Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Shuttle Swan Song


The space shuttle program has ended and the space shuttles, Atlantis, Discovery and Endeavor, are being retired to three different museums in Washington D.C., Florida, and California.  Below are shots of the flightdeck of the shuttle Endeavor and of the shuttle Discovery riding piggy back for a last time...much the same way as did the experimental shuttle, Enterprise, 35 years ago.  (Both pictures courtesy of Ben Cooper, Launch Photography).  It is hard to believe this much time has passed since the beginning of the program.  I look forward to what other space travel alternatives that NASA, Richard Branson and others continue to develop.

Blessings, Don

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Walking with the Spirit (Considering Galatians), Pt. 1.


Ther first chapter of this letter sorts out like many of Paul's letters...there is an introduction, generally followed by encouragements and other information.  While Paul starts off introducing himself, his first order of business is to admonish those in the Galatian churches.  The third section of the first chapter supports his statement in verse 1...that he was "sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father."  As I shared in the introduction, Paul and other missionaries are "being followed" by Judiazers who for their own reasons, religious and otherwise, are coming into the churches established by Paul in the Galatian area and teaching a "different gospel."   The Judaizers are vying for the allegiance of the Galatian Christians, and they are seeking to discredit Paul as a valid witness for Christ in order to do so.  This is why Paul shares what he does in verse one.  He is not going to back down from these "false believers."  Why?  There is simply too much at stake in relationship to the gospel of Christ and for the churches themselves.  The Judaizers are interested in making certain that the Gentile Christians will become like them in keeping the regulations of the Jewish religious system, particularly circumcision, but also including many of the other traditions, feasts, etc.  (Much of the central portion of the book of Acts...chapters 13-15, particularly...deals with this problem in the early church.  Ultimately, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the decision is made that all people, regardless of background...Jew or Gentile...are able to come to Jesus as they are, culturally, and religiously...whatever that may be).  Paul defends himself and his ministry in the latter part of chapter 1 (vv. 11-24).  I am not going to focus on this portion of the chapter so much as I am the mid-section, because of what I believe is its importance to those living for Christ, not only then, but for those who are believers today.

Paul tells the Galatian Christians that he is amazed that they are "deserting the one who called them" and "turning to a different gospel" (v.6). This is a striking statement in many respects, because the Judaizers are "believers in Jesus Christ."  They have given their lives to Christ and have been baptized, converted to Him.  They may indeed have their salvation in Him, but they have added regulations to it, therefore, they have demeaned it.  They would say, "we can have Jesus, but we must also have the law, the regulations."  Paul says, "no, Jesus is sufficient."  But, this still isn't enough for me to understand that they have a belief system in something that is "no gospel at all" (v.6).  There has to be something more...and there is.  It has more to do with the heart of the matter, which is usually the matter that has Paul's focus.  Jesus tells the Ephesian Christians in the Revelation to John that "they have lost their first love." (Revelation 2:4).  The believers there had "cast out love" for one another for the sake of their traditions, opinions, arguments.  They had violated principle number one of Jesus' life and ministry, "love God, love one another."  This is the same thing that Paul shares with the Corinthian church, "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal" (1 Corinthians 13:1).  So, it is not just the addition of the regulations that has Paul hopping mad, it is the lack of love that these Judaizers display toward their fellow-believers that has him so troubled.  The attitude of the Judaizers couldn't very well be loving if they are behaving in an arrogant, condescending manner. They would say concerning the Gentile believers, "you are second-rate Christians, but if you want to be first-rate, then you must keep the laws and traditions."  This attitude of heart violates Jesus' rule number one.  This is why the decision at Jerusalem in Acts 15 had to go the way that it did.  We can't live in a loving relationship with other believers if we believe that we are superior (or inferior) to them. We are then exercising pity or resentment, depending upon the situation, rather than the love of God.  It is this fleshly and destructive mindset that could easily destroy the churches in the Galatian area.  If Paul isn't able to win the battle for the minds and hearts of the believers, the cause of Christ is going to suffer a serious setback in that area.

