The Ripples of the Resurrection

Today around the world, Christians recited the following dialogue:

“Christ is risen.”
“He is risen indeed.”

And indeed he is. The apostle Paul correctly remarked that a false resurrection would result in a foolish religion. If Jesus has not been raised, then none of us will be redeemed (1 Corinthians 15:14-17). This simple equation has wrapped into it the complexities of what I call the “ripples of the resurrection”.

christ's tombOne cannot speak of the resurrection as a phenomenon regarding one body of one man missing from one tomb on one day in a land and time far removed from my own. This simply will not do. If even one legitimate resurrection has taken place, then a monumental movement has been unleashed. Death’s dam has sprung a leak. Mortality’s mantle has been torn. One dead one returning to life declares that the barriers we have deemed insurmountable are not so; limitations have lapsed and borders have broken.

pebble in poolA rock of resurrection has been dropped into the pool of the universe, and the ripples will extend until the edges of the cosmos have felt its impact. The same ripples are also moving through the portion of creation known as “your life”. Feel the swell of the wave as the resurrection’s reach extends to, and through, your realm. Stopped to breathe and dare to dream. Christ’s resurrection reconfigures our existence, and it has nothing to do with how worthy or unworthy we are of such a magical touch.

In his second letter to the Corinthian church, Paul sums up the mystery of Christ’s resurrection power in this sentence: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Some have remarked that the Greek text is even shorter and downright abrupt. It literally looks like these three phrases:

  • If Anyone
  • In Christ
  • New Creation

boomA mathematician might create a basic equation from these three parts. A chemist might imagine a playful “boom” as the first two ingredients mix to form the third. Whatever the imagery, the language demands that we leave a gap. There is mystery. How does the combination of the first two phrases equate to the third? What connects these dots? What happens in that in-between space?

We need not know.

And we cannot know.

It’s the ripples of the resurrection. It is the movement of an incomparable wave proceeding from its start point and forcing its will and way upon all that it touches. One day the ripples of the resurrection will reach the edges of the pool. Every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

For today, be prayerful regarding, and perceptive to, the ripples of the resurrection in your life.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.

And he is but the first.

You Must Be Born Again (Part II)

NicodemusIn my LAST POST, we began looking at Jesus’ late-night dialog with Nicodemus (Jn 3). Highly educated and thoroughly trained, Nicodemus came curious about how one could function with the Kingdom Reign of God, of which Jesus spoke so often.

Jesus’ answer: You must be born again.

Nicodemus’ reply: How is that possible?

Jesus’ response: Similarly to how your father impregnated your mother, you must conceive this new life via a fertilization by the Spirit of God.

If this seems abstract, look into the flesh face of someone. The offspring around the planet are your proof. You have come forth from the union of your father and mother, and you likely look the part!  Animals produce appropriate offspring; plants produce seeds to match. THIS begets THIS; THAT begets THAT.  Flesh begets flesh, and spirit begets spirit. (Jn 3:6)

So what would it take to produce a man or woman tightly tuned to the voice and moves of God?

What would be required to create a man or woman filled from and fueled by the infinite well of wisdom, grace, and love?

What would be necessary to bring forth a man or woman whose life had such substance as to send ripples through the spiritual realms?

That requires a work of the Holy Spirit, nothing less. In this sense, rebirth is not optional but rather non-negotiable. (Jn 3:7)

The Wind Blows

wind-blowingAfter speaking of the womb, Jesus moves to the wind. Those who live on the Canadian prairies know wind more than most. Yet even to us, Jesus says that this oh-so-familiar wind is filled with mystery. We may feel it and see its effects, but we are clueless to its origin or destination.

I used to think that Jesus was comparing the wind to the Spirit.

But he is not.

What he says is: “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (Jn 3:8).” The wind’s mysterious nature speaks to the mysterious nature of those who live Spirit-filled lives.

As is the wind, so is the man or woman born of the Spirit.

