Wednesday, January 28, 2009

diakonos epaphras

“This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf.” – Col 1:7

I’ll be ordained an Episcopal priest in less than a week. As for now, I’m just a “lowly” deacon. It’s a transitional position. Six months according to the canons of our church. A stepping stone - like wading into a pool instead of jumping off the diving board. A priest with training wheels. A part-time gig. But in less than a week I’ll move into something new. But will I leave behind the old? Will I cease to be a deacon? I hope not. And I hope you’re a deacon too - maybe not in the formal liturgical sense, but in the Biblical sense. I hope you’re a deacon like Epaphras was. Like Jesus was.

Epaphras was a deacon. Paul calls him “a faithful minister,” but minister is a translation of the Greek word diakonos, which is where we get our English word deacon. And so the question is - what is a diakonos? What does it mean for us to be a deacon?

In antiquity, the word diakonos had three distinct meetings. Our call as Christ-followers is to live into all three. After all, our Master did. Jesus was a deacon.

First, a deacon is someone that “executes the commands of a king.” Jesus was a deacon because he didn’t “come down from heaven to do [his] own will, but the will of him who sent” him (Jn 6:38). And Jesus was sent by a King – “the Lord is king, he is robed in majesty” (Ps 93:1). In the same way that Jesus was sent to execute the commands of his Father, so too are we sent to execute the commands of our King. When Paul says that “we are ambassadors for Christ,” this is exactly what he means (2 Cor 5:20). An ambassador is someone who lives in a foreign land but remains loyal to and executes the commands of the ruler of his own land. For example, the US ambassador to China doesn’t report to the Chinese government. He lives in China and represents the interests of the United States. In the same way, we live on earth, “but our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20). To be a deacon is to know who our king is and to execute His commands above all else.

Second, a deacon is one that “cares for the poor.” This one is a no-brainer. Jesus was a deacon because he blessed the poor (Lk 6:20) and preached really good news to them (Matt 11:5). Jesus also fed them, hugged them, and healed them. In the same way, we should always “remember the poor,” and even be “eager to do” so (Gal 2:10). God has a special heart for the poor. As deacons, so should we.

Finally, a deacon is a waiter – someone that serves food and drink to someone else. It doesn’t sound like spiritual work, but Jesus was a deacon in this respect too. Jesus feeds five thousand in the wilderness. His Father rains manna from the skies (quail if you’re lucky). He prepares a table before us and our cup overflows (Ps 23:5). And Jesus will always be a waiter. After all, when Jesus returns and we take our place at our King’s banquet, Jesus “will fasten his belt and have us sit down to eat, and he will come and serve” us (Lk 12:37). We too should “wait” on others. I’m not suggesting that we get a job working nights at Joe’s Crab Shack. But, we can let our lives nourish others. We can feed them. We can give a little one a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matt 10:42). We too can be deacons.

As I live into the new, may I never leave behind the old. After all, a deacon is truly a “lowly” position. But in the Kingdom of God, we descend into greatness, and to live into a “lowly” position is to reach the true heights.

Monday, January 26, 2009

sermon: come and see

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." 46 Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." 47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" 48 Nathanael asked him, "Where did you get to know me?" Jesus answered, "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." 49 Nathanael replied, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" 50 Jesus answered, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these." 51 And he said to him, "Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."

I spent 48 hours last week on a 55-passenger bus traveling to and from Crested Butte, CO with 26 students from the University of Texas. And of the 54 movies viewed on our Clark Travel party wagon, Forrest Gump was hands down my second favorite movie. It should have been #1 but someone happened to have She’s All That with Freddy Prince, Jr. Anyway, there’s this great scene in Forrest Gump where Lieutenant Dan starts mocking Christian evangelists. And so he turns to Tom Hanks’ character and sarcastically asks, “Gump, have you found Jesus yet?” Forest Gump doesn’t quite understand where Lieutenant Dan is coming from but he responds as best he can. “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him.” Well, Lieutenant Dan laughs at Forrest. He finds Forrest to be tad naïve. After all, Lieutenant Dan is bitter, and if you’ve seen the movie, you understand why – he’s lost his legs, he’s lost his hope, he’s lost his purpose - and Lieutenant Dan wants to know where God is. Where is God in the pain? Where is God in the confusion? You see, Lieutenant Dan is lost. And broken. And like all of us, he yearns to be whole. But apparently, Lieutenant Dan has encountered some pretty pushy Christians who’ve added insult to injury - people who’ve told him he needs to go find Jesus. And so Lieutenant Dan poses the question to Forrest. “Gump, have you found Jesus yet?” To which Gump says, “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him.”

