Is There Hope for Christianity?

3009540197_c9b29f02d2_nPeople say there is no hope for Christianity. They point to statistics. They point to unpopular doctrines and unloved ethics. It will die out eventually, they say. Furthermore, churches are boring and irrelevant, they will all die out. And people say there is no hope for the Christian. There is no such thing as the supernatural, at least not as described by the Bible, and so the Christian who dies will stay dead. They say that spirituality is something to be enjoyed in this life, the best one can hope for in the next is to push up daisies. Or perhaps your karma will catch up to you and you will be pushing up dandelions instead. But as for the classic Christian doctrine of the resurrection, there is no hope for the Christian.

People have said there was no hope for God’s people before. Their great city, Jerusalem, was destroyed. The central place for the expression of their faith, the temple lay in ruins. That temple was known as the place on earth that God had chosen to take up residence among His people. He was long gone. So too were the people, exiled, taken away from their land and dispersed to ensure they would remain weak through disunity. There was no hope for them. Or so they even they themselves said. But God said otherwise:

​The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.” Ezekiel 37:1-14 NRSV

We can first note the picture of hopelessness in Ezekiel’s vision. The first image is of a battlefield from the days of hand-to-hand combat filled with the bones of the dead. They are very dry, and so they have been dead a very long time. They have suffered the indignity of not having had a proper burial and they belong to the losers. The second picture is of the dead being sealed in graves, as if their fate was sealed.

But now note the picture of hope. In the vision the bones come together, and the dead are put back together complete with muscle and skin though they still do not live. Then Ezekiel is told by God to prophesy to the winds to have breath enter into the bodies. The significance of these two steps in the resurrection to life is that it recalls the creation of humanity by God in the first place:  “then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being” Genesis 2:7 NRSV. In other words, remember God’s amazing work of creation, don’t doubt God’s ability to do what He wants to do. And what does God want to do? To fulfill His covenant promises. To bring life and hope to what was thought to be dead and hopeless: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” v.14.

There should have been no hope for the disciples of Jesus in the early decades of the Church. The doctrines and ethics of the Jesus followers were repulsive to Jew and Gentile alike. Persecution often broke out against the Christians. But, “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.”

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Acts 2:1-4 NRSV

Were it not for God’s Holy Spirit Christianity would likely have died out many times over throughout history. Yet it is still growing worldwide and exerting a positive influence on individuals and society alike.

People say that it is hopeless for God’s people in Canada today. People say that Christianity will die. God says “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live.” People say that all churches will eventually close. God says “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.” People say that Christians when they die, will stay dead never to be raised from the dead. God says “I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live.”

When God puts us back together, whether he is taking the dry bones of churches across Canada that have become stale, whether he is taking the dry bones of a Christian whose fire for the Lord has gone dim, or whether he is taking the dry bones of the dead in Christ, He will accomplish what He wants to accomplish. If we feel the future is hopeless for God’s people, well then it is time to seek His Spirit.

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Forgotten Apostles

13037621804_8cdc46a949_nI grew up watching wrestling, specifically the show “Maple Leaf Wrestling.” Part of what I remember is how predictable most of the matches were. The first contender would be be announced, usually a man no heavier than myself, nor taller, nor more muscular. Then they would announce the “big name,” someone like Big John Stud or Andre the Giant who would go on to decimate them. The outcome was always predictable. I’m not sure why the small guys even bothered to get into the ring, except of course that they were being paid to lose. And don’t ask me their names for they were forgettable as wrestlers next to the giants.

Perhaps we may feel that our performance as Christians is meagre, even forgettable. We may feel that it makes no sense to step into the ring for there are spiritual giants who do the Christian thing so much better than we do. We can think of the call to witness to a seeker, the call to righteousness, the call to investing our lives in the lives of others, the call to getting over ourselves, the call to love, the call to forgiveness, and the call to prayer. We can think of people who do these Christian things so much better than we can, they are spiritual giants. Let them enter the ring since they have so much more to offer. We may choose therefore to make Christianity a spectator sport and never get into the ring ourselves.

If you feel your Christian service is forgettable, you are in good company. Consider Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas in the earliest days of the Christian Church. Matthias was chosen for an extremely important role and he had the right qualifications:

So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us– one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” Acts 1:21-22 NRSV

Since Matthias fits this description we know he was well versed in the teaching and life of Jesus. He could attest personally to the death and resurrection of Jesus. He also had the Lord’s blessing on his choice as Judas’ successor:

Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. Acts 1:24-26 24 NRSV

The interesting thing about Matthias is that he just disappears from the pages of the Bible. Despite amazing credentials and the Lord’s blessing we never hear about him again. His work for the Lord, his response to God’s every call has, apart from a few mentions outside the Bible, been forgotten by history. He was not a “spiritual giant” like Paul, or Peter, or John. In fact, the service to the Lord of most of the disciples in New Testament times has been forgotten. And down through the centuries, though there has been a rich tradition of spiritual giants like Spurgeon, Carey, C.S. Lewis, and others, the vast majority of the Lord’s servants have been forgotten.

If you know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, consider the men and women God has used to reach you. You have heard the Gospel from someone who has heard it from someone who has heard it from someone, and so on down through a long line of mostly forgotten servants of Christ. For the most part, the Lord has not used spiritual giants to reach you with the Gospel, but forgotten servants. Or perhaps you did come to faith in Jesus through the ministry of a spiritual giant, through a Billy Graham crusade for example. Yet even in the “spiritual ancestry” of Billy Graham are a lot of unknown and forgotten Christians. Or maybe you came to faith through reading the Bible, with no one to help you at all. Yet how many forgotten and unknown scribes can we thank for preserving the Word of God for us. God has used hundreds, if not thousands, of unknown servants to make the Gospel known to you. We can be grateful to God that they did not stay out of the ring just because they were not spiritual giants.

