Thomas and the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubting Thomas putting his fingers in Jesus' side, painting

” Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'”  Mark 9:23-24

Faith is an important part of the Christian life, the doorway as it were by which we enter the Kingdom.  “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).  But, too often, we turn it into a kind of coin of the realm, something we barter in exchange for mercies received from the King.  We see this attitude most often when prayers go unanswered.  “If you had enough faith, God would hear”, is the familiar rebuke that is leveled against us in these times.  To be sure, there have been men and women of great faith.  Their names make up the litany of faith contained in Hebrews 11….Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and more.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Most of us will be saved by our faith, but it’s not likely we will be remembered for our great faith.  But even a little faith is sufficient for Jesus Christ to work in someone’s life.  The man or woman who knows the limitations of their faith, that point where doubt, confusion, ignorance, or even unbelief creeps in to steal away the blessed assurance of God’s favor, is a person who can be transparent before God.  “I can go this far, but no further Lord”, they may say; or as stated in our opening scripture “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Such a man was Thomas the Apostle who is best remembered not for his great faith but rather as Thomas, the doubter.

Thomas’ name in Syriac means “Twin”, and that is why he is referred to in John 11:16 by the Greek equivalent, Didymus.  He appears in each of the four lists of Apostles found in the synoptic evangelists, but it is in John’s gospel that we catch a glimpse of his personality.  In John 11:1-16 we have the story of Jesus returning to Bethany to heal Lazarus, his friend.  His disciples were fearful, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You and are You going there again?”  Whether in the beginnings of true faith, or only in resignation Thomas says “Let us also go that we may die with Him.”  Thomas was always the optimist!  In John 14:1-6 as the Lord teaches concerning His imminent death Thomas questions Him saying “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”  To this Jesus replies directly to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also…”  This mild rebuke would have turned Thomas’ uncertainly back to the one thing He was most certain of, Jesus.  But the incident by which he is best remembered is found in John 20:24-29.  Jesus has appeared in His resurrected glory to the other disciples, but “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  When confronted by their account he responds characteristically “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

We might think this the height of unbelief, but I see it more as an honest confession of the limits of Thomas’ faith.  He had been with the Lord during that last week as had the others.  He saw Him betrayed, condemned, put to death, and at last buried.  Lest we be too hard on Thomas remember that Luke 24:11 records the rest of the disciples’ reaction to the words of the women who had seen Jesus risen and alive,  “their words seemed to them [the disciples] like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”  But at just that point where Thomas’ faith was not yet enough to sustain him, Jesus came specifically to him.  “Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  And as he touched the wounds of his Lord, Thomas’s faith was made whole so that he freely confessed to Him, “My Lord and my God.

This much but little more the Scripture reveals to us of Thomas.  When the general Jewish persecution came upon the early church the apostles and disciples were scattered over the whole world.  In the apocryphal work called “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas” it says “we portioned out [by lot] the regions of the world in order that each one of us might go into the region that fell to him, and to the nations to which the Lord sent him.”   There is some truth in this account, for Eusebius, in his “History of the Church” Book 3 Section 1, tells us that “Thomas was chosen for Parthia.”  This is part of what we know today as Iran.  Tradition further tells us that he was also active in Carmania (southern Iran), Hyrcania (northern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan), and Pakistan, eventually extending his mission field to the southwestern coast of India.  At this location it is recorded that he established seven churches on the Malabar Coast.  The tradition seems to be confirmed since there have been a group of believers at that location dating back into the middle ages who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas” and who claim to trace their faith back to the first preaching of Thomas in Malabar.  It was at Calamine that Thomas’ faith was tried and found sufficient, as he suffered martyrdom by the spear.