You may have met such a man or woman. Their faith was alive in a way that was noticeable. A fire burned in them, but the blaze could not be accounted for by merely scanning their resume. Considering the sum of parts like personality, background, education, and experiences failed to square the equation. Some immeasurable force was involved. Something beyond calculation was blowing in this life.

The Spirit is that wind.

How Can This Be?

Nicodemus is struck dumb by this teaching: How can these things be?  Can it be that Jesus is right to speak of a realm far beyond ritual and regulation? Is divine fertilization really the game-breaker for our transformation and entry into Kingdom life?

Jesus’ answer: You’d better believe it!

In fact, Jesus now marvels (Jn 3:9-10). Is it possible that a teacher of God’s people does not grasp this truth that the Spirit alone births new creation?  The one who should be blazing trails for others and shining forth a guiding light is mystified by the vital and basic truth that the Spirit is front and center to the whole journey.

There is no question that God desires every redeemed life to be a model and an inspiration. There is no doubt that He wants every church to play such a role in their settings.  If we are play this part, it will be necessary to grasp one truth with two hands.

The Spirit Births

The Holy Spirit births life.

It is He who breathes it and brings it forth. The salvation of our city will not hinge on the number of our programs or quality of our preaching. The redemption of our region will not hang on our facility size or worship styles.  Of course, we are to strive for excellence in what we do as a church; less would be lazy.  And lazy would be unfaithful.

But more than exerting efforts, there is need to submit ourselves to the Spirit that churns under every surface.

Begin to attend to His movements in your little life, then stretch that attention to consider His movements in the little lives around yours.

Plead for stronger winds, tornado-force gusts capable of blowing down or tearing up the walls we build to take refuge from the Sheltering One.

Ask for spiritual fertilization and for healthy pregnancies. We do not want miscarriages or stillbirths on God’s work in our lives. We wish to see His wonders brought to term and maturing to multiply and fill the earth.

How It Is

factJesus closes the conversation (Jn 3:11) with Nicodemus by declaring that this view is not an opinion. Jesus is not hazarding a guess at how things work. He describes himself as a witness speaking of first-hand knowledge, perfect and complete.

He even says that it is not just HE who knows this, it is WE. Apparently, his followers are having firsthand experiences with the ways of the Spirit. They are tasting the wonder of rebirth for themselves.

I am praying today for you, my friends, that a similar sampling is being delivered into your homes and churches as well, even this very moment.

YOUR TURN: What have been your key takeaways from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus? How do you grasp the process of “being born again”?

You Must Be Born Again (Part I)

NicodemusOne of Jesus’ most intriguing encounters took place when a Pharisee named Nicodemus sought him out fin the wee hours for a private conversation.

John 3 records Nicodemus’ desire to learn from Jesus about how one enters or participates in the reign of God (His Kingdom).

Again or Above

Depending on your English Bible, you might see Jesus speaking of the need to be born AGAIN or from ABOVE (Jn 3:3). William Barclay hits the home run by keeping both terms: “Reborn from above.”  Jesus is emphatic: One enters the flow of God in a radically new fashion.  She cannot enter by striving or straining; he cannot evolve or inch his way past the threshold.

In other words: “Nicodemus, there is one path from here to there, and you can neither find it, nor walk it.  You must be born again.”

Not surprisingly, this fails to answer every question and raises several more. That list is headed by this query:  “How can this be?” (Jn 3:4)

Smarter than We Think

We have not flattered Nicodemus; we have laughed that he would envision a physical rebirth. But Nicodemus is no numbskull. Among the brightest and most educated minds of his nation, it is highly unlikely that this teacher is tone-deaf to metaphors and is instead visualizing a man being crammed back into a uterus.

Far more likely, Nicodemus has engaged the rhetoric and is actually on to something fairly profound. He might have thought it like this:

Each man is the sum of a lengthy equation. We are who we are today as a result of all our yesterdays. That lengthy equation is a bundled mess of doubts and dreams, hopes and hurts, faith and fear. It includes choices wise and foolish, and habits healing and harmful. All of this is layered and swirled over a lifetime. Surely, everyone longs at some point for a clean break and a fresh start. But that is a fantasy. I mean, if physical birth is beyond possibility, how much greater a miracle would it take to remake the core of a person?