We may be less like Paul and more like Matthias, likely to head into obscurity in just a few generations. But there are two things to note:

  1. God’s impact through you may grow long after you are forgotten. Because you have responded to God’s call on your life, people may be influenced by people who have been influenced by people who have been influenced by someone you have influenced. God may reach people for many generations to come because you got into the ring.
  2. You may be forgotten by history, but you will not be forgotten by God. You may not make it into the history books, but as a follower of Christ you will have your name in the God’s “Book of Life.

Most of God’s servants throughout history have been forgotten. But God has accomplished amazing things through forgotten people. You may feel that your contribution and participation in God’s Kingdom work is meagre, even forgettable, but don’t stay out of the ring just because you are not a spiritual giant. Get into the ring with your words. Get into the ring with your actions. Get into the ring with your presence. Get into the ring with your time, talents, and treasures. Get into the ring with your prayers. The Lord is already there waiting for you.

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Loving as Jesus Loves. A Reflection on John 19:12-15

4623404191_05f29a6d86_n“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12 NRSV

When you listen to the Beatles’ song “She Loves You” and then listen to “All You Need is Love,” you will probably be correct in thinking that the word “love” is used to refer to two different things. In our English language the word ‘love’ can have very different shades of meaning and one must sometimes be careful when using it. So when Jesus tells us to “love one another,” what is meant? I can remember a deeply theological discussion in grade five where a friend, with a recent Sunday school lesson in mind, declared that he loved a particular girl in a Christian sort of way. The more he talked though, the more it seemed that not hating her passed muster as a Christian kind of love. So when Jesus tells us to love one another, what precisely does that mean?

Thankfully, Jesus narrows it down for us by saying “love one another as I have loved you.” As we look at the rest of the passage, we will learn what it means to love as Jesus loves.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. John 15:12-14 NRSV

First, Jesus loves by laying down his life to serve the needs of others. Jesus is pointing forward to the day that he will literally lay his life down to bring salvation to his people. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” Mark 10:45 NRSV. His death and resurrection brings us reconciliation with God, life with God, indeed, eternal life with God. If we are to love one another as Jesus loves we are to learn to lay down our lives for others, to serve what is in the best interests of others.

And if laying down one’s life for one’s friends is an example of love, how much more should we be ready to lay down our lives for our most significant and covenantal relationships. We might say:

  • No husband has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his wife.
  • No wife has greater love than this, than to lay down her life for her husband.
  • No mother has greater love than this, than to lay down her life for her child.
  • No father has greater love than this, than to lay down his life for his child.
  • No child has greater love than this, than to lay down his or her life for his or her mother/father.
  • No pastor has greater love than this, than to lay down his or her life for Christ’s Church.
  • No church family has greater love than this, than to lay down their lives for the community.

But does laying down one’s life in service fully express what it means to love as Jesus loves? After all, we can serve others while harboring an inner hatred, resentment, or apathy toward them. Is that really love? Let’s look again to our passage:

13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer . . . John 15:13-15a

Laying down his life is not the only expression of Jesus’ love, he also loves by extending friendship. Only two people in the Old Testament were known as being “friends with God,” these being Abraham and Moses. While God spoke to many people in the Old Testament these two seemed to enjoy a special intimacy with God. Jesus gives intimacy as evidence of His friendship:

15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. John 15:15 NRSV

How thrilling a thing it is to be extended a friendship and intimacy with God! So exciting we ought to remind ourselves that God is also due a proper reverence and respect. In teaching us to pray, Jesus points towards both the intimacy we can enjoy with God, but also the reverence we are to bring. We are to pray “Our Father,” the word in the Greek New Testament being a more familiar and intimate term like “Dad.” But we are also to pray “Our Father in heaven.” Lest we get too chummy this is a reminder of the transcendence of God. He is in heaven. We are not. He is righteous. We are not. He is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We are not. He is God. We are not. We enjoy an intimacy with God, he extends friendship, yet “the fear of the Lord” is still appropriate.

Having seen what it means to love as Jesus loves, through laying down our lives in serving the needs of others and extending friendship, we can think of the difference it makes to love as Jesus loves.

Think back to New Testament times and imagine that you are a slave owner. And now you are to love your slaves as Jesus has loved you, laying down your life in service to the slave and extending friendship. What a transformation to the master/slave relationship. We have a beautiful example of this in the Bible where Paul encourages Philemon to take back his runaway and thieving slave, Onesimus:

15 Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, 16 no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother– especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. Philemon 1:15-16 NRSV

And think also of the marriage relationship. One’s wife would no longer be thought of as property, but as a friend whom the husband will delight in serving. In fact Jesus’ teaching on love can transform marriages today. In pre-marital guidance courses I point out three different kinds of love, which correspond to three different Greek words. A friendship kind of love, philein, a romantic kind of love, eros, and a committed kind of love, agape. I used to say that marriage can survive on agape love, a commitment to the marriage vows, but will thrive on all three. Now I say that a spouse who has agape love for his or her spouse will actively pursue all three. When I love my wife as Jesus loves, I want her to know that she is my best friend. I also want my wife to know that, though I am not very romantic, all the romance I can muster up is for her and her alone. When a man loves a woman the way that Jesus loves, fidelity to marriage vows is not enough. Serving is important. Nurturing a deep friendship is important. You can forgive me for keeping to a male perspective here, but I must ask: How many marriages across our nation would be transformed if all men became avid followers of Jesus? And how many relationships would be transformed if all people learned to love as Jesus loves, laying down their lives in service, and extending genuine friendship?

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” John 15:12 NRSV

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