Back to the question of faith.  How much is sufficient?  The Lord’s own teachings seem to indicate that if we could but have faith as the grain of a mustard seed, divine power might be ours to move even mountains into the sea.  But the Lord brings it into perspective in Luke 10:19-20 “I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy….. nevertheless do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  Thomas may never have overcome the limitations of his faith while on the earth, but in his heart he already knew “the way, the truth, and the life” and that was sufficient for the trials and work of each day.    His life may not have been a testimony to great faith, but it is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to faithfully remain “the author and finisher” of his faith.  When the spears of martyrdom came upon him Thomas’ testimony echoed the words of St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12  “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.”  May our faith be sufficient for the day at hand, and may we never be afraid to confront our lack of faith.  It is only then, as we place our fingers in the nail-scarred hands of our Savior and look once more into his eyes that all of our doubt, confusion, and fear is swallowed up in the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

John Wesley’s Sermon 50 – On the Use of Money

keys of sub-cash register

I recently had the opportunity to read John Wesley’s Sermon 50 on the use of money in which he expounded on Luke 16:9 “Make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness….”  From what I have read of John Wesley he lived frugally and to a very exacting standard when it came to his understanding of stewardship and the use of money.  His only mistake in all of this was placing his calling and standard upon other believers and calling them to a stricter account than I believe that God or His word puts upon us.  With that one caution stated, the sermon contains three useful guiding principles on the use of money that I believe can be instructive for church congregations today as they struggle with the very present practicalities of budgets and congregational giving.

The first principle regarding the use of money is “Gain all you can.”  John Wesley counsels us to meet the world on its own ground and, within limits, to gain all that we have the power to gain in terms of wealth.  He cautions against gaining wealth that costs “too dearly”; for instance, wealth gained at the expense of our life or health, wealth gained at the exhaustion of our minds or souls, or wealth gained at the expense or damage of our neighbor.  The latter includes gaining wealth by preying on the addictions of others (such as selling alcohol) and business practices such as undercutting our neighbor’s prices to drive him out of competition or stealing his customers or workforce.  But where we may do so with the love of God and the love of neighbor foremost in our minds, he counsels us to use the time wisely, investing our time and talents to gain all that we can.  To state it scripturally, “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your power” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

The second principle that pertains to a Christian’s wise use of money is “Save all you can.”  Having exerted your wisdom and strength to gain all that you can, John Wesley counsels us to not throw away or waste any of the gain we have diligently made but to live simply and carefully.  This is what I would call “living below your means,” and what John Wesley refers to as not simply gratifying the desire of our eyes or flesh, or trying to buy the admiration of the world.  This includes not only exercising temperance over our own lifestyles but being careful not to enable our children in the frivolous use of money.  John Wesley states that it is better to withhold a rightful inheritance to our children if we know that the money will only ensnare them and endanger their souls by underwriting their excessive lifestyle by the giving of it.

“Gain all that you can” and “Save all that you can.”  Having stated the two foundational principles, John Wesley adds the third principle that explains and gives purpose to the first two.  In fact, we could say that if you only did the first two principles you would have laid a strong foundation but built nothing lasting upon it.  The third principle is this, “Give all that you can.”  Here also John Wesley has some practical priorities to guide us in this principle.  First, provide those things that are required for your own life such as food, clothing, shelter; avoid excess, and while practicing moderation provide what is necessary for health, well-being, and strength.  Second, provide those same benefits to your spouse, your children, and others who are part of your household whether family or employees.  Third, if there remains a surplus, John Wesley counsels using it to “do good to those that are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10b).  This could find expression in providing for the needy of our congregations, assisting others in the pursuit of their own occupations and callings, or providing opportunities for others to advance and grow.  And finally, if there is still more, John Wesley urges us to complete the scripture in Galatians 6:10a and “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men…”

Upon these three principals, John Wesley faithfully lived out his life and ministry and passed them onto us in his sermon as a true pastor concerned with the health and state of our souls and all of the temptations and pulls of the world systems and styles.  If we believe the other scriptural truths that all that we possess ultimately comes from God, that He alone is able to give the power to produce wealth, and that some day we must give account for the use we have made of what He has given to us, then John Wesley’s simple principals give us the vision and the framework to render back to God those things that are ultimately God’s while fully accommodating the necessity of providing for the welfare of ourselves, our household, our congregations, and our communities.  The full sermon and others can be found at the website Wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

