Loving Two Brides

(The reflections below were published in the Hickory Daily Record June 4, 2011 and also at http://corinthpastorbob.com/2011/06/loving-two-brides/ on the same date.)  The entry is used here with permission from Rev. Dr. Bob Thompson of Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, NC.  Bob has posted on Red Door’s Blog before.  Check out his last entry “When You Give Yourself a B.”

I have loved two brides in my life.  Only one of them is mine.

My wife and I will celebrate our thirty-third anniversary July 1.  We vowed our love, loyalty and faithfulness before our 22nd birthdays.  We have kept those promises through every phase of life from honeymoon to empty nest, during seminary or sickness, facing opposition or enjoying stability.  Linda is still my best friend, my partner in life and ministry.  I protect and defend her, valuing her above anyone else and treasuring the times we can be together.  I would give my life for her if I had the opportunity.

The other love of my life is the bride of Christ.  He loves his bride as I do mine – only infinitely better and deeper.  The Apostle Paul made that analogy in Ephesians 5 when he instructed husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  Giving his life for his bride was more than theoretical for Jesus.

A man and a woman marry, at least in our culture in time, because of a combination of attraction and friendship we call “falling in love.”  Couples whose marriages endure learn that the “enchantment,” as C. S. Lewis called it, is transient – or cyclical at best.  The glue that keeps a marriage together is rather a commitment to mutual sacrifice and submission that includes patience, forgiveness, and a choice to keep loving when the enchantment wanes.  When Linda and I wrote our own wedding vows, we both promised to love the other in full knowledge we would at times be disappointed in each other.  The Greek word for that kind of love is agape.

Agape describes Christ’s self-sacrificing love for his bride.  He loves her as she is, and claims her as his own.  He knows her flaws better than she knows them.  He protects, defends, forgives, and waits for her, even with the realities of her imperfections.

Given Christ’s love for his church, I am sometimes surprised at the disdain and apathy of his followers toward his bride.  I am not surprised at the cynicism and distance of non-believers toward the church.  I find it, in fact, understandable for those who have not experienced grace.

Long before your church or mine ever came into being, Jesus’ Plan A was to gather his people into communities for worship, encouragement, learning, service, and witness.  It does not surprise Jesus that these faith communities would be imperfect.  He was aware from the beginning that within the church we would encounter hypocrisy, gossip, power struggles, anger, immorality, pride, error, greed, racism, envy, and deceit.  The biggest problem with churches has always been that they’re full of sinners.

Is it frustrating to pastor a congregation of the imperfect?  It would be, if I weren’t among those deeply flawed.  As in marriage, disappointment with another’s brokenness should cause me to name my own, and then be merciful.  The church is where sinners gather to name and share the benefits of grace.

The Necessity of the Church

…and I believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church… — from the creed of the Council of Nicaea, 325 A.D.

After three hundred years of persecution, threats of internal disruption, and false doctrines, the leaders of the local churches met at Nicaea to draw up a common, unified, concise statement of the articles of faith for all Christians.  They sifted through hundreds of traditions, writings, oral reports, and customs; when it was over, they chose those which they considered foundational for Christian life and transcribed them as a creed.

One phrase contained in that creed begins this article.  Why did the Church Fathers choose to include it among the statements about the divinity and incarnation of Jesus, the Trinity, the atonement, the communion of saints, the hope of future glory?  Obviously they knew it to be important.  But is it as important to the believer as the other creedal beliefs?  The answer is yes.  Many volumes have been written on this subject, but let me present this simple progression to defend my answer.

God, after He spoke long ago to the Fathers in the prophets, in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, Whom He appointed heir of all things…– Hebrews 1:1-2.  The revelation of the Father to this earth is found in the Son.  The Apostle John called Him the Logos, the Word of God.  Paul referred to Him as the fullness of the Godhead.  Peter referred to Him as the cornerstone of the spiritual house of God.  Jesus Himself proclaimed that if we have seen Him, we have seen the Father.  If Jesus was the final revelation of God to man, then in what form do we now possess this revelation.  The answer is simple, in the vessel which He left behind to bear witness to Himself, the Church.

I write to you so that you may know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth – I Timothy 3:15.  And again in II Corinthians 5:18-20:

Now all these things are from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.  Therefore we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were entreating through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Or again in Matthew 16:18-19:

And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.  And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever shall be loosed on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

One more:

And He (the Father) put all things in subjection under His (the Son’s) feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:22-23.

