A Compelling Mission.

Does the way in which we engage people outside the church point to the reality of God?

In previous posts we have looked at Christianity as compelling because it is true. This week we begin looking at how Christianity is compelling because it is beautiful.

My boys are now reading Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which I also read in school. In this book and corresponding tv series American society has been ordered, supposedly, according to the teachings of the Bible. However, it is not long before the reader realizes that this is a very ugly society. If that is what Christianity leads to, it is not compelling at all! If Christianity is true, reflecting a good and loving God, we will expect it to bring beauty, not ugliness. Does Christianity lead to beauty or ugliness? Specifically, is the way Christians engage non-Christians beautiful?

First, freedom is beautiful. Imprisonment is always an ugly thing. With Christianity there is to be freedom. When we read the New Testament we find people freely choosing to be followers of Jesus. In the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28, Jesus did not say “go and force everyone to be a Christian,” but “go and make disciples.”

This means that everyone should have freedom to not be a Christian. Some religions and worldviews use power to keep people in. We can think of fundamentalist versions of Islam. In some nations it is illegal to convert from Islam to another faith! My own children have been raised with a strong connection with the church family. But they are free to not be Christians. While my heart’s desire is that all three will follow Jesus, it is not my decision to make. They are free to choose their relationship with Jesus. As they grow into adulthood they will be free to choose their connection with the church family also. Sometimes we as Christians have made it difficult for people to leave the faith. That gets ugly. Freedom is beautiful.

There is also to be freedom for the non-Christian to not have to act like a Christian. Jesus did not say in Matthew 28 “go and make Christian nations, forcing everyone to have Christian morals,” but,

. . . go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT emphasis added) 

The New Living Translation goes beyond what is in the original Greek, but captures for us well who is to learn Christ’s ways, namely, His disciples. As a Canadian I am watching the culture war in the States with interest. I see a desire to ‘make America Christian again.’ However, forcing an entire nation to follow Jesus gets ugly. We understand that Christianity is spreading very well in China. I imagine that the Chinese Christians are focused on making disciples, one person at a time, not fighting a culture war, one law at time. That is not to say that Christians should not be involved in politics. But when we are, let us not confuse lawmaking with evangelism.

We Christians have sometimes denied freedom, and sometimes still do. It has been and can get ugly. But we will not deny freedom if we are looking to Jesus, if the New Testament is our guide. Freedom is beautiful, and a Biblical Christianity promotes freedom.

Second, words are a beautiful way to share truth. Forced conversion through violence is ugly. Conversion through force or manipulation is something you will not find happening in the New Testament, nor is it something Jesus told us to do. Instead, we find people sharing what they know to be true about Jesus using words. You will not find a Christian going to war in the New Testament to ‘take the land for Jesus.’ You will find honest sharing. You will find conversations. You will not find warriors. You will find preachers.

We Christians have sometimes resorted to power, and sometimes we still do. It has been and can get ugly. However, we will not use force if we are looking to Jesus, if the New Testament is our guide. Words are beautiful. A Biblical Christianity promotes conversation and sharing through words.

Third, it is a beautiful thing to share good news. Keeping life changing good news to oneself would be ugly. Keeping Jesus for ourselves would be ugly. Keeping quiet about the amazing news of God’s amazing grace would be ugly. Some religions may promote a ‘keep to yourself’ attitude. That might be okay if you are keeping your love for liver and onions to yourself. But imagine finding the cure for cancer. We have learned of the cure for death itself! We have learned that God has a love solution for our separation-from-God problem. Keeping that to ourselves would demonstrate an ugly, ugly lack of love for others. From the very earliest days, Christians have been involved in missions. Because we must in order to get to heaven? Nope! Because sharing good news is a beautiful thing, a natural thing. The good news is too good to keep to ourselves!

The way Christians are to relate with non-Christians is not ugly, but beautiful. Freedom is beautiful, words are a beautiful way to share truth, and it is a beautiful thing to share good news. God’s call for how the Christian should engage with the non-Christian is, just as you would expect from a good God, beautiful. This is yet another aspect of Christianity that is compelling.

(This post is part of a series called “Compelling” which begins here. The full sermon can be heard on the podcast which is found here.)