“Faith in the Storm,” A Lenten Reflection

We have noted before that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, it is fear.  Faith makes us certain, it gives us confident direction in our choices, and it defines our destination and the path that leads to it.  Fear introduces questioning, second guessing, worry about what might be.  It leaves us wondering and wandering, paralyzed with uncertainty, unable to move forward.  Just when we ought to be declaring, “Thus says the Lord God Almighty…” we hear the devil’s challenge whispered in our head, “Has God really said…?”

Faith in the word of Jesus, the scriptures tell us, is like a man building his house on the rock. The storms come, as storms must come in a fallen world, yet the house stands firm, not because of the house, but because of its unshakable foundation.  Faith in the completed work of Jesus places eternity in our hearts so that even if we suffer loss or pain in the short term, we understand that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.  When the scriptures speak of placing faith in God, it often resorts to spectacular imagery. Trusting God is being led to a rock higher than our own frailty or failure, it is a strong fortress into which we run for safety, it is dwelling under the wings of the most High God, it is being surrounded by the angel armies of heaven, or knowing that God is like the mountains that surround and protect us.

There are two commands that are repeatedly used throughout the scriptures that give us a worthwhile goal to seek after during this Lenten season, “Do not be afraid”, and “Stand fast” (or “Wait on the Lord”).  Often they are used together as in Exodus 14:13, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.”  If we can allow the Spirit of God to work into our hearts, and minds, and spirits a true faith in the promises of God made present in the work of Jesus, we will have gained something that will see us through the rest of our lives until that day when we stand in the presence of God and see Him face to face.  Begin today with this confession from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need.”

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

“From Dust”, A Lenten Reflection

We live in a world that highly values power, the power to dominate, the power to control, the power to change.  But often, when we consider our own circumstances and our current lifestyle, we feel powerless to do anything to make changes for good.  It is difficult for us to admit this personal weakness, but we have to realize that it is the way that God intended for it to be.  In Genesis it records that God formed man of the dust of the earth.  There must have been a dozen other things that we could have been formed of, but God chose the least impressive of all building materials to form our bodies.  But then, and here is the miracle, He breathed His very spirit into this insignificant dust, and it records that man became a living being.  We remain even so today, dust held together by the very breath of God.  The liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us of this created frailty, “Remember O’ man, (or woman), you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  Without the power of God to hold us together we are no better than the dust we were made of, without form, without life, without purpose.

During this Lenten season we need to recognize that these two things are at war within us. The dust that we are made of drags us always down into the earth where we are quickly lost; the breath of God lifts us upward and gives us a vision of a heavenly kingdom where justice reigns.  In the garden of Eden our humanity received two gifts.  From our father Adam we inherited original sin that always seeks to corrupt, to break down, to kill.  From our Father Almighty we received His very image and likeness pressed into our hearts, and it is that divine spark of life that makes us eternally who we are intended to be.  Which of these will we listen to during this season, which of these will we give the control of our lives over to?  Each day is a new choice, to allow ourselves to be dragged down into the earth and return to the dust or to be called up to the throne of God in heaven and become His sons and daughters

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

I Believe

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen.”  Acts 1:1-2

The evangelist Luke explains the purpose of his gospel to Theophilus.  He wanted to accurately record all that Jesus began to do and all that Jesus began to teach.  What Jesus “did” is embodied by the early church in her sacramental worship and ministry.  What Jesus “taught” concerning the Kingdom of God was codified by the early church in her creeds.  The word “creed” comes from a Latin word, credo, and is translated simply, “I believe”.  A creed, in its simplest form, sets forth words for public use that express with a certain authority the things that are necessary to believe for personal salvation and for the wellbeing of the Church.  Creeds are milestones that embody the living faith of generations.

