Three Important Years and Five Important Lessons in My Faith Journey.

Rather than invite a guest speaker for our anniversary service, I invited two members to share about an important season of their journey of faith. The following is what I shared about an important season in mine.

Looking back there were five lessons in three years which set the course for my faith, but also my work as a pastor for the last twenty-four years.

You may assume I am referring to my three years at seminary. While my three years at McMaster Divinity College were indeed very important, I am actually referring to the three years prior in which I attended Trent University in pursuit of a Bachelor of Arts. Here are the five important lessons of faith impressed on me in those three years:

My Christian faith is about God’s grace, and not my attempts to impress God.

Two gentlemen from another faith tradition, which I’ll not name, knocked on our door. What followed was an interesting conversation, or rather a challenging conversation where one of the men in particular dismissed the Christian notion of grace. According to him, we had to earn a good standing before God. Immediately following that conversation I opened the Scriptures to Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians and began reading.

While the whole of Paul’s teaching in Romans was helpful, here is one quote to catch the gist of it:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.

Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)

While I already believed that our good standing before God was by God’s grace and not our effort, a deeper dive into Romans solidified this for me. Good teaching can help us learn things, but sometimes a challenge to what we are taught, or a seed of doubt, can really help us go deeper in our search for truth.

To some the teaching of God’s grace may seem like something that should be settled in Sunday school. However, I meet people, both within and beyond the Church, who think that Christianity is all about trying to impress God. When some people say “God is good,” they think mainly of God’s holiness. Grace is a very important part of God’s goodness, and holiness.

My Christian faith is about love, and I don’t mean love for rules.

One day while driving to Trent I was forced to take a detour because of a car accident. In turning back onto the street I saw the wrecked car and thought how tragic, that the driver was probably killed given the state of the car. I thought nothing more about it until I got home and discovered that the driver was my best friend from my last years at high school.

It is a normal response to the death of a loved one, especially an unexpected death, to consider your last words together, your last weeks, months, even years, and to reflect on your relationship. That evening, I’m not sure why, but I read 1st Corinthians, chapter 13. Let me quote a few verses:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (NLT)

Prior to this moment I always thought of this famous chapter on love to be precisely that, a hymn about love. But this time in reading it, it became a chapter about me, about what I was, and what I wasn’t. By the normal Christian yardstick I was quite a righteous young man, not into drinking, pornography, drugs, and the like. But by the yardstick of love, I had a long way to go. Looking back, I hadn’t been the best of friends to someone who was the best of friends. This was the moment that my faith dropped from my head to my heart. Yes, I had known for a long time, or rather assented to the theological proposition that I had fallen short of the glory of God. But now I knew in a much deeper way that this was no mere thought, but a sad reality. While I was good at keeping rules, I was not doing so well with the greatest commandments which focus on love. Thankfully, there is grace and forgiveness and an experience of God’s love.

There was also a new way forward, of a life and faith focused on love. No longer would I would focus on keeping rules in order to be a good Christian. The focus was now on loving in order to be like Christ. The rules we tend to love so much in Baptist circles are not there to help us get to heaven, as some people suppose. The rules are there to help us express love.

My Christian faith makes sense, even when I can’t makes sense of everything.

While majoring in English Literature and Classical Studies, I took different kinds of courses and was exposed to challenges to religion in general, and my Christian faith specifically. What dawned on me, however, was how Christianity could stand up to scrutiny and critical inquiry. Christianity was reasonable and made sense.

This of course didn’t mean that I could make sense of everything. Who can really understand God? Who can really understand one’s loved ones? God is not an equation to be figured out, but a Person to be in relationship with. Sometimes it feels like God used artists, those familiar with mystery, to write the Scriptures, while we ask lawyers and engineers, those familiar with precision, to interpret them.

Yes, there are things best described as mystery, things hidden from our eyes and understanding. During those three years I learned that while there is mystery, there is nothing non-sensical or unreasonable about faith in Jesus.

In those three years I learned that I did not need to leave my faith in the parking lot of the university. Nor do I need to leave my brain at the door of the church.

My Christian faith leads to a mix of conviction about some things and humility about other things, but not certitude about everything.

The motto of Trent University is “nunc cognosco ex parte” which is a Latin translation from 1st Corinthians 13:9 meaning “now I know in part.” Here the apostle Paul demonstrates both conviction and humility. Paul came to know some very important things, but not everything. He knew that.

Some may assume that one attends a university to learn everything. Actually one attends university to learn how to learn, and the more you know the more you learn just how little you know! The same can be said of seminary. Some may assume that you go to seminary to learn everything there is to know about God, the Bible, and the life of faith. Rather seminary prepares one for a lifetime of learning, thinking, and rethinking. All theology is an exercise in deconstruction and reconstruction.

Sometimes Christianity is presented in a way that makes it seem that a Christian, especially a pastor, can and should have certitude about everything. Yet, if the Apostle Paul could say “now I know in part,” so can I. There are things to have conviction about. There are things it is better to have humility about. It takes wisdom and learning to know which is appropriate when.

My Christian faith is really about Jesus, and not Paul.

When choosing courses in my first year of Trent, one particular course struck me as particularly relevant: New Testament Greek. Problem was that I needed Classical Greek fist, so I ended up taking two courses in Classical Greek and one in New Testament Greek. This began a lifelong pursuit of, and love for, learning the Biblical languages. This also planted an important seed that would blossom later.