Hmm.

Good question.

And accordingly, Jesus replied: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (Jn 3:5)

Water and Spirit

How are we to understand this phrase? The mention of water quickly takes many minds to baptism. This may be, but it is certainly not Christian baptism as we know it. That imagery would have meant nothing to Nicodemus at his point on the timeline. If any baptism is envisioned, it is John the Baptist’s work for purifying repentance.

That said, a better interpretation awaits.

The first clue is hidden in the Greek grammar. The words are cobbled together in such a way that one phrase is indicated, not two concepts. So we are not decoding water and Spirit; we are speaking of one thing. I call it Spirit-water.

And what might that be?

water_dropWell, it might be this.  Rabbinic writings often used “water” as a graceful euphemism to speak of semen. In other words, “You must be born of spiritual seed.”

The miracle of life begins with a woman’s egg cell being fertilized by a man’s sperm cell.  Within the woman’s body, there is a monthly potential for new life. What makes all the difference between life and no-life is the fertilization of that cell. In this light, Jesus is declaring, “As surely as you live and breathe in this world, you are here because one of your father’s cells fertilized one of your mother’s cells. With that same certainty, you will function in the Kingdom of God only if the Father fertilizes something. Within everyone lies the potential to participate in the divine nature, but mark it down: There is no such experience apart from the Holy Spirit’s awakening fertilizing.”

So yes, Jesus and Nicodemus were basically bouncing around sexual (ie: reproductive) innuendo filled with spiritual connotation. And the dominant point within it all: Nothing is happening minus the Spirit’s conceiving and birthing efforts.

Commentator extraordinaire Leon Morris says it like this:

”It is the perennial heresy of the natural man to think that he can fit himself by his own efforts for the kingdom of God. Jesus makes it clear that no man can ever fit himself for the kingdom. Rather he must be completely renewed, born anew, by the power of the Spirit.”

That is enough for today. Tomorrow, we will add one more layer.

See you then.

Jesus Calls You to Be Selfish

I confess, that title may be slightly misleading.

But only slightly.

All or Nothing

There is a common belief that anything less than absolute altruism somehow clashes with pure religion. While I understand the sentiment, how is anyone less than Mother Teresa expected to take even a step forward if this is true?

Desiring God (Piper)I believe the answer lies in “Christian hedonism“, a provocative phrase coined by John Piper in his 1986 book “Desiring God”.

If one can get past the shock of binding the terms “Christian” and “hedonism”, a wonderfully disorienting teaching awaits.

In one sentence, Piper lays it out like this: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”  Jeremy Taylor, a 17th-century Anglican cleric once said that “God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy.” The concept has also been linked to Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and Jonathan Edwards, among others.

Tuck away the historical figures that you may or may not care about. This post’s title suggested that Jesus himself promotes such a teaching. Is that true?

14-biltmoreMusical Chairs

Luke 14 depicts Jesus giving seating advice after observing wedding guests eagerly jockeying for the seats of honour. A surface reading would suggest that Jesus was teaching them how to be more effective in their selfish pursuits, as if to say, “If you really want to sit at the head table, let me show you a trick that you may have missed with your small-scoped view.”

This is where the “purity police” show up. If the driving motive behind an act is a desire to receive reward or get ahead, doesn’t that undercut the act’s honour from the get-go?

I think Jesus would say, “No.”

And here’s why.

“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.” (Ps 103:13-14)

stock-footage-old-stopwatch-clock-gears-mechanism-with-tick-tick-soundOur Maker knows how we tick.

He is not shocked to learn that we are hardly altruistic. In fact, I will be hard-pressed to have one such moment this week, maybe even today.  Most would agree that a will to survive or succeed appears to be our first nature.

Even more certain is this fact: God wants to lead me. He wants to direct my life and form me into a man more centered upon Him than upon myself. How to do this?

Harnessing our Selfishness

I believe God taps our self-centeredness as a tool toward redemption. It would not be the first time that God has used something lesser for something greater.