There are several things that we can say about the historic creeds of the church.  First, a creed originates in faith, which like all strong convictions desires to express itself (Romans 10:8-11).  Second, the creeds never precede faith, they presuppose it.  Even if there had never been any doctrinal crisis that required formal creeds, just the presence of faith would have brought them forth.  We see these spontaneous creeds throughout scripture (Matthew 16:15-16, John 1:1-5, or I Timothy 3:16 for example).  Third, a creed is nothing more than Jesus Christ and His work confessed.  Psalm 107:2 commands, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, the ones He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy.”  A creed recounts the mighty work of God’s grace in bringing about our deliverance.  And fourth, the creedal confession can be very simple and still be made effectual by the working of God’s power.  In Acts 16:30-31 the Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul and Silas answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your household.”  The historic creeds always begin with Jesus, their truths were proclaimed with power by the apostles, they were developed and explained in the writings of the New Testament, they were faithfully passed down through each generation of believers, and they were recorded in the forms that have survived to our present time.

The most popular creed is the Apostle’s Creed.  It is the simplest summary of the gospel story and has been used throughout the centuries as the confession of faith repeated by those who were to be baptized into the Church.  An early Church tradition holds that it originated directly from the apostles, and up until the middle of the seventeenth century both Roman Catholics and Protestants believed the creed to be composed by the apostles in Jerusalem either on the day of Pentecost, or prior to their scattering as a means to secure unity of teaching.  Each apostle contributed one part.  The story says that Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit began, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  John continued, “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.”  Andrew went on, “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”; then James the elder, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried”; Philip, “He descended into Hades, the third day He rose again from the dead”; Bartholomew, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty”; Thomas, “from thence He shall come to judge both the living and the dead”; Mathew “I believe in the Holy Spirit”; James, the lesser, “the Holy Catholic Church”; Simon, “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins”;, Thaddeus, “the resurrection of the body”; and Matthias, “and the life everlasting, Amen.”

Although the notion of direct apostolic authorship is no longer held by most scholars, the tradition is still a reflection of the power, simplicity, and faithfulness to the gospel message that is present in this creed.  Embodied in its words we hear the gospel earnestly spoken and we are moved to speak those words of personal faith, “I believe…”.   A creed’s chief purpose is always to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and because of this a creed is not a systematic, logical statement of doctrine, but a profession of living, saving faith in the work of God through His Son Jesus.  It is given so that a child can recite it, not so that a scholar can explain it.

“I believe…”  These are powerful words that break the power of sin, that open the soul to the work of God’s grace, and that change a life eternally in a moment.

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

The Dilemma of a Right Theology

“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”  I Corinthians 1:22-24

We face a dilemma in theology that has been with the Church throughout its history.  It relates to how the Church is to define and practice true religion in this world, and thus express a “right” theology of its spirituality.  The dilemma is this.  Theology seems to exist within the historic Church on two levels as hinted at by the Apostle Paul.  The first is what we might call the Biblical level where the revelation of God is received and lived in as fully as is possible by the human will.  On this level, Biblical truth is most often presented prophetically, God bearing witness in His own words to His Person and will.  The second is what we might call the theological level, where the revelation of God is received and understood as fully as is possible by the human mind.  On this level, theological truth is most often presented catechetically, with the Church bearing witness in its words to the person of God and His truth.  We might liken the former to “heart” religion and the latter to “head” religion.  I know this falls short of portraying either side accurately, but it serves to show where the emphasis of each type of theology usually lies.  It might be more accurate to say that the orthodoxy of Biblically-based religion is judged by what you do, and the orthodoxy of theologically-based religion is judged by what you believe.  The former revolves around the concept of relationship, the latter around the concept of doctrine.