Today we venture into an uncomfortable territory. Because I’m going to address a topic we Episcopalians prefer to avoid – something we find really, really awkward. I’m talking about the “E” word – evangelism. But if we intend to follow Jesus, we have to venture into this uncomfortable territory – because there is no such thing as discipleship without evangelism. It’s impossible to be a full-fledged follower of Jesus in private. It’s like Paul tells Timothy, “to carry out your ministry fully, do the work of an evangelist” (2 Tim 4:5). And so my question today is, “what does this mean for us? How do you and I do the work of an evangelist?” Does it mean telling our hurting world – people who’ve lost their hope, people who’ve lost their purpose, people who want to know where God is – does it mean telling them they need to go find Jesus? Or is it possible – just maybe – that Jesus is looking for us?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus finds Phillip. Jesus doesn’t stumble into Phillip. No, the Greek word translated found suggests that Jesus sough Phillip out. Jesus finds Phillip. And Jesus issues Phillip an invitation. “Follow me.” In other words, Jesus invites Phillip to do the same work that he is doing. And Phillip says yes. But here’s what’s so interesting. In the next scene, Phillip, the brand-new disciple, is alone. Phillip isn’t with Jesus. And the reason Phillip isn’t with Jesus is because he’s off looking for Nathanael. Phillip – the brand new disciple – is already doing the work of an evangelist. Because there’s no such thing as discipleship without evangelism.

It’s important that we notice the pattern. First, Jesus seeks Phillip out. Jesus finds Phillip. And Jesus issues an invitation. “Follow me.” Then, Phillip then seeks Nathanael out. Phillip finds Nathanael. And Phillip issues an invitation. “Come and see.” Jesus finds Phillip. Phillip finds Nathanael.

Now, Nathanael is skeptical. After all, Phillip tells him to “come and see” the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets – a great man who lives in Nazareth? If you’re not familiar, Nazareth was a really small village. Historically speaking, it was a place of little or no significance. As the missioner at UT, I’d have to say the best modern day comparison would be a place like College Station. And so Nathanael is skeptical. “Nazareth? You’ve got to be kidding. Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But here’s the thing – Nathanael follows Phillip anyway. And the reason Nathanael follows Phillip is because Nathanael knows Phillip. They have a relationship. And Nathanael is told by someone he loves and trusts, “I’ve found something great. I’ve found something life-changing. You need to come and see.”

Well, we all know what happens next. Phillip brings Nathanael to Jesus. And notice, that’s all he does. He brings Nathanael into Jesus’ presence and Jesus takes over. “Here is a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” “Where did you get to know me?” Nathanael asks. “Before Phillip even called you,” Jesus tells him, “I saw you under that fig tree.” In essence, what Jesus is telling him is this: “I know you Nathanael. Before Phillip even called you, I had my eye on you. I saw you.”

And so back to the “E” word. What does today’s Gospel lesson tell us about evangelism done well? In other words, how do we do the work of an evangelist?

First, doing the work of an evangelist begins when we acknowledge and rejoice that Jesus has found us. Sure, we all have a different story. Some of us here today may feel like we’ve been the ones doing all the searching. Some of us grew up in the church. And some of us may feel like we stumbled into this gig, and for some reason, we just can’t stay away. But even though our stories are different, the fact that we’re here this morning tells me that Jesus has already found every single one of us – he’s met us where we are – just like he did for Phillip.

Second, doing the work of an evangelist means that we seek out the people we love; we find the people we love; and we invite the people we love to “come and see.” Because we do live in a hurting world. Lieutenant Dan, in all of his pain and confusion and bitterness, is everywhere. Nathanael, in all of his skepticism, is everywhere. They’re at the market, they’re in our family, they’re sitting next to us right now, and at times, they’re in the mirror staring back at us. And our job, as evangelists, isn’t to tell Lieutenant Dan or Nathanael – whoever that happens to be for us – to get up and to go find Jesus. Our job as disciples – and our joy as disciples – is to go to them and to bring them to Jesus. But here’s the thing – to do this work well, we as a church have to become so loving, so compassionate, so kind – that when we do tell people to “come and see” we know in our hearts that we’re showing them something special. In other words, they need to “come and see the love we have for one another; to come and see the way we bless our community; to come and see the risen Christ in our midst.”

