Lent – Day 2 – Reflections Through Romans

“God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times….” (Romans 1:9)

RomansI’d like to pray more. Many of us would. Perhaps I have lacked a large enough vision of prayer. Paul provides something here that might help.

The clue lies in that little word serve. Prayer and preaching are acts of service for Paul, but he uses a somewhat unusual term (latreuo) in Romans 1:9. This is not merely the service that a waiter or a slave might render. It’s a word dedicated to the realm of religious service, priestly service.

Paul frames his life in terms of priestly duty (see also Romans 12:1). This is what priests do. They proclaim and they pray. They speak to people for God, and they speak to God for people. One without the other leaves us half-done. We have half-ministries.

Paul links the two together in this simple verse; a verse we might often gloss over.

Lent provides an annual impetus for us to listen more carefully to Christ. Our fasting specifically creates space for God to speak and for us to be attentive. We may have come to the season with special needs or concerns on our hearts. Perhaps we have questions and we’re looking for answers. We pray for ourselves.

But priests also look beyond themselves. Their role is to intercede for others.

Who will you pray for today?

Pray for those who are close to you, for those who are suffering, for those who are anxious, for those without faith or hope, and — yes — for those who treat you harshly and unfairly.

All of us who name Christ as Lord serve as both bond-servants and priests. And we ought not under-estimate the powerful ministry of intercession that priests have provided throughout human history. Their prayers have touched the heart of God, moved the hand of God, and shaped the world more than we may ever know. The prayers of God’s priests (each of us) have moved like the currents beneath the ocean.

You are such a priest. Let’s serve today “with our whole hearts.” Let’s pray.

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Lent – Day 1 – Reflections Through Romans

“Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God….” (Romans 1:1)

RomansBefore his calling, Paul had an identity. He clearly felt loved by God (Romans 8:38-39), but he introduced himself to the Romans first as a bond-servant.

The ancient world used various words, as we do in English. We might speak of servants, slaves, and stewards. Each one bears a different nuance. The ancient bond-servant stood apart from the rest. This person, male or female, was a servant by choice and a servant for life. They declared allegiance to their master without coercion. They affirmed their willingness to indenture themselves for the rest of their lives.

What a powerful way to view our commitment to Christ; servants by choice, servants for life.

Bond-servants.

On this Ash Wednesday, as we commence the Lenten season, what better affirmation could we make?

We might declare that we are children of God, citizens of the Kingdom, “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). We might also ponder the significance of opening this Lenten season with the same words with which Paul opened his ancient letter to the Romans — “a bond-servant of Christ Jesus.”

This powerful image could hold us in good stead for the next 40 days, and beyond.

Servants do not call the shots. They listen. Lent offers a wonderful opportunity to practice listening.

Servants do not pick and choose. If the Master gives guidance, the servant obeys. What might Christ call us to do in this season; acts of mercy, grace, generosity, reconciliation?

Servants do not decide the timing. When Christ says “now”, will we have the courage and commitment this Lent to lean into whatever He says?

Bond-servants. 

Ash Wednesday, today, invites us to embrace one of the most fundamental Christian images in the New Testament. What might that mean for you?

Prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I surrender myself again, by choice and for life, to You. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven … to me and through me. I am Your servant, now and always. Amen.

 

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Suffering for Christ

Francis Chan (2)

Francis Chan spoke in our chapel service this morning at William Jessup University. Recently, he spoke with one of the Chinese underground church leaders who outlined the “Five Pillars of the Underground Church” (which has flourished to over 100 million believers, without megachurches or celebrity pastors).

  1. Read the Bible, deeply and constantly
  2. Pray a lot, personally and collectively
  3. Be a missionary; everyone shares their faith
  4. Expect the miraculous; know that the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead abides with us today
  5. Embrace suffering, for the glory of God

The fifth “Pillar” surprised Chan the most and gave focus to his message today. In a culture that quits all too easily and that whines all too frequently, the idea of celebrating or embracing suffering seems very foreign.

Small things seem to distract us. Big things prove utterly daunting. But brothers and sisters in China embrace their suffering, knowing that this converts into eternal reward (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

Perhaps we fail to suffer well because we embraced a gospel of prosperity and favor. When tough times come, when people resist or reject our faith, when things turn sideways in our congregations, we cut and run.

Or perhaps we fail to embrace suffering, because the other four pillars are so pencil-thin in our lives. God’s Word is not planted deeply in our souls, we pray little, we share our faith with nobody, and we have ceased to expect miracles.