The two strands of our religion are the result of Christianity growing from a predominantly Jewish root planted in an especially fertile Grecian field.  The Jews were a people of the book.  For them the Torah, God’s law, was both the study of a lifetime, and the full expression of the life resulting.  There was little difference for the Jew between life and religion.  The Greeks, on the other hand, were a people of scientific bent, with a mind that worked best in abstracting particular reality into universal ideas.  They felt the need to construct an intellectual working model of the universe into which both life and religion fit; but for them biology and theology remained only differing branches of science formulated to characterize facts and relationships.

The dilemma was aggravated by the fact that the earliest Church was predominantly Jewish in heritage.  This early Christianity was the expression of the fulfillment of the eternal covenant of Yahweh through the sending of His Messiah.  But such concepts as covenant and Messiah were foreign to the Greeks and suffered loss of their true meaning, both by being translated into a new language with inadequate corresponding words, and by being transplanted into a culture that had no context by which to relate to them.  The destruction of the Jewish nation in the late first century A.D. with the dispersal of the Jews throughout the word helped to hasten the eventual Hellenization (Greeking) of Christian thought and developed theology.  Here again, the dilemma strained the Church.  For though its theology was framed by the decisions of the Church councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Constantinople, its liturgy had been established in Jerusalem by the direct command of the Jesus Himself.  And while the theology stress correct belief, the sacraments and worship demanded correct action (“Do this in remembrance of Me”).

How then do we deal with this age-old struggle of tendencies in our own time and setting?  Do we dare to continue thinking “Greek” or western thoughts in our religion and continue to allow our catechisms and systematic theologies to be the precise definition of our spirituality?  Or do we dare to live “Jewish”, rejecting philosophic certainty in argument in favor of the pure word and law of God and thereby allow our life to become the expression of our spirituality? Or is there a compromise lying somewhere in between?  I don’t have a final answer; I only recognize that while Christianity has been shaped by Jewish and Greek influences, it is yet something entirely different from either.  It is that divine good news that can find the scope and breadth of its life in the Hebrew word Emmanuel (God with us), and the preciseness of its witness to the manifestation of that life in the Western word Incarnate; and yet the news that it proclaims is more than the simple consolidation of the two together.

This was the struggle I faced on a more limited scale when I tried to pass on my “religion” to my children.  I tried to be precise enough to guard them from error, but broad enough to show them the fullness of the liberty to live that God alone can give.  Their young minds were not content with a religion based on proof texts or catechism answers; they wanted a religion that could be seen and touched and handled (I John 1:1-4).  It is hard to reduce such religion to convenient or precise words.  How do you express what the Jewish high priest felt when he parted the veil and walked into the Holy of Holies to minister before the presence of God?  How can you chronicle the response in a human heart when it is washed by the blood of the Lamb and the Holy Spirit enters in to sanctify and hallow it?  What needs and fears does a person sense deep within himself as he lies along in his bed at night?  These are the sorts of things the practice of our religion must address if it is to restore to theology the power to save men’s souls.  Somewhere in the Person of Jesus, Who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God, the answer is to be found.  In the end of the matter, that is the only answer worth knowing.

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

The Historical Works of Mercy

I find that there is often a big difference between what we profess to be true concerning what we believe as followers of Jesus, and how we act on or demonstrate the reality of what we believe.  This is a common biblical theme; there is a difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

What prompted this thought in me was a recent statement someone made to me that the church that I attend was lukewarm.  You know where I am going with this; lukewarm = being spit out of the mouth of Jesus (not the end I had in mind, from Revelation 3:16).   You can understand why I was concerned.  So I asked myself how you could make the judgment that a group of followers of Jesus was lukewarm.  I mean, you need to have some sort of mental checklist  that you work your way down, and if more check marks are on one side than the other you can reach your conclusion, “Yep, lukewarm.”  But how do you develop that checklist?  I suppose that you can go to the bible and pull out the beatitudes of Jesus, the fruits of the spirit in Galatians, the chapter on love in I Corinthians, or maybe the ten commandments and sugar them down into check boxes, but you still have to know how to judge whether love, joy, peace, patience and so on meet the biblical standards, and then you further need to be able to tell that someone may not be ready to murder someone, but might instead harbor deep-seated anger in their hearts against their brother that is as good as murder.  And our judgment can’t just be based on agreement with doctrinal statements, because here too beliefs can be sorted broadly into opinions/preferences and convictions.  Only the latter category affects the way you live your life.  As James 2:18 states:

“someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” 

Said another way, the proof of the evangelical pudding is in the way we live, not in what we profess to believe.