So, what could this possibly mean for us today?  We are much like the Galatians today in that there are believers in Christ today who come from various cultural and philosophical backgrounds.  Some are like "Gentiles" when they come to Christ, not only ignorant of the teachings of Christ, but innocent as it relates to understanding traditions, regulations, etc. involved with religion. Others have been "raised in churches" and often have been immersed in the traditions, regulations of those churches.  As Paul points out in his first letter to Corinth (chapters 10-14) and in his letter to the Romans (the whole work, really, but particularly chapter 14 as it relates to this discussion), we are able to be free in Christ, free from regulations of law which bind us and keep us from loving one another.  As I first heard Romans 14 shared with me, it was those who "kept the regulations" that were the "strong brethren."  Yet, upon further review and deeper study, I found just the opposite to be true...those who have few regulations are the "strong."  I have heard the same thought a number of times in relationship to this text from Galatians...that the "false teachers" were those who would not be "doctrinally sound" or "correct," which in most cases meant, those "who did not hold to the regulations or traditions of the church."  Once again, such a correlation couldn't be further from the truth.  Indeed, it was those who were insisting upon adding regulations, binding traditions that Paul is speaking against here. 

The bottom line is this:  What has happened with Christians over the past century is that those who have been steeped in regulations, traditions in their churches often display the same attitude toward other, particularly younger, believers as that seen in the Judaizers in the early church.  They behave in a condescending, or even disdainful, manner toward those who do not agree with "their' or "their church's" or what they perceive is "the brotherhood's" view of any number of subjects.  In short, they choose to regulate these matters in the places where they reside, work...often to the detriment of the church. This is not to say that we cannot have or keep certain traditions, principles that guide concerning how we go about our business collectively, but they cannot be held in such high esteem that they violate the gospel of Christ, as was happening in the early church in the places mentioned.  As I shared in relationship to a message on the Lord's Supper recently, people can become so bound as to "what form" the Supper is supposed to take, or even "who can take it," that they truly miss the intended meaning for the Lord's Supper itself.  I believe Paul would be just as angry today with the "lack of love" or "loss of love" on the part of many believers who claim Jesus Christ, but whose attitude of heart is so very different from what He displayed and in relationship to His calling in general.  We may be able to discern all of the mysteries of the Bible, know all of the stories, have great contributions, potlucks, activities, etc, and yet, if principle number one is not present, then it is all for nought.  It is a critical message for the Galatians...and it also is for us.

Blessings, Don

Friday, April 13, 2012

Spiritual Renewal


Rick Warren shares this thought in “The Purpose Driven Life”.  Imagine riding in a speedboat on a lake with an automatic pilot set to go “east”.  If you decide to reverse and head west, you have two possible ways to change the boat's direction.  One way is to grab the steering wheel and physically force it to head in the opposite direction from where the autopilot is programmed to go.  By sheer willpower you could overcome the autopilot, but you would feel constant resistance.  Your arms would eventually tire of the stress, you'd let go of the steering wheel, and the boat would instantly head back east, the way it was internally programmed.  This is what happens when you try to change your life with willpower: You say, "I'll force myself to eat less...exercise more...quit being disorganized and late."  Yes, willpower can produce short-term change, but it creates constant internal stress because you haven't dealt with the root cause.  The change doesn't feel natural, so eventually YOU give up, go off your diet, and quit exercising. You quickly revert to your old patterns.  There is a better and easier way: Change your autopilot – change the way you think. The Bible says, "Let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think." ( Rom 12:2)  The first step in spiritual growth and renewal is to start changing the way you think. Change always starts first in your mind. The way you think determines the way you feel…and the way you feel influences the way you act.  Paul said, “There must be a spiritual renewal of your thoughts and attitudes." (Ephesians 4:23)

Blessings, Don

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Walking with the Spirit (Considering Galatians), Introduction


I believe the title, "Walking with the Spirit," is appropriate for this message, although the apostle Paul certainly had to build his case in order to help the Christians in the Galatian region to understand this point.  In fact, as he starts his letter, it does not sound very hopeful.  Paul established churches in central Asia Minor, the Galatian region particulrly, on his first missionary journey (Acts 13:1ff).  There has long been some question as to whether these churches were in the upper, less civilized area of Asia Minor or in the lower, more populated region.  There are many arguments that can be used in support of either position, but for the purposes of this message, my simple response is that the cities mentioned in the book of Acts are in the lower region.  I believe that it is in cities such as Lystra, Derbe, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch that he ministered on his first journey, so the letter would probably have an early composition (48-49 A.D.), and would likely be the first or second letter that Paul wrote. 