Finally, if we’re going to do the work of an evangelist, the grace-filled words Jesus spoke to Nathanael have to guide our every step. Remember what Jesus says - “Before Phillip even called you, I saw you.” Because before we seek anyone out, before we find anyone, before we issue any invitations – Jesus sees the people to whom we go. Jesus had his eyes fixed on the people we love long before we did. Jesus already knows them. And Jesus already loves them.

And so here’s our homework for the week. Let’s put ourselves in Nathanael’s shoes. Jesus found Phillip. Phillip found Nathanael. But we don’t know what Nathanael did. And so let’s let our lives sketch the story’s ending. Because we’ve been sought out – a parent, a friend, a co-worker. Someone has found us. Someone’s invited us to “come and see.” After all, here we are. But, when we leave worship this morning - there’s going to be a Lieutenant Dan around every corner. There’s going to be a Nathanael under every fig tree. They’re confused. They’re broken. And like all of us, they yearn to be whole. I so I really hope you’ll be looking. Because it’s possible – just maybe – that Jesus is looking for them too.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

moses was a caveman

God strengthens people in caves. Consider Moses. Moses responds to the call of God, leads the people out of Egyptian slavery, guides them through the wilderness, climbs the mountain of God, receives the Law, climbs back down the mountain and …

Sees his people worshipping a golden calf that they’ve made with their own hands. The scene would be funny if it weren’t so sad. The people even shout in unison, “These are your Gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Ex 32:4) Can you imagine prostrating yourself before a golden calf? I would argue that we do it every day, but alas, that’s a different entry …

And so to say that Moses is “discouraged” would be the understatement of the year. This isn’t like when you’re the pastor of a church and your Sunday numbers are down. Moses is experiencing borderline despair. And so Moses retreats to be with the Lord in a small cave. And in that cave, the Lord “passes by” and reveals all of his “goodness” to Moses (Ex 33:19). And Moses is encouraged and refueled for his mission to Israel. Because of his experience in that cave. From that day forward, Moses was a caveman.

Or what about Elijah? He embarrasses the worshippers of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. The display is moving and humorous and awesome. Baal is revealed as impotent. Yahweh is revealed as real and holy and true. Both fire and rain descend from heaven. Elijah expects to be vindicated. But instead of a hero’s welcome, Elijah faces assassination. Jezebel wants him dead. And so Elijah runs to Horeb – the mount of God – and comes “to a cave” (1 Ki 19:9). Elijah is lost, confused and in need of encouragement. And in that cave, God strengthens Elijah. Not in the wind. Not in an earthquake. Not in the fire. But in sheer silence. A still, small voice. From that day forward, Elijah was a caveman.

Symbolically speaking, caves are where we go to meet God when we need some encouragement. Caves are where the Lord gently passes us by and reveals all of the goodness that our hearts can stand without killing us. Caves are where we return to – day in and day out – to find God in the sheer silence. A still, small voice.

Where do we go when we need some encouragement? Are we taking the time to retreat and to spend time in God’s presence? Like Moses, we may feel at times like all we do is in vain. Like Elijah, we may think that our great moments of faith and Godly risk-taking only get us into more trouble. But there’s a cave for us somewhere. Not to hide in but to retreat to and to find strength. And in that cave we make an appointment with God. We find refreshment, renewal, strength, and fresh joy to do God’s work.

Moses was a caveman. Elijah was a caveman.

Are you?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

by no means!!

The “how much more” of God has always been misunderstood – not just by a few Christ-followers, but by all of us. Sure, we misunderstand God’s lavish grace in varying degrees, but not one of us “gets it” fully. Every few months a friend will ask me directly – “if God forgives us, why not sin?” Ponder for a moment the assumptions behind this question. This question assumes that abundant life and fullness of joy are found in sinning as opposed to not sinning. Of course, few disciples of Jesus would admit they believe such a thing, and yet, each one of us harbors bits and pieces of it. I’m sad to say that we haven’t fully comprehended the “how much more” of God in the depths of our heart.

And so today, I’d like to reflect on another recurring phrase in scripture – “by no means!” – a phrase that Paul uses ten times in his letter to the Romans. Paul repeatedly uses this phrase to rebuke people who have dangerously misunderstood the “how much more” of God. Consider some of the questions the Christians at Rome were wrestling with:

If God’s grace is so abundant, why aren’t more people faithful? Does their faithlessness mean that God can’t be faithful? To which Paul responds, By no means!! (Rom 3:3-4)

If God’s grace is so abundant, isn’t it hypocritical for God to punish us? By no means!! (Rom 3:5)

If God’s grace is so abundant, is the law of God worthless? By no means!! (Rom 3:31)

If God’s grace is so abundant, wouldn’t it be good to sin as much as we can so that God’s grace may be made more evident? By no means!! (Rom 6:1) (FYI, if you’ve been taught that there’s no such thing as a dumb question I’m inclined to offer this question as an exception to the rule.)