If this rubs you wrong, the key truth to remember here is that this hardly makes obedience any easier.  It is not as if God lowers the bar by allowing us to “function selfishly”.

In treating my self-seeking nature as His classroom, God requires a leap of faith so great that most will never draw near to its edge.

Invisible > Visible

I can only pursue unseen treasure if I am willing to release what appears to be already in my grasp. The promise of rewards for goodness–either in an afterlife or in due time–has no power to motivate those who prefer “living for today”. This is delayed gratification to its max. Putting money away for retirement, saving sex until marriage, reading books rather than watching movies–these, and a thousand other examples, highlight the intense struggle humanity has with delayed gratification. To imagine faith as an ignoble pursuit because it contains offers of unseen and untouched reward–this is out of touch with the challenge of the spiritual life.  Such a critic has never tried to live by faith.

Following Christ’s call requires unbelievable guts. Most cannot muster them. It demands a constant loosening of one’s grip and a willingness to settle on rewards that often uncertain and counter-intuitive.

That is the life of faith: Crushingly costly and richly rewarding all at once.

Because He Lives

Here is David Crowder bringing one of the finest Easter hymns I know:

Abraham Would Wear a Cross

nonexpert_dance_waltzScripture displays a dance between the pronounced attributes of God. At least, it appears as a dance to our small eyes, capable of beholding only one thing at a time.

Straining to Step

God’s character is a primary example: He is just as only a Being of burning holiness can be, yet He is kind as only a Being of furious love can exhibit.  Our reach and rhythm find the steps of this dance greatly stretching. How can He be both?

While all of us discover God in real-time, the fact was even more pronounced for Abraham. No Scriptures to study, no preaching to process, he was discovering the substance of Yahweh solely as Yahweh revealed Himself.

The Sodom Study

On the outskirts of Sodom, a city reputed for its wickedness, God revealed to Abraham a side different from the kindness and guidance that had thus far characterized God’s tone. God’s holy justice had determined that Sodom’s time had arrived. The Consuming Fire was about to swallow an entire city.

Abraham proceeded to open negotiations with the Almighty, by “drawing near” and querying, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23)

Torah-3C-AbrahamHe wanted to know how God ticked. Was His sense of justice so tightly wound that it would override what Abraham considered to be reasonable, percentage-based standards of grace?

“Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it?”

And on the auction went, with Abraham bowing out of the bidding once Yahweh had agreed that He would spare the entire city if He found ten righteous people.

The Twist

Abraham was concerned that God’s holy justice burned so hot that an innocent few might suffer alongside the guilty masses.  But Yahweh flips it over and reveals that He is actually so gracious toward His faithful ones that He will allow rampant sin to go unpunished.

Said another way, Abraham feared that God was a sniper so eager to pull the trigger that innocent victims would be struck down. God displays a shocking willingness to let evil have its day in exchange for the safety of His people.

Abraham Would Wear a Cross

wooden-cross-weatheredIf Abraham were alive today, he would wear a cross around his neck. He would have to. What other ornament can even begin to capture this concept, this intimate interaction of perfect justice tempered by lavish love?

Jesus’ disciples approached from the opposite road to Abraham; they were eager to see fireworks. Let Rome burn!  Smite the Samaritans!  Humble Herod!  Bring the biggest cup you have, and pour down the judgment.

And God obliges.

In fact, He brings a larger vessel of venom than they could have imagined. His view encompasses the collective evil of humanity back to Eden. Horror movies and nightmares could not compete with the content of that cup.

And He unloaded His appropriated anger, dropping it like an atom bomb on a cross-beamed and convicted criminal.  Then He dared to tell us that love was at the center of the carnage–grace at its gutsiest.  Oh to be sure, there would be justice, swift and sweeping. Every evil would be exorcised, and wailing would ensue.  But the entire execution of justice would serve as a stay of execution for the guilty.

Jesus paid it all.
All to him I owe.
Sin had left a crimson stain.
He washed it white as snow.