Something happened in the few years of time from when he established those churches and when he writes the letter to the Galatians.  Paul had been the Pharisee of Pharisees until his meeting with Jesus.  He was faithful with regard to keeping the Law.  He understood the complexities and difficulties associated with being a Jewish religious leader.  Following his conversion, he zealously took up the cause of his Lord and went out to tell the world concerning salvation in Jesus Christ.  Peter, John and other of the apostles were first sent to the Jews  to share the message of Christ.  We do not know the precise time-frame, but many Jews would come to know Christ from the time that the church was established in Acts 2 until the time of the events in the Galatian letter. Some of these Jewish Christians were still enamored with elements of the law...so much so that it would become a stumbling block to them and for others, as they would seek to impose Jewish traditions and regulations upon Gentile converts.  Acts 13-15 deals with much of the controversy concerning whether or not Gentile Christians would have to become Jews in order to be considered "genuine" Christians.  The answer, as revealed by the Holy Spirit in Acts 15 is plainly "no."  Gentile believers were able to come to Christ as they were and did not have to conform to any list of Jewish traditions or regulations.  Just a brief aside...can you imagine if the decision would have gone the other direction?  It would have led to utter chaos in the early church and likely would have led to the church's undoing.  Everyone would have had to abide by a consistent set of regulations in order to be considered "proper" Christians.  Then what would have been the purpose of Christ's death, burial and resurrection, if not to set us free, not only from sin, but from the Law which was binding? (I will expand on this later).  This is the point of the Galatian letter, as well as the letter to the Romans -- we have been set free to live for Christ.  It is this principle that we are going to explore.

Paul had enemies who apparently were following him from place to place and were causing trouble for him and for those he was teaching (Galatians 2:4).  These enemies were some of these cultural and religious Jewish Christians or "Judaizers," as they were known.  These brethren should have been Paul's allies, but many of them were still trusting  in the law more so than in a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, they were binding many of the regulations of the Jewish religion upon the new Gentile converts in the Galatian region.  The Judaizers' primary concern was circumcision, but there were also other traditional elements of the ritual law involved as well, such as holy days, feast, etc. It is these Judaizers and those they have influenced that Paul is going to address quickly.  We will examine this next -- stay tuned. :-)

Blessings, Don

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Truth or Consequences concerning the Lord’s Supper


From the beginning of the church, the custom was for Christians to eat together (Acts 2:42, 46). This was an opportunity for fellowship and for sharing with those who were less privileged. At the end of the meal, they would partake of the Lord’s Supper. They would call this meal, “the agape feast,” which comes from one of the Greek words for “love,” since the purpose was to show love for one another. The “agape feast” was an important part of the worship service in the church at Corinth, but some significant abuses had crept in (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). One of the difficulties was that some of the members there were getting preferential treatment over others in relationship to the Lord’s Supper. The communal meals there were doing more harm than good for the church, because selfishness was at work – the rich people were bringing large amounts of food for themselves, while the poorer members were going hungry. The “agape feast” was the only good meal that some of the poorer members were going to get, so to be mistreated hurts not only their stomachs, but their pride as well. It should have been edifying, instead it was embarrassing. Some of the difficulties also just might have to do with the fact that some of the members were coming to the feast drunk...thus the clouding of judgment. The divisions at dinner were evidence of much deeper problems in the church. They were indeed prideful themselves, thinking that they were "advanced believers"…when they were actually "little children." Paul does not suggest that they abandon the feast, but that they restore its proper meaning. He says, “Let the rich eat at home if they are hungry"...but, everything should be shared when all come together.

How important is it that Christians prepare their hearts before we come to the Lord’s Table? According to Paul, it is a serious matter to come to the table with an unprepared heart. Because the Corinthians had been sinning in their observing of the Lord’s Supper, God disciplines them. “That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (that is, have died)” (11:30, NIV). The partaking of the Lord’s Supper is to be a valuable experience, but whether it is a good or bad experience depends upon the hearts of those who participate. Paul indicates that we should “look back” when partaking of the supper. The broken bread reminds us of Christ’s body given for us…the cup reminds us of His blood that was shed. This may not be popular for some people…remembering Jesus' “death;” it is not simply a recalling of historical facts, but a participation in spiritual realities. We have fellowship with a living Savior as our hearts reach out to Him in faith. We also “look ahead,” as we observe it “until He comes again.” This is the blessed hope for every believer and for the church as a whole. We are to “look within.” We must partake “in a worthy manner," that is, we need to examine ourselves to see whether or not our hearts are in the right place. We need to come to the Lord blameless…having our sins confessed and forgiven. Finally, we are to “look around,” which has been the primary thrust of this message. We must be critical or condemning of one another in out attitudes or actions…remembering that what we are doing is a partaking together of the Lord’s Supper. This is also why we call it “communion” or our “common union.” The Lord’s Supper provides for us an opportunity for spiritual growth and blessings if we approach it with the right heart.