And this is not always easy to judge rightly.  As evangelicals we often appeal to the biblical text and definitions, but more often than not we end up making our judgments whether a person is a real Christian or not based on how often they are in church, whether they faithfully (and generously) give when the collection plate is passed, their willingness to volunteer for church activities and committees, whether they smoke, drink, dance or play cards, or any of a dozen other measuring sticks the church has used in its history.  In the end of the matter, however, we really have no idea of how the Father looks on the hearts of those we have put on the balance scales, and then there is always that nasty plank that seems to obscure our vision.

But let me return to my original question and let me offer a historical perspective on how we can judge whether our church, and specifically ourselves, are on the road to stagnant lukewarmness.  If it is true, as John says in I John 4:20“If you do not love your brother whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see?” then we may have a starting point for measuring our walk as followers of Jesus.  The historic church developed two lists that defined our spiritual duty towards one another and all those outside our church doors, the first is drawn from the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, and the second from the various teachings of the bible.  List one is referred to as the corporal works of mercy, those things that we ought to do that contribute to the physical welfare of those we come in contact with.  The second list are the spiritual works of mercy, those things that we ought to do if we see a person as bearing the imprint of the Father and we desire their eternal good.  In them, I think, we find a handy measure for whether we are followers of Jesus, a congregation of those He has called, or merely going through the motions.

Without further comments, consider these.  The corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome in the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead.  The spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort those that are afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead.  In these lists we find a guard against lukewarmness.  In these lists we find an answer to the question “What should I be doing as a follower of Jesus?”  In these lists we find a summary of what our church congregation and committees ought to be investing our time and money towards.  To borrow the words of the Apostle Peter in II Peter 1:10-11 (commenting on his own list of measuring standards):

for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;  for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

Pentecost Sunday

“Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations beginning at Jerusalem.  And you are witnesses of these things.  Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry at the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”  Luke 24:46-49

God chooses to work through created means to bring about divine purposes.  This is a mystery to us, but Paul gives us some understanding of why it is in II Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”   The divine gifts of grace, repentance and remission of sins in Jesus Christ are divinely powerful to the salvation of the soul.  No mere human philosophy, science, logic, or natural religion can ever bring such salvation about.  That is why Paul clearly states in I Corinthians 2:1, 4-5 “…I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God….and my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”  This power of God of whom he speaks is also the Third Person of the Trinity whom we call the Holy Spirit, and it is His sending into our world that we celebrate on Pentecost.

Pentecost derives its name from the Greek word which means the “fiftieth day”.  In Hebrew times it was called the feast of weeks (Shavuot, Deuteronomy 16:9-10) and was counted from the feast of the firstfruits when the barley harvest began (Exodus 23:16).  Leviticus 23:15-16 says “and you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath…seven Sabbaths shall be completed.  Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath…”  This marked the beginning of the grain harvest.  The Rabbis further taught that this day commemorated the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the children of Israel were led out of Egypt (Exodus 19:1), the event that was foundational in forming the nation as the people of God.  In the New Testament the day of Pentecost comes fifty days after the Resurrection of the Lord (I Corinthians 15:20 says He is the first fruits of those risen to new life), and ten days after He ascended to the right hand of power.  From that position He sends forth the Holy Spirit even as He promised (John 14:16-17, 16:7-15).