Investigating Jesus: Good Witnesses

The case is strong. As lead detective you have uncovered all the evidence and drawn the best conclusions. Eyewitness testimony is a key part of the evidence. But what if the jury members do not trust the witnesses? Why should they believe them? As the investigator you already have confidence in the eyewitnesses because you have already asked the important questions to establish trust.

When it comes to investigating Jesus, why should we trust the eyewitnesses? As we continue the journey of following the lead of cold-case detective J. Warner Wallace let us consider four key questions which Wallace says must be asked about eyewitnesses. Here again, we are only scratching the surface, please see Wallace’s book Cold-Case Christianity, where each question is the topic of an entire chapter. So what four questions are to be asked?

Were the eyewitnesses actually there?

Some who would love to discredit the eyewitnesses and strike their testimony from the investigation will claim that the writings of the New Testament, including the four Gospels were written far too late to contain any valid eyewitness testimony. However, if we can determine that they were written close to the events, then we can have confidence the eyewitnesses would have had the opportunity to review them, or be involved in the writing of them. So are there reasons we should consider the books of the New Testament as being written early? Though not Wallace’s full list, here are a few things to consider:

  • The siege and destruction of Jerusalem including the destruction of the Temple is not mentioned in the works of the New Testament beyond a prophecy of Jesus. There are plenty of times where one would expect such to be mentioned. The simplest explanation for such absence is that these writings predate the Fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, and so while the eyewitnesses of Jesus are still alive.
  • Luke, who wrote the history-focused book of Acts never mentions the deaths of Peter, Paul, or James in the 60’s AD. Since Luke would have been keen to point to their martyrdoms as examples of how they picked up their crosses and followed Jesus, it is reasonable to conclude that Luke wrote Acts before their deaths.
  • As you can tell from his opening words in each, Luke wrote his Gospel before he wrote Acts, and so during the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. It is widely agreed that the Gospel of Mark was written before that of Luke.
  • Paul’s speaks of the eyewitnesses as being still alive to corroborate the testimony in 1st Corinthians 15:6

Can we verify what the eyewitnesses have said in some way?

Is there any corroborating evidence to show that the eyewitness testimony is genuine? Or does the evidence suggest that it is fabricated? Here are some things to consider:

  • Wallace points to the “unintentional eyewitness support” which he encounters in crime cases. These happen one witness unintentionally says something that answers questions that another witness has raised. Wallace gives many examples, but here is one: We might wonder from reading Matthew 4:18-22 why Simon Peter and Andrew simply get up and follow Jesus. We learn from Luke 5:1-11 that Jesus had previously been fishing with them and was the cause of a miraculous catch of fish. Of course they get up and follow when he calls!
  • There is a genuine feel to the testimony with the little discrepancies in the stories which you expect when people remember the same events, but from different perspectives. For an example of how people remember the same things slightly differently, ask someone how long this week’s sermon felt! If every person in church that day answered with 53 minutes and 12 seconds, you you would suspect a collusion and a memorized answer. Genuine witnesses do not need to memorize what they know to be true. Discrepencies are a mark of authenticity.
  • The Gospels were written from different parts of the Roman Empire. However, they all reference names which are appropriate to the location of Palestine in that time. This is an extra piece of evidence that the Gospel writers know what they are talking about.
  • Other writers, both Jewish and non-Jewish make reference to Jesus, and while they are sceptical about the conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, they do confirm the kinds of things that were being said about Jesus whether they liked it or not.

Have the eyewitnesses changed their story over time?

You don’t want to trust witnesses who change their stories. Did the followers of Jesus say one thing early on, then something quite different later? Some things to consider:

  • The evidence points to the students of the eyewitnesses as being trustworthy in keeping and handing on their testimony. We will look at this next week.
  • Through something called “textual criticism” we can be quite certain about the reliability of the texts which we have. This will be covered two weeks from now.
  • The Jewish people were very good at keeping important records. The Christian Church inherited this passion for integrity in guarding the truth.

To sum this point up, the apostles never changed their tune despite pressure to do so, and the early Christians kept right on playing the same tune.

Do the eyewitnesses have a reason to lie?

Does the evidence suggest that