No doubt in my mind, Abraham would have worn a cross.  And as he wore it, he would have marveled. He might have recalled the most grievous days of his life, as he walked his son Isaac toward Mount Moriah. Willing to display his faithfulness to a God who appeared to making nonsensical requests, Abraham was pushed to the brink before a bleating broke the tension.

“God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Father had declared that to son. If Abraham were with us today, wearing that cross, he would stroke it as a treasure from another universe. And he would marvel at the prophetic nature of his Moriah-message.

Had Abraham’s sacrifice been carried out, it would have displayed his allegiance to an unseen Deity. But God’s son-sacrifice has been carried out, as an exhibition of His allegiance to people who lack all ability to dance with Him.

 

 

Wearing the Surprising Yoke of Christ

This invitation is among Jesus’ most famous words (Mt 11:28-30):

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

YokeTillers International put out a document on how to build a yoke (in case you were looking for a wood shop project).  They noted that a typical wooden yoke might weigh 50-60 pounds, certainly more than I’d care to carry in a backpack each day but hardly problematic to a team of animals who might weigh a couple tons collectively.

That got me to thinking about the yoke Jesus offers.

He says that it will not feel burdensome. He also says that wearing it will be a form of learning.

Here is where the image surprises.

Yoke-talk was common-place among first-century rabbis. It spoke of whose rule one was living out, whose Torah-interpretation one was holding, whose “way” one was walking.  Typically, potential students might approach a teacher under whom they desired to learn.  Some sort of “application” would take place, with testing and gauging of whether this student was suitable for this master.  Jesus splits from the standard operating procedures immediately by putting out a call of invitation, particularly to those whose current yokes are crushing them. To the wearied and the worn, a restful yoke awaits.

How can it be so?

I mean, Jesus is the same one who called his followers to “be holy, as God is holy”. He told them that they would need to pursue a higher form of righteousness than the minutia-minded Sinai-sticklers of their day, so we can safely conclude that he was not speaking of slack standards or halfway holiness.

Perhaps the clue lies in the imagery of the yoke.

Yoke-Jesus-Matthew-11-28-30-300x225Picture it.

See the metaphor: View the farm, hear the livestock, assess the fields to work.

Imagine it.

Place yourself there: Smell the dirt, breathe the air, feel the weight of a yoke.

At this moment, where is Jesus?

If there is a yoke and we are wearing it, then it seems easy enough to assess our spot in the sketch. We are the beast of burden, ready to plow under the watch of a master. Simple enough.

But where is Jesus?

That seems easy too.

I mean, if he’s the owner of the yoke, then he is the farmer, intent on training us to be obedient and useful to himself.  Every facet of that metaphor works for standard Christian teaching.

However, I cannot help but wonder if we’re missing a key–a very key–detail.

Farmer with working elephant. IndiaYears ago, my wife and I spent time in southeast Asia. At a number of spots, we encountered elephants: We rode some, we fed some, we visited reserves and protection programs.  We also witnessed elephants being used as work-animals. Be assured, you can get some stuff done with an elephant! Who needs horsepower when you’ve got elephant power and a trunk?!

One of the trainers said that when they’re working with a new elephant, they match him up with their best elephant. The rookie gets yoked alongside the expert. He gets mastered; he gets discipled.

And that is what I think we’re missing when we read Matthew 11.

It makes all kinds of sense to see Jesus as the yoke-owning, beast-breaking farmer.

Perhaps it makes all kinds of more sense to see Jesus as the yoke-sharing, way-walking beast beside us.

He straps us to himself and shows us how to walk.  Like stubborn elephants, we pull against and jostle with the yoke and the partner. And like the steady guide, he holds the line, graciously allowing us to learn and adjust. When pride breaks and rebellion subsides, we discover that we can sync our strides to this steady companion.

And in that moment of coordination and partnership, we discover that we don’t even notice the yoke upon us.  The load is shared, and truth be told, he is bearing the weight so completely that our portion merits no mention.  Beyond that, we begin to realize that a life of satisfying fruitfulness has begun.

Welcome to the life of the disciple!