These are just a few examples of how the Christians at Rome misunderstood God’s lavish grace. But what about us? Where do we misunderstand? What questions do Christians in America wrestle with?

If God’s grace is so abundant, …

Is it OK if we don’t take God that seriously?

Is it OK to have contempt for people of other races and cultures and socio-economic statuses?

Is it OK to worship God and wealth?

Is it OK to feel superior to people of other faiths and demoninations?

Is it OK to be rude or pushy if that’s what it takes to “get things done?”


Monday, January 19, 2009

the how much more of god

I spent my final year of seminary writing a senior thesis entitled "The Restoration of the Person." I worked closely with an advisor – a wise, Godly systematic theologian with 1 Corinthians 13 written on her face (metaphorically speaking). And our pattern for working together went something like this. I’d write a chapter. And then, she’d find the cracks - or potholes. OK, she’d find the craters – in my logic or theological interpretation. She’d tell me about them. And then I would go and fix (99% of) them.

It was a special time for me – and for her too I hope – and I’ll always be grateful for professors that invest in their students. Today, I’d like to reflect briefly on something she told me after reading my chapter on “sin.” She said it was good. Coherent. Orthodox. But, I’ll never forget her initial feedback. “I’m just not seeing the how much more of God. I don’t see much grace.”

Of course, I got defensive. “It’s a chapter on sin! And you told me to read Calvin.” She was gentle, but firm. “I don’t see the how much more of God.” And what she meant was this. My thesis acknowledged the horror of sin but didn’t so much as hint at the extravagance of God’s solution. In other words, it’s not just that God fixes our sin or overlooks our sin or forgives our sin. No. God does “much more.” How much more? He makes us adopted sons of God. Co-heirs with Jesus. He kills the fatted calf, puts a ring on our finger and “puts us in charge of many things.” In other words, if our sin is great (which my thesis acknowledged), how much greater must God’s solution be?

The “how much more” of God is on every page of the Bible. Consider a few examples from the New Testament. “If you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask” (Matt 7:11)? “How much more valuable is a human than a sheep” whom God loves (Matt 12:12)? “Of how much more value are you than the birds” (Lk 12:24)! “If [the Jews’ present exclusion] means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean” (Rom 11:12)! If the ministry of death came in glory, “how much more will the ministry of the Spirit come in glory” (2 Cor 3:8)? If the blood of goats could purify our conscience, “how much more will the blood of Christ” (Heb 9:14)?

The problems in our world are great. The problems in our lives are great. At times, they may seem overwhelming. As disciples of Jesus, it’s not enough to know that God forgives us. It’s not enough to affirm that God is going to “fix it” one day. Of course, both statements are foundational and true. But, we have to go further. We have to consider, meditate on, and delight in “how much more” God intends to do with us and with our world. For our God is a God of extravagance. It is God’s delight to “accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20). Not just more than we can imagine. “Abundantly far more.”

The how much more of God is everywhere. Whether we see it or not, grace is everywhere. Even in our sin. Needless to say, I went back and tweaked that chapter just a bit.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

god loves adverbs

From time to time, it’s a good thing to pause and to remember where we’re going and how we’re getting there. In other words, if we’re supposed to “press on toward the goal for the prize,” what is our goal (Phil 3:14)? And once we’ve articulated our destination, by what means to we arrive? Or to put it differently, what are the “ends” and “means” of the Christian life?

The “ends” – God’s work of salvation. And by the word salvation I’m referring to the Kingdom of God in all its fullness – a reality that is comprehensive, holistic, personal, social, and political. Salvation is God’s work of restoring the world (Rom 8:19) and us (1 Cor 15:2) to wholeness; to shalom.

The “means” – Jesus. He’s “the way” (Jn 14:6).

So far, so good. The “end” is salvation, and Jesus is the “means.” It all sounds so simple, and maybe it is. But, the point of today’s entry is to remind us of this: it matters how we follow Jesus, how we press on toward our goal. We cannot just follow Jesus in a way that suits our wishes or in a way dictated by our culture. Our following must be consonant with Jesus' leading.