It is a simple truth that is often easy to overlook in the vast collection of doctrines, interpretations, literature, and tradition.  It is even easier in today’s world of hyper-individualism to discount the truth of the Church as unimportant.  Because of divine direction it was not overlooked by the Fathers of Nicaea.  Let us never discount the Church’s role in the plan of God’s reconciliation of the world, or think less of it because of its claim to speak into our own relationship with God.  It alone can say what we could never begin to speak:

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled concerning the Word of Life…what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also that you also may have fellowship with us, and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  – I John 1:1-4.

Do I Need to Go to Church to Follow Jesus?: A Conversation

The following is a conversation between Pastor Joshua Moore of Red Door Church in South Royalton and Dan Isadore (M.Div.), a recent graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Associate Director of the Pittsburgh Experiment.  Josh and Dan hope to have regular discussions on various theological topics and important issues facing Christians today.

Dan: So here’s a loaded question for you Josh: do I need to go to church to follow Jesus?

Josh: This is a good question.  Probably the first thing that comes to mind is the need to define what we mean by the word church.  Is the church a building; just brick and mortar?  Or is the church just another 501c3 non-profit organization that specializes in helping facilitate and organize Christian spirituality?  Or is the church something else?

The Bible doesn’t give us dictionary like answers about these sorts of questions–it’s not a book of definitions–but what the Bible does tell us about the church is that it is a body of people who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul uses the imagery of the human body to describe the church in his first surviving letter to the Corinthian church.  He says that we are all members of the same body and each member serves a particular function, namely, to build up the body for the common good.

So this gets back to the way you phrased the question: if the church is mainly a collection of believers, then what do we mean when we say “go to church”?

The phrase “go to church” is couched in an understanding of what the church is that may be unbiblical. That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to use the phrase that are appropriate, of course, but for most folks (at least in my experience), the statement is a reflection of what they believe about following Jesus and is therefore problematic.  Because for so many today, following Christ is not really following a person but rather adhering to a list of rules one of which is attending this thing we call church on Sunday morning.

What this means is that they aren’t really following Jesus at all.  They are trapped in man-made religion which is always works oriented; do this and don’t do that and you’ll achieve salvation or enlightenment or you’ll have good Karma or whatever.  “Going to church” for these folks is just a part of the do-this-do-that system.  But this is the very antithesis to the teaching of Jesus.

However another important aspect to this question is context.  In New England where I am stationed at the moment, most people take it for granted that church is not a rule on the list that must be followed if one is to be saved. Up here what you find is that people struggle to see the purpose of church altogether.  Gathering together with other believers on Sunday morning or during the week for public worship, the reading of Scriptures, prayers, and the celebration of the sacraments, is in many cases seen as an unimportant footnote in the Christian life.  The hard part up here is convincing people of the importance of “going to church.”

Dan: Why is it like that in New England?

Josh: Well I’m not entirely sure. I’ve only been here a short time, but here’s my hunch: One of the most deeply rooted values in New England is independence.  People don’t want to believe or recognize that they have a need for others.

And as I understand the teaching of Jesus, I think a healthy realization of our need for other people is one of the core, proper motivations for weekly, or at least regular church attendance. Its not to believe that in gathering with other believers I’m somehow “saved” in a legal sense, but its the deeply rooted belief that without the help of other believers and the grace bestowed upon me in the exercise of the sacraments and the public proclamation of the good news week after week and the blessing of hearing others pray and so on, I simply will not persevere to the end.

To try and condense what I’m saying for you: When a person believes deep within their spirit that they need other believers and that having others believers involved in their lives intimately is one of God’s ordained means of working out our salvation and granting us the ability to persevere until the end, I think they will begin to find Church a very significant part of their lives.  In that sense I think that “going to church” is an indispensable part of following Jesus.

Dan: It sounds like you are saying that we need to be intimately connected to other people if we are to follow Christ; that the Christian life is not something that we are able to do on our own?

Josh: Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying in a nutshell.

Dan: So what if I’m not connected to others? Is that even possible in our own day when connectivity seems more readily available than ever?  Is there a “bare minimum” in this walking alongside of each other?  Or is the search for a bare minimum misdirected?

Josh: This is a legit question. In today’s world where real connectedness seems to evade us.  Despite the fact that more and more people are living in major cities and despite the preponderance of social media, intimate relationships are harder and harder to find.  So, good question.

When we look at the Bible what we see is a God that works in the context of human relationships.  From the very  beginning God made man in His image.  God is relational (Trinity), so we are relational.  The Trinity shows us that relationship is a very part of the being of God.

So relationships are not optional; they are indivisible from our design after the image of God our maker. This is true of all humans whether believers in Christ or not.  Believers, however, make it their life’s goal to conform to God’s design and not to contradict it.  So I would argue that a life of ongoing, intentional, reclusiveness and isolation is contrary to the design of God.

