Sunday, November 29, 2020

Essential Personnel


There have been several words and phrases that have entered our every day conversation. One of these is, “essential personnel.” A few Sundays ago, as we were preparing for our livestream setup, we were concerned if we would exceed the 10 person limit in our skeleton crew. We had a conversation about not having to count the “essential personnel,” who needed to be there. Someone mentioned the preacher as being “essential personnel,” along with the elders, and worship leaders. Then it dawned on us. There is no such thing as “essential personnel” in the church, if by that you mean some personnel, but not others.

I am reminded of this passage in 1 Corinthians 12 that deals with this idea using a human body as an analogy for the church. Here are some highlights:

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. … But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. …21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, … God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

The body of Christ is different than the world. Our value does not come from the manner in which we may useful, but from being created in the image of God and redeemed by the precious blood of Christ our Lord. At great cost, God redeemed each of us and placed each of us into the body of Christ, which is entirely precious to God. There is no such thing as nonessential personnel in the body of Christ.

I prefer to say, “skeleton crew.” A skeleton needs the rest of the body. This is what I have been painfully aware of in the last several weeks. The skeleton conducting the livestream have said how hard it is to be encouraged in the way we would like because we are not all actually together. Those who have been watching from home have also expressed the same sentiment.

You are all important to God, and you are important to the rest of the body. When all of this passes, hang on to the renewed appreciation you have for the body and come back with a renewed energy for being connected. Outdo one another in showing honor and value. Hug each other. Appreciate each other. Be together. Thank you, Lord, in advance, we know that all of us will ultimately be together with you.

The Constitution vs. The Gospel

The founding fathers of our country seemed to have a biblical understanding of human nature, law, and governance. I was reminded of this when I once again read a letter written by John Adams in 1798. Here is an excerpt:

"But should the People of America, once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another and towards foreign nations, which assumes the Language of Justice and moderation while it is practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candour frankness & sincerity while it is rioting in rapine and Insolence: this Country will be the most miserable Habitation in the World. Because We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion. Avarice, Ambition Revenge or Galantry, would break the strongest Cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

What stands out to me is, "We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion." In other words, the constitution, no matter how well written, cannot make people better. If good laws were all that are needed for a people to be better, then there would never be a need for law enforcement officers. But they are needed. Without them, there would be lawlessness, violence, and chaos. Adams affirmed the absolute necessity of religion in order for the new America to survive. He concludes that "Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." In other words, government by the "consent of the governed" can only work for a moral and religious people.

Romans 3:10 declares that "None is righteous, no, not one." Jeremiah 17:9 says, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" Our founding fathers understood the corruption in the human heart. This is part of the reason they established a federal form of government that included co-equal branches of government as checks and balances.

But Adams declared that without morality and religion, the constitution is as powerless as a net is to a whale. Laws cannot make people better. Changing the system cannot transform individuals. Laws and its systems are powerless to do so. At best, it leads to what Jesus called "whitewashed tombs" in Matthew 23:27. The change is superficial and outward, but it is not real change. Only our Lord can transform people. This is why God promised in Ezekiel 16:26-27, "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances." This is what Romans 8:29 means when it says that he predestined us to be "conformed to the image of his Son…"

This should be a reminder for Christians not to forget our calling. Social justice causes, politics, activism, and other such things are not our primary calling. Participation in such things should never take the place of our primary purpose. The danger is that these could become a trojan horse that causes us to leave our first love. These could lead to becoming so unequally yoked that the unique voice of the church with its Gospel becomes muted. Jesus did not come to change the system, but to redeem and reform individual hearts for God. The system is not the power of salvation. The Gospel is the power of salvation, and nothing else.

I Was Sick and you Came to Me

Plagues were a common occurrence in ancient times. What was also a common occurrence was abandoning the sick to die. Even in an impressive place like Rome, the only people who received any kind of health care were the wealthy and powerful who had the money to hire a physician. There was no such thing as a hospital in first century Rome. This was because there was no pagan theological basis for the inherent value and dignity of the stranger. The only option for the poor would be a visit to a healing deity's temple, such as Asclepius. It was a common practice for people to carry their sick out of the house and leave them in the street for fear of catching the plague themselves. During a plague that struck in 250 A.D., it was reported that 5,000 died in one day in Rome. Bodies were left piled up in the street as pagans tried to appease the gods whom they believed were angry at them.