God is quietly orchestrating a Kingdom-revolution in China through 100 million Chinese believers. They have no platforms and no media. But it seems they have all they need; and perhaps more than many of us.

What pillars guide our lives and our churches?

SPECIAL NOTE Next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. It comes early this year. In recent years I have written devotional reflections each day throughout Lent (40 days) as part of my own discipline for the season. I plan to do it again this year with Reflections Through Romans. I invite you to join me. In the meantime, I’m giving you an alert so you might consider what fasting you might practice during the season, if you’re so inclined. :-)

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Not a Christian Bubble

Some people, including students and faculty, describe the Christian University as a bubble. I’ve done it myself at times. I heard it again this morning from a visiting speaker in our chapel service, but the term needs serious reconsideration.

Let me explain … and be brief.

Christian Bubble1. The Christian campus is not isolated.

Beneath the bubble-language lies vague parallels with monasticism. “The Bible College, Christian College, or Christian University seeks to withdraw from society, train its students in isolation from society, before they return to society — wildly unprepared for the secular realities they’ll encounter.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Students on Christian campuses work in the community, commute from the community, and are connected constantly to the community through social media and electronics. There’s no withdrawal possible!

The safe and protected bubble is a myth from past generations.

2. The Kingdom of God is not the bubble; secular culture is.

Perhaps more important, from my perspective, is that bubble-language suggests a distorted view of the Kingdom of God.

Our minds immediately think of a small enclave, an outpost of spiritual focus tucked away from the “real world.”

In reality, Christian Universities do not form safe-zones in an otherwise dangerous world that dominates everything. On the contrary, they represent incursions of the Kingdom of God (which really dominates everything) into the bubble of a tiny secular society!

We’ve been thinking far too small. The bubble is not the University, but society. The Christian University is a glimpse of the greater (and far larger) reality.

3. The Christian University is a beachhead, not a retreat center.

This statement forms a corollary to the last. The Christian University exists, if it understands its purpose and mission correctly, as a beachhead.

Those who would disparage Christian education and Christian institutions accuse them of irrelevance, isolation, and fortressing. Unfortunately, that may be true in some instances. But so many Christian Universities I know provide powerful thought-leadership, civic engagement, and cultural encounter. They exist to participate in the transforming work of God to redeem culture, not hide from it.

I don’t often write about institutional themes like this. It struck me again this morning, however, that careless language diminishes us and minimizes the Kingdom of God. I’m guilty of it. And this post is part of my effort to repent of it.  :-)

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The Lord’s Supper

Growing up, we took the Lord’s Supper—the juice and bread—every Sunday. That’s what the early church did, so we did it. I still do. And I’m glad for it.

CommunionBut our church tradition viewed this practice as simply an ordinance—something mandated by Jesus. A command to keep. We focused almost exclusively on “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). Some communion tables even had these words in wood lettering across the front. Each time we ate and drank together, we remembered; we thought back to what Jesus did for us on the Cross; we reflected on His sacrifice for us. It was right and good that we did this.

These days I’m more of a sacramentalist.

I don’t dismiss the importance of remembering. Not for a moment. But this experience that we variously call the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or Eucharist, involves more. There’s mystery. There’s encounter. There’s participation. There’s grace.

At the end of Acts 2 we find a fledgling church “feeling a sense of awe” (Acts 2:43). God was performing signs and wonders among them, and they were devoting themselves daily to “the apostle’s teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

Every day they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. It’s hard to imagine that they teetered on the brink of forgetting Jesus. He had just been raised from the dead, and many of them had seen Him! It’s also hard to imagine why this needed to be a daily practice, if it served only as a memory aid.

They surely understood it in much larger terms.

John records Jesus saying, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.… He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:54. 56). Scholars have debated the significance of these words for centuries, but it’s hard to dismiss the apparent connection with the Lord’s Supper—“This is My body (flesh)…. This is My blood of the covenant” (Matthew 26:26, 28).

Later, Paul would describe the Eucharist as “sharing in the blood of Christ…and the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:16). Not just remembering, but sharing.

It is common these days—especially in evangelical circles—to ask people to examine themselves to see if they are worthy to participate. It’s a seriously flawed understanding of 1 Corinthians 11:27. Or, similarly, to invite people to decline the bread and the cup if they don’t “feel like it.” Unbelievers, in many services, are told that they should not participate but just pass it to the next person and think about their relationship with God. Similarly, we sometimes discourage junior-high and high-school students from participating until a certain age.