Dan: Believers, in other words, are those who embrace their design as relational persons and seek to live accordingly.

Josh: It’s no less than that anyway.  Speaking of the bare minimum question, that’s tough because each human is different and requires a different measure of real connectedness to thrive and to fulfill God’s calling upon their lives.

Dan: Could we say this then, that relationships are not optional for Christians, not because they get you a box checked off, but because they are more like a door?  In other words, relationships are the very stuff of Salvation, of living life with God.  To forsake relationships is to forsake Christianity, because Christianity is about embracing who God has made us to be: His image, which is persons in relationship sharing deeply in each other’s life in God.

So maybe the better question might be something like, “How do I connect with others and with God in my unique circumstances?”

Josh: Yes, because the God-man Jesus coming to earth reveals to us the intensity with which God desires relationship with his creation; relationships are fundamental to Christian faith.

Dan: That really is why he came: for relationship.

Josh: Amen.

Is Community Optional?

Is community necessary for the Christian?  Scripture teaches that there are commands given to us by God that cannot be completed or fulfilled alone. One of the most obvious examples is the “cultural mandate” in Genesis 1:28: “Be fruitful and multiply…”

Pastor Josh talks a little about some of these this week in this video blog entry.

Subscribe to Red Door’s YouTube Channel here.

The Fruit of Following God – Part 4: A Servant Life

Christian discipleship always results in the creation of servants. The Christian disciple’s motto should inevitably reflect the words of Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (10:45, ESV). Some scholars believe that this verse is the summary or key verse of the entire gospel of Mark as the author’s theme is to demonstrate that Christ came as a man in order to serve and die for humanity. In order for a disciple of Christ to live for the glory of God, he must learn to be a servant. This service is displayed in the local congregation (or the local church), in the surrounding community as well as among the broken and those needing mercy.

Servanthood flows out of one’s understanding of both God’s greatness and being, as well as His worthiness, and also out of the realization of Christ’s own condescension to earth in order to procure our salvation. The Apostle Paul clearly reinforces this concept from the example of Christ himself, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross,” (Philippians 2. 5-8, ESV).  And according to the passage in Deuteronomy, this spirit of servanthood is not simply a dutiful, obligatory activity. Whenever and wherever we serve the Lord, it is to be with all of our hearts and souls.

The Role of Form in Our Worship: A Conversation

The following is a conversation between Pastor Joshua Moore of Red Door Church in South Royalton and Dan Isadore (M.Div.), a recent graduate of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Associate Director of the Pittsburgh Experiment.  Josh and Dan hope to have regular discussions on various theological topics and important issues facing Christians today.

Josh: Dan, Bryan Chappell says in his book Christ-Centered Worship: 

“Liturgy tells a story.  We tell the gospel by the way we worship.”

My question would be, I guess, what is the role of form in our worship services and how it is different from content?  That is, the propositional content proclaimed throughout the service in preaching and teaching?

Dan: Funny you should ask that.  I’ve been reading and thinking about it lately.  I’m pretty convinced that form is the point of theology.  The goal of the Word in reference to creation is to become flesh.  Words aren’t ends in the themselves; they are acts meant to nudge us into certain forms or ways of being.  Corporate worship, I think, should be the place where we engage in disciplines that help form us or en-flesh the Word in life.

So liturgy is time to practice for life.  But liturgy is also living life in disciplined forms.  We gather to engage each other in these forms of life brought into being by the Word, and that also becomes practice for participating in these forms of life in our day-to-day existence.  That, I’m convinced, is how we need to engage in evangelism today.  By living into these forms in the world , we provide people an avenue to experience the Word before we attempt to explain Him.

So, where I’m at right now, to be Christian is to practice and live a “form of life” rather than to adhere to a body of doctrine of propositions.  I’m thinking of Matthew 7:24-27.

Josh: So what does the above imply about Christians or groups of Christians who would not articulate the faith in a way that lines up with historical Christian orthodoxy?  If we believe that right living flows from right thinking, can we have the proper forms of life without the proper belief for it to flow out of?  Or, would you argue that the forms can also influence thinking?  That the relationship between thinking and living works both ways; that the forms of worship and life can have as much impact on our thinking as our thinking can have on our form of life?

Dan: Bonhoeffer said,

“only the obedient believe.”

I think that’s right.  right belief only comes en route.  Obedience is the context of true knowledge.  Jesus says as much: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who love me.  And he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (John 14:21).