Into this situation came a group of people with a radically different view of human beings. They believed that humans have inherent value and dignity because they are created in the image of God. Their Lord, Jesus, had modeled and instructed love that gives sacrificially to all, especially those without status or money. As a result, they cared for the sick and the dying, taking great risk on themselves. Many of them contracted the disease and died. However, they viewed this as a type of martyrdom in the name of Christ. In the third century, Eusebius pointed out that only Christians showed sympathy to those who were sick. Christians not only cared for their own, but also for the pagans, many of whom had persecuted Christians, blaming them for angering the gods. These efforts became more organized over time, which gave rise to various orders whose purpose was to care for the sick and the dying. This, along with the Christianization of the culture, drastically changed the public attitude toward the sick. Rather than seeing the sick as those to be avoided, they were seen as those that needed to be cared for in the name of Christ. This divine motivation to care for the sick is what eventually led to public health care, clinics, and hospitals.

Later, in the early 1500's the plague came to Wittenberg in Germany. While many were fleeing, Martin Luther, a minister, believed that he was called to stay. Just as health care workers stayed to care for the bodies of the sick, so he was called to stay to care for the souls of the sick. He refused to abandon those in need.

During the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, A.B. Lipscomb, nephew to David Lipscomb, wrote an article in the Gospel Advocate about one Nashville church's response. As the hospitals became overwhelmed, The Russell Street Church of Christ offered its building as a field hospital. The editor, J.C. McQuiddy, praised this action in the next issues, citing the parable of the Sheep and the Goats as the authority to do this.

In 2015, medical missionary Dr. Kent Brantley, traveled to Liberia to serve in the name of Christ. While there, he contracted the deadly Ebola virus and survived with an experimental treatment. In February this year, he told Fox News, "The message I shared in 2014 is just as true and just as pertinent now as it was then: We must choose compassion over fear. We must choose to respond to people (even in deadly outbreaks of infectious diseases) with actions and words and attitudes that convey compassion and uphold the dignity of our fellow human beings."

The thing that all of these and many, many other similar examples have in common is the love of Christ. Love overpowers fear and causes one to run to the disaster to help rather than away in fear. John wrote that perfect love casts out fear. Paul wrote that the love of Christ is what compels us. Like our Lord who left Heaven to come here, we love in deed and in truth, and not with just words. It is that love, the love of Christ, that opens the door for the Gospel which brings about true spiritual healing, even in the face of violence, danger, sickness, and death.

Would Jesus Wear a Mask?

Would Jesus wear a mask? I saw this question a couple weeks ago in an online article. I understand where the question is coming from. The author pointed out that Jesus looked out for other’s people interests and poured himself out for others and that we should do the same.

I understand why I wear a mask. But why would Jesus wear a mask? Would it have been to prevent him from being infected by someone? Was it to prevent himself becoming a carrier of a sickness? Becoming sick or a carrier is what happens to other human beings. However, Jesus was not just a son of man, he was The Son of Man and The Son of God.

For this reason, contact with Jesus had a very different result than contact with someone else. In Matthew 8:14-15, it says, “And when Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying sick with a fever. He touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she rose and began to serve him.”

People came from all over just to touch Jesus. Mark 9:53-56 says, “When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.”

Jesus left the safety of Heaven and entered into our infected world. Rather than himself becoming infe
cted and spreading it to others, Jesus did just the opposite. Jesus did not infect anyone, but “exfected” them. In the NRSV, Isaiah 53:4 says, “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15 say that sin came into the world through the first Adam, but that healing and life came through the last Adam, which is Christ. As the Azazel bore the sins out of the camp and away from the people on the day of Atonement, so did Christ carry our sins away as far as the east is from the west. In fact, one of the words translated “forgive” in Hebrew literally means “to carry,” which is what Jesus does for us at the cross and the empty tomb. His blood does not infect, it disinfects through faith. He is the carrier of the cure, not the disease.