The sending of the Holy Spirit is an empowerment of each individual believer to fully live the Christian life, and more importantly, the empowerment of the Church to proclaim the testimony of Jesus Christ with power and authority.  It is the formation of the Church as the people of God.  We must not lose sight of the divine truth that the Holy Spirit was sent upon the Church as a whole, with each member receiving Him in particular.  The modern stress on individual expressions of the Holy Spirit as a personal, rather than corporate gift, finds no place in the text of the New Testament.  As the Apostle Paul says so clearly in I Corinthians 12:7, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”

The sanctuary color for Pentecost Sunday is red, the symbol for divine fire, and the lectionary readings remind us that the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Father now poured forth to bring about the New Covenant inaugurated by the shedding of the blood of His Son Jesus.  It marked the transition from the gospel ministry of Jesus to the Acts of the Apostles according to the promises of Jesus in John 14:12 “the one who believes on Me, greater works than these shall he do because I go to my Father.”, and Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses…unto the uttermost parts of the earth.”  Pentecost is the beginning of the work of God within each of our hearts to make a people chosen for His purpose and sent out to proclaim His salvation in every corner of our world.

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”

Ascension Day, May 14, 2015

“When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive and He gave gifts to me.  He…ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  Ephesians 4:8-10

In Acts 1:1-3 it records that for the forty days between Resurrection Sunday and Ascension Thursday, Jesus Christ presented Himself alive with many infallible proofs, spent the time instructing His disciples concerning the Kingdom of God, and gave them final commands.  Of the day of Ascension, the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts offer the following details.  Matthew records that Jesus met His disciples on a mountain.  There He declared that all authority had been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and He commissioned them to go to all nations, baptizing and making disciples in His name.  He left them with the promise that He would be with them until the end of the age.  Mark declares that after He spoke, He was received up into heaen and sat down at the right hand of God, and that the apostles went about preaching the word in power with the Lord confirming their words with signs and wonders.  Luke indicates that He led them out as far as Bethany and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  In Acts he adds that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come upon the apostles in Jerusalem and that it would be the power that they required to be His witnesses.  As He was received up into the clouds, angels appeared to the apostles with the promise that just as Jesus had ascended into heaven, so He would return to the earth in the same manner.

This is an important day within the Paschal cycle.  When the Lord took upon Himself human flesh and ultimately went to His death on the cross, He humbled Himself as it says in Philippians 2:6-8, “although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”  Philippians 2:9 continues, “Therefore God also highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every other name…”  This supreme glorification of Christ took place in part when He ascended and sat down at the right hand of the Father in glory.  Daniel 7:13-14 may give us a glimpse of that moment.  “I was looking in the night visions, and behold with the clouds of heaven, One like the Son of Man was coming.  And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him, and to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.”

Four major things were accomplished at the Ascension of Jesus.  First, Jesus entered into the glory that was rightfully His from all eternity (John 17:4-5 and Psalm 110:1-2).  Second, from heaven He sent forth the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15).  Third, as the Great High Priest He entered into the Holy of Holies not made with hands to make intercession for us (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:11-15, 24-28; and 10:19-22).  And lastly, He went into heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:1-4).  We commemorate Ascension Day by looking to the skies as the apostles did on that day and recalling His promises.  The day is intended to remind us, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:4-7, that Jesus is head over all things to His church, and that we, with him, have been seated in the heavenlies awaiting the culmination of the age and the inauguration of the everlasting Kingdom.  As we look to the heavens may our prayer always be, “Amen!  Come Lord Jesus Christ” (Revelation 22:20).

Russell currently serves as an elder in the church. His own spiritual pilgrimage extends back almost 40 years and includes a sojourn in the Roman Catholic, American Baptist, Lutheran, Independent Charismatic, Independent Congregational, home fellowship, and Federated Congregational church settings. In these settings he has served as a catechist, bible teacher, independent school principal, outreach coordinator, and ordained pastor. His current life verse is Romans 1:15. “So, as much as in me is, I am ready to preach the gospel to you…”