It’s as we follow Him that we get to know Him.  We can hear of Him, but obedient interaction brings what is witnessed to by words into my experience.  1 John, I think, is an epistle that deals a lot with this area.  Knowledge is experiential.  It’s interactive.  It absolutely involves the mind, but not in an abstract, detached way.  I think of it in terms of a human-to-human relationship.  What is it to know another?  It’s to interact with them in an appropriate way.  You can know about someone from afar, but you wouldn’t say that you know them (pro athlete or a movie star, for instance).  You only truly know someone when you interact with them: talking, laughing, eating, traveling, giving and receiving, helping and being helped by.  Knowing involves embodiment.

And I often think that our minds are trying to catch up with our experience, rather than vice versa, Thought is reflection on the happening, or rather what is happening in the happening.  The truths are not the thoughts; the truths are the reality.  So within the Christian tradition, the Truth is not a confession or a creed; the Truth is a Person.  We don’t “have” the Truth; we follow Him, with heart, mind, and body.  And it’s only in the following that truths about the Truth come to us.  But first those truths hit us, and then we reflect.  And our reflection may be more or less faithful to the reality.

Josh: So how would you sum this up for us?

Dan:  To sum it up I think explanation and articulation follow the experience of being acted upon by Christ.  Confession and beliefs are downstream from our spiritual disciplines; our forms are ways of consciously opening ourselves to the transformative action of God.  This is also why I think that there are no prerequisites to following Jesus.  He must change you.  So you come and follow Him with me, and it’s from within that following that your beliefs and behaviors get shaped in ways and times unique to your person.  The main thing is to just jump into the forms.  Start loving your neighbor.  Start reading scripture in community.  Start praying.  Start confessing.  Start eating together.  That’s the main thing in my eyes.  Inside these ways God works on us, waking us up little by little.

Josh: Good stuff.  Thanks for taking a moment to share with us Dan.

Why do We Go to Church on Sunday?

This is our monthly entry by elder Russ Rohloff:

This is part of a bigger question that has to do with participating in God’s salvation history, or what the Church refers to as marking time.  The simple answer is that God requires us to tithe our time to acknowledge His purposes in a similar manner to how we tithe our money or possessions.  This is not because He needs our time, but it is the manner in which He chooses to sanctify our time.  Paul spoke of this in Romans 11 when he said, “If the first fruit is holy, so also is the entire batch.”  In the Mosaic Law God simply stated “Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy”.   The account in Exodus 20 states that we observe this day as holy because the Lord created the heavens and the earth and rested on this day of fulfillment.  The account in Deuteronomy 5 adds that we observe this day because the Lord has acted to deliver us from bondage.  This one day in seven was given to recount the two great acts of God in our world, creation and deliverance, and a participation in those acts of grace in turn sanctified all of life.  The main difference between Old and New Testament times is that we observe our Lord’s Day at the beginning of the week, not the end, for it is on Sunday that Jesus rose in power to affirm our deliverance from death.  The marking of Sunday as holy is a tithe of our time in which we dedicate our week to God’s purposes and thus declare all of our week holy (consecrated or set apart).

The Old Testament is full of references to marking time so that the followers of God might participate in His salvation history.  The Sabbath day marked one day in each seven as holy to the Lord.  Similarly Leviticus 25 says that one year in every seven years is holy to the Lord in order to give the land rest, and one year in each seven of seven years (1 in 50) is the jubilee year of the Lord in which all debts are forgiven.  In Leviticus 23 the Lord commands that Israel should keep seven holy convocations that Moses calls “the appointed times of the Lord”, each of which were intended to be present reminders of the historic work of God’s deliverance on their behalf.  And in order to further highlight the importance of the salvation work of God, the nation kept a sacred calendar that was different from their secular calendar.  The beginning of the sacred year is detailed in Exodus 12 and includes the month in which Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread is celebrated, while the civil New Year, Rosh Hashanah, comes much later.  The first celebrated the reality of God’s deliverance, the second the miracle of His creation and order.

Now all that is said as a reminder that time and history lie in the hand of God, and we need that cyclical reminder in our own lives to allow us to participate and fully receive the deliverance and freedom that He alone can give.  There has always been debate over what keeping the Lord’s Day means, what the day should include, what the day should not include.   Each of us must judge what the day means and holds for us according to our own conscience before God, but a good starting point for any understanding of keeping the Lord’s Day holy has to be Isaiah 58:13-14 and that is where I will close.

“If because of the Sabbath, you turn your foot from doing your own pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and honor it, desisting from your own ways, from seeking your own pleasure and speaking your own word, then you will take delight in the LORD and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Why do we go to church on Sunday?  To set our entire past, present, and future into the history of God’s marvelous work of grace, to mark and set apart our lives as dedicated to His purposes, and to delight in all that He offers.  This day is a gift from His hand, made especially for us, a day to renew covenant in our mind, heart, soul and spirit.