I am reminded of the time Jesus breathed on his Apostles and said, “receive the Holy Spirit.” His breath does not weaken and bring death, his breath strengthens and brings life. Through Christ, there ultimately will no longer be any death, mourning, crying or pain.

As a result, we no longer have a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline. We are able to be cautious and prudent from a place of love rather than fear. Love moves us to consider risks in a different way than fear does. When it comes to serving in the name of Christ, we see the greater risk in doing nothing rather than serving in the way Christ did when he left Heaven. We stand in the company of Christians who minister to the sick and dying while the rest are fleeing in fear. Like many early Christians, we see it as a type of martyrdom that expresses devotion and love.

Unlike other human beings, Jesus did not need to wear a mask. Thank you Lord for Jesus, whose blood bore our sins away, and whose breath brings us life.

Monday, November 02, 2020

Cosmic Level Prayer

Reading through the book of Ephesians has been a good reminder of how we always need to keep the big picture in our minds, especially in 2020.  The first three chapters focuses repeatedly on the cosmic picture of God's plan and how we fit in it.  At the center of his plan is the "Immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places" (Eph 1:19-20).

Ephesians 2:6 says that God "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus."  We are also seated with him in the heavenly places!  We are involved in cosmic struggle alongside Christ with many things happening behind the scenes.  This is why the text goes on to say that God has entrusted his grace to us so that, "through the church that manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rules and authorities in the heavenly places" (Eph 3:10). 

Since we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, we participate in his work.  Reigning with Christ at God's right hand involves dominion.  God's plan for dominion is through personal redemption and reformation through the Gospel of Kingdom.  As we spread the Gospel, people respond by submission to the King of Kings.  

This is a spiritual battle.  Ephesians 6:12 says, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."  The following analogy of the armor of God teaches that we need truth, righteousness, the Gospel, faith, salvation, the word of God, and prayer.  The text tells us to take up the whole armor of God, which means that each of these are indispensable in our cosmic struggle.  The text says as we use the armor, we need to be "praying at all times in the Spirit."

There are two prayers in Ephesians which could be called "cosmic prayers."  The first in at 1:15-23, and the second is at 3:14-21.  It is good to reflect on these prayers as a model of what to pray for as we struggle against the cosmic powers in the heavenly places.  

In the second prayer, I am struck by the phrasing in verse 3:18, which prays that we "may have the strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth."    The word, katalambano, which is translated "comprehend," means to overtake, seize, overcome, or apprehend.  It is used in places like Mark 9:18, where a demon would "seize" someone, or 1 John 1:5, where the darkness did not "overcome" the light.  When it is used of thinking, to "overcome/apprehend with the mind," it can be translated "comprehend," which is how many translations have rendered this.  The prayer is that we would have the strength to apprehend/overcome the breadth, length, height, and depth.  However big it is, the prayer is that we have the strength to overtake it.  

This prayer, in light of Ephesians 6:10-18, is a reminder of what "praying at all times in the Spirit" should focus on.  The prayer is not to diminish the battle, but to increase our strength through the power of God.  The prayer is not a prayer to change the circumstances, but to change me.  God did not shrink Goliath.  Instead, he strengthened David with power in the inner person.  He increased David inwardly and David overcame Goliath.

What a needed reminder during a time such as 2020!  Whatever Goliath comes our way, we need to pray.  There is a struggle happening behind the scenes, and it is not about a virus, politics, or even the economy.  The enemy is hard at work to both prevent and destroy faith in God.  However, God is able to do for more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power that works in us. We know Christ is reigning at God's right hand, and we are seated with him.  May we never lose our focus.

Lord, please enlighten the eyes of our heart.  Fill us up with all the fullness of Christ.  Root and ground us in love.  Fill us with power, love, and discipline.  Make us greater than the task.