What we see taking place in Corinth is unique with respect to the culture of the time…but nothing new under the sun with regard to the spiritual heart of man. Understand this…the Lord’s Supper is not about one cup or many...whether we dip the morsel of bread in the cup or not...whether we do it one day a week or many days...whether we do it Sunday morning and Sunday evening or just Sunday morning...whether we eat it with a potluck meal (our “agape feast”) or not...whether we take it in our seats or go forward to do it...or whether women serve it or men (as happens in some cultures). It also is not about whether the servants and the emblems are in the front or the back...whether the grape juice is purple, white or wine...Seneca, Welch’s or Great Value...whether the bread is Matzos or homemade…or whether someone adds a little honey to the homemade bread. It is not even about whether we have a kitchen in our church buildings or not (as some have pulled this text out of context in order to make that argument). It is a spiritual concern…it is about the heart. The Lord’s Supper is about the “spiritual” function, not the form or package that it comes in. It is easy to get so tied up in the “form” or the package, that we truly miss the meaning concerning the “function.” It is as much about freedom as any other spiritual matter that we observe. We do not need to allow ourselves to become hidebound or “rigid” with it or with any other issue for that matter.

As we have been studying the letter to the Galatians on Sunday morning, Paul strongly admonished the Galatians for allowing their freedom to be taken away by self-righteous Judaizers (cultural and religious Jewish Christians). Paul understood the issues of the day...as a Pharisee of Pharisees he had been there, done that, so to speak. As he shares with the Corinthians (chapters 8-10), he is keenly aware of causing a new Christian to stumble. At the same time, he will not allow anyone to rob him of his freedom (1 Corinthians 10:29-30, Galatians 5:1). The last time that I checked, we don’t have meat being offered to idols in our culture...during the potluck, Lord’s Supper or at any other time…this was a cultural concern for the early church. However, it does underlie the principle...we would not want to cause a young Christian who has come from a pagan background to stumble. What would this look like today? We would not purposely serve wine at the Lord’s Supper to a recently converted alcoholic, for example. At the same time, we should not allow our freedom concerning how we do the Lord’s Supper to be robbed by people. Remember, the problem with the Judaizers is that they were so hidebound by tradition that they were really of no spiritual value…and Paul admonishes them for causing others to stumble. This is the real issue.

Many of the problems that take place in our church culture today have to do with current "Judaizers" who steal our freedom. It has little if anything to do with causing “younger Christians” to stumble. In fact, what does cause young Christians to stumble today is the rigid in relationship to traditions church culture that has been cultivated in many churches over the past 100 years...it was unacceptable to Paul, to the Lord…and it should be to us, as well. Something is terribly wrong when people who have been church members for 20…30…40 years or more are the ones “being caused to stumble” and the baby or young Christians are the ones more so with “spiritual common sense.” This ought not be so. Thankfully, this has been gradually changing over the past couple of decades. We must remember “the big picture.” We need to be believers that are learning, growing and prospering spiritually. If the primary focus in coming together is to get upset because “things are not going precisely how I think they should go," whether it is concerning the Lord’s Supper or some other matter…then we are not learning, growing and prospering, spiritually. We need to be blessed by the heart or the true purpose of the Lord’s Supper and not be troubled by what form it should take. I want to close with a quote by a 19th century English minister, J.C. Ryle, “The benefit of the Lord’s Supper depends entirely on the spirit and frame of mind in which we receive it. The bread which we eat, and the wine which we drink, have no power to do good to our souls, as medicine does good to our bodies, without the co-operation of our hearts and wills.” From Day By Day with J.C. Ryle, “Lord’s Supper”, 168.

Blessings, Don