I apologize if it sounds like I’m writing to “kindergarten Christians.” I assure you, I only write things in this blog that I need to hear. And I need to be reminded that it matters how I follow Jesus because it’s tempting to embrace “the ways and the means” of the world and to do it in the name of Christ. It’s easy for us to embrace what the culture decides is influential, successful, and charismatic. It’s easy for us to embrace what the culture tells us will “get things done” or “gather a crowd.” It’s easy for us to embrace the ways and means of “successful” people who show us how to make money, sell products, and win wars. In Jesus’ name. For the right end. Through Jesus, the right means. But most definitely in the wrong way.

I’d encourage you to reread the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Notice, the devil never tries to convince Jesus that he’s misguided. He doesn’t say, “You’re not the Messiah.” What the devil does is much more poisonous. The devil tries to convince Jesus to “save” humanity a different way. “Turn stones into bread.” Satisfy the hunger of the crowds. Meet their immediate needs, Jesus. “Jump off the roof of the Temple.” Dazzle the crowds, Jesus. Embark on a circus career of miracles. “Fall down and worship me.” You want to rule the world? Worship me and you can, Jesus.

We’ve all seen the WWJD bracelet. “What would Jesus do?” But here’s a better question. How would Jesus do it? Remember, God loves adverbs. Adverbs modify verbs. Jesus is the “means,” which is why we follow him in the first place. Adverbs give clarity to “how” we follow.

It’s not enough to be moving towards the right end. Nor is it enough to know the correct means to that end. What matters is how we follow. The ways and the means of the world always substitute human sovereignty for God’s rule. The world has little interest in a Crucified King.

So beware. There’s a lot of lip service. A lot of us talk about the right end and the right means. But when it gets down to the nitty-gritty, a lot of us do it the wrong way.

Just something to chew on.

Monday, January 12, 2009

the Lamp of god

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.Then the Lord called, “Samuel, Samuel!”’ – 1 Sam 3: 1-4

I feel bad for Eli. He was a priest during one of the darkest times in Israel’s history – the period of judges. If you aren’t familiar, this was a time of chaos and sin. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes” (Jud 21:25). It was a time of evil and sordidness – a time of God’s absence. The word of the Lord was rare in those days.

And if that weren’t enough, Eli wasn’t a good priest. Discernment wasn’t his strong suit. Hannah, for example, uses God’s temple (not the one Solomon built – rather this temple refers to Shiloh, the central Israelite shrine where the Ark of the Covenant was kept) properly to pour out her heart before the Lord. Eli, however, runs her off and accuses her of being drunk. But when Eli’s sons have sex with women right in the doorway to the Tent of Meeting, Eli gives them a limp slap on the wrist. And so Eli is flawed. And old. And going blind. And he’s the one leading Israel through one of the darkest times in their history.

And so the Lord calls Samuel. God is eager to do something new through Samuel. Samuel represents the hope of a new beginning. No matter how dark things seemed, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.” It still flickered. This lamp was a gold menorah that God instructed Moses to make long ago. It was a symbol of God’s presence with His people. The author of 1 Samuel is clear. This was a time of evil and sordidness – a time of God’s absence. The word of the Lord was rare in those days. But even still, the lamp of God had not yet gone out.

We too live in a world where all seem to do what is right in their own eyes. There seems to be a lot of evil and chaos and confusion in our world. And at times, our church leaders can be just as old and blind as Eli. God may speak, but we ignore God’s voice the first few times and go back to sleep. But, the Christian claim is that no matter how dark things seem, the lamp of God will not go out – the lamp of God cannot go out.

Think about how the Bible ends. The Bible ends with a lone apostle, exiled to Patmos, living through a very dark period of persecution. And yet in the midst of that darkness John (not the disciple whom Jesus loved - let me be clear) had a vision. He lifted up his chin and saw Jesus ruling the cosmos in glory “in the midst of lamp stands” (Rev 1:13). Blazing brightly, John of Patmos saw the Light of the World shining in the midst of darkness. And perhaps John, in that moment, thought of Samuel. And Eli. Perhaps John remembered how even in the darkest period of Israel’s history, “the lamp of God had not yet gone out.”

Things in this world at times seem dark. Everyone, it seems, does what is right in their own eyes. It’s a modern day version of the book of Judges. BUT, the lamp of God has not yet gone out. And with Jesus, we can be confident and sure that it never will.