to narcotics, to sex and pornography, to bodybuilding (yes, it can be an addiction), and a lot of others.  My point is that there is EVIDENCE that God worked in our lives.  Subjective evidence perhaps, but it is still there, and no one can deny it!  I'm not who I used to be.  Several of the people that knew me in high school decades ago can attest to that fact.  I am more patient, more laid back (a manifestation of patience and peace), less uptight, more kind - the list goes on.  I'm not saying hey look at the good person I am, either - I owe all of this character improvement to Jesus Christ, my Lord.

So how about you?  First, are you a Christian?  If not, that is your choice, based on what you know and have learned to this point.  I challenge you to open your heart and mind to the possibility that there is truth to be found in the claims of Jesus Christ. I used to be a hedonist (pursues his or her own pleasure).  I was not inclined to change that pursuit easily.  Yet the Lord found me and saved me out of the downside of hedonism: depression and darkness when you can't fulfill your desires. My particular case is different than some.  I have a close friend that was an atheist (believes there is no God).  God sought out and found him.  He and I investigated the claims of Jesus together - and found that there is more historical evidence to support the historical accuracy of the New Testament and claims of Jesus than there is to support any 10 works of English Literature (including the works of Homer and Thucidides translated, and the complete works of William Shakespeare).  But I digress.  Consider His claims and his invitation to you:  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come into them and dine with them, and they with me."  (Rev. 3:20)  He can make a real difference in YOUR life.

Second, if you CLAIM to be a Christian, what difference does that make in YOUR OWN life?  Is it like Robert Frost's "Road not Taken" that has made all the difference?  Or did very little change for you?  Are you still caught in the snares of this present age?  I was for a few years also.  I was an alcoholic - as a Christian!  It was my way of trying to self-medicate a guilty conscience for the way I was living my life.  I knew it was wrong.  I did it anyway.  I didn't know HOW to change!  But in my depression and angst, God found me again, this time in the form of a guy in my first-year philosophy class who invited me to a film called "The Cross and the Switchblade," a true story based on the life of Pastor David Dickenson.  It was a Friday night, and I was trying to avoid the regular party atmosphere on my floor in university residence.  That night changed my life forever.  I saw in that film that Pastor used by God to change the lives of street gang thugs into saints of God.  I realized that the way I had been living was wrong.  I asked God to forgive me.  I stopped doing the things that I had been doing (with a lot of grace from God no doubt).  Once again, Jesus was standing at the door of my heart and knocking. He showed me that it didn't matter how far of a hole I had dug myself into, He was there to get me out of it.  I didn't have to go on some great quest, do some great deed of action, be some holyman on some spiritual journey, or whatever for Him to find me and save me from the trap I had put myself in.  Like before, I opened the door, and He delivered me, and he even brought the food - the means of strengthening myself to get out of the depression I was in.  In other words, He made a difference - again.  It can be like that for you too.

But what if you are sitting there thinking that God has blessed you with material wealth, and happiness and joy?  Personally, I say praise the Lord!  Now - follow Him.  He is standing at the door of your heart and knocking too, to take you out of your lukewarm comfort zone and make you His true disciple if you will open the door to Him.

For those that will open the door, may you be able to say with the apostle Paul:  "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, it is the power of salvation to everyone who believes..." (Rom. 1:16)  I pray you would take up your cross daily and follow Him, so that if Christianity ever becomes a crime, we will all be convicted and sentenced to LIFE!

"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."
-John 8:32 (NASB)