If you were to ask me in the early years of my growing faith what my favourite books of the Bible were, I would have said the letters of Paul. They seemed the most “theological” which appealed to me greatly. However, I had a problem; Paul’s letters are harder to read in Greek than the Gospels. So I began reading the Gospels more, which meant I was reading about the life and teaching of Jesus more. I came to realise that I had made Christianity about Paul when really it is about Jesus. I used to read Paul to understand Paul. I now read Paul to understand Jesus. This is a subtle, but important change.

Paul and the other apostles, in their letters, were working out the implications of the life, teaching, example, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the Christian communities of their day. We read them now to help us work out the implications of the life, teaching, example, death, and resurrection of Jesus for us in ours. It is about Jesus.

That Christianity is about Christ might seem like an obvious thing. However, I wonder if many Christians live a kind of Christian life that is really more about a certain expression of Christianity than about Jesus. I fear that some people live a kind of Christianity that is centred and focused on Paul, Luther, Calvin, Joel Olsteen, or anyone other than Jesus. My love of Greek brought me back to Jesus.

Conclusion

While my three years at McMaster Divinity College were very important for my growth as a Christian, God used the three years prior to help ground me in these five insights that set the course for my future. Have you had a similar season that has been significant in your growth as a person and Jesus follower? Perhaps this next season will be it!

Time to Make Christianity Great Again? (Thinking Through Acts 10:44-48)

There is no doubt that Christianity does not enjoy the esteem and influence that it once did in this part of the world. No doubt there are many who would love to make Christianity great again. This being so, there is an event recorded in the book of Acts which should be cause for reflection.

To understand the importance of this event, we will want to go back to the Old Testament. Let’s go back to Genesis where God called Abraham and made two key promises. The first was “I will make you into a great nation” (12:2 NLT). The second was “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (12:3 NLT).

As we read through the rest of the Old Testament, we may get the impression, from Exodus right through to the book of Malachi, that it is all about the special nation that descended from Abraham. We read about the founding and formation of God’s people, the giving of the law, their relationship with God along the way, their lack of relationship with God along the way, their exile due to a lack of relationship with God, and their return from exile thanks to God’s commitment to the relationship and his promises.

Reading through the Old Testament, therefore, we might get the impression that the focus is almost entirely on the first promise to Abraham, of making him into a great nation. The other promise, of all nations being blessed, for the most part seems to fall off the radar.

Enter Jesus. The attitude of people toward Jesus, as they considered whether he was the Messiah or not, could be summed up with the question: “Is this the one who is going to make Israel great again?”

God’s old covenant people had been through a lot including exile and the return from exile. They continued to face hard times as they had been under foreign rule quite often since the return from exile, and were now under the thumb of the Romans. Perhaps Jesus is the one who will fix this Roman problem and bring them back to being a sovereign nation? The mood in the air pointed to a focus on the first promise of making Israel great. Even the apostles were caught up in it when following his resurrection,

…the apostles were with Jesus, they kept asking him, “Lord, has the time come for you to free Israel and restore our kingdom?”

Acts 1:6 (NLT)

While the apostles still had in mind the promise of making Israel great, Jesus pointed to another promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit:

He replied, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:7-8 (NLT)

The Holy Spirit did indeed come upon a great crowd of people which we can read about in Acts, chapter two. But all these people, though coming from different nations, were part of God’s old covenant people. The idea of making Israel great again could still linger, the promise of blessing all the families of the earth could still be largely off the radar. Until we get to Acts, chapter ten. Here Peter had a rather “un-Jewish” vision, while Cornelius, a non-Jew had an angel visitation resulting in the invitation of Peter to the home of Cornelius, another rather “un-Jewish” thing to happen. Peter then spoke to them about Jesus, and,

as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. For they heard them speaking in other tongues and praising God.
Then Peter asked, “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Acts 10:44-48 (NLT)

If there was any doubt before, there was no doubt now, that Jesus’ purpose was not about making Israel great again, but about making the world great at last, fulfilling the promise to Abraham that “All the families on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3 NLT).

This fulfilment of the promise challenges us in our desire to make Christianity great again.

Let’s remember that while the Jews hated being under Roman rule, most nations, and many Jews, could see the benefit of Roman rule. New roads were built along with new buildings and facilities like gymnasiums. And there was the “peace of Rome.” Nations under Roman rule, and there were many, could count on protection from attack, both from beyond and from within the empire. The Roman army would intervene, and it was a very good army.

While Rome brought peace, it did so, as at least one Bible teacher has pointed out, by “the power of the cross.” Rome ruled and kept peace through the use of brute force and brutality. The empire had peace, but it was an ugly empire, with an ugly, and precarious, kind of peace. In contrast, Jesus brought a different kind of peace, a beautiful lasting peace with God and others. Jesus brought peace by the power of cross, but it was not peace won by brute force and brutality, but rather peace won by love, grace, and forgiveness.

Through Jesus, God was not making Israel great again by making it like Rome as some had hoped. Rather, through Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, God was, and still is, inviting everyone to the Kingdom of God. This is a good kingdom, one of love, justice, and goodness.

Rome had accomplished the bringing together of many different peoples together in one peaceful empire. That peace was held by the power and brutality of the cross. Jesus brings people together in one peaceful kingdom. That peace is held by God’s forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love made evident at the cross.

Which cross do we use? Are we a people of brute force? Or are we a people of love and grace? Christianity can not be made great again through brute force. There is nothing great about that. Perhaps we need a better focus than making Christianity great again anyway. Perhaps a better focus is the blessing of all the families of the earth.