We’re missing something.

If participating in the Lord’s Supper opens the way for us to perhaps experience the mystery of grace in some small way, then those who feel least worthy are precisely the ones in greatest need! Of all people—more than most people—they should take the bread and cup with gratitude and anticipation.

As I take the bread and the juice week after week, I certainly remember the gracious work of Christ for me on the Cross. I also receive the grace of Christ for me because of the Cross. That’s perhaps something I should do every day!

The Lord’s Supper is not just a look back. It’s a powerful fresh start, each time, for the day(s) ahead.

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Calling & Opposition

Many people quietly believe that life will be simplest if they can just identify the call of God on their lives. If we do what God calls us to, He will smooth the way, clear the obstacles, and reduce the hardship.

Nothing could be further from the biblical truth.

OppositionThe call on Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem produced such hostility and opposition that workers held a trowel in one hand and a weapon in the other. The call on the Apostle Paul to take the gospel to the Gentiles resulted in beatings, whippings, imprisonment, and harassment. Yes, even the call on Jesus led to the via dolorosa.

Be careful what you expect.

This week I listened to Jenny Williamson speak to this theme in a chapel service at William Jessup University. She drove it home beautifully, with important clarifiers.

First, fear often keeps us from our destiny and calling. Expect opposition. Anticipate ridicule and criticism if you’re doing the work of Christ or living for the King(dom). It comes with the territory. It does not mean that the Lord has lifted His blessing or retracted His calling. Quite the opposite.

Second, the obstacles are to declare the glory of God. If the call of God required no serious obedience and no earnest dependence from us, we’d likely take the honor for ourselves. When the voices of darkness and division rail against us, we learn to trust Christ in new and deeper ways.

Finally, when the Lord gives us responsibility He also grants us His authority. He does not abandon us to hardship, but empowers us to endure it … even as it rages before, behind, and around us. “Blessed is the one who overcomes” (Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21)

God has a calling for each of us that perhaps only we can fulfill. If we fail to step up, or choose to step back, some ministry shall remain undone. Let’s not quickly abandon our obedience just because naysayers rise up or critics find their voice. Instead, let’s find grace and strength in the Presence of Christ.

The calling of God indeed paves the way to the blessing of God “in the heavenly places.” Our present momentary afflictions are not worth comparing to the eternal weight of glory that awaits us (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Are you facing cynics, doubters, skeptics, or haters?

Be strong. Stand firm. Trust Jesus.

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The Pacifist

A certain irony exists today. A nation racked by gun violence, insistent on the right to bear arms, determined not to support gun control, stops to honor the memory of a pacifist. A nation that spends more on warfare than on education, pauses to acknowledge the abiding legacy of a pacifist.

Martin Luther KingDr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The sniper’s bullet took his life as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis motel.

The gunman, who assuredly considered himself heroic, simply threw fuel on the fire of reform. That single bullet, designed to stop a Movement, gave it unprecedented power. The blood of martyrs does that. Violence has a way of back-firing.

The day before his death, Dr. King delivered a prophetic speech in which he declared he had “been to the mountaintop … seen the Promised Land … [and] I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.”

King knew the dangers and threats that he faced, though he could not have known that the next day would be his last. Many people would excuse him today if he had carried a gun. He refused to do so.

Today, we pay homage to the extraordinary influence of Dr. King upon civil rights in this country. We affirm that his actions and even his death, began to dismantle some of the shameful injustices perpetrated against black Americans generation after generation. Montgomery, Washington, D.C., and Selma will be mentioned again with respect and reverence.

Today, Dr. King’s courage will be lionized again in rallies and gatherings around the country. But few will use the “p” word; pacifism. Relatively few will connect King’s influence to his commitment to non-violent resistance. We will talk about his courage, his eloquence, and his vision. We will talk about civil rights and racial reconciliation, but less about Christian faith and certainly not pacifism. In doing so, we create a pseudo-King, a cardboard cut-out of the real man.

In a militaristic culture, it’s understandable that King is an uncomfortable character. We applaud his achievements but find ourselves flummoxed by his source of power. Perhaps we’d do well to examine the power of truly courageous pacifism, and the Pacifist who inspired Dr. King in the first place.

Plows and pruning hooks have always achieved so much more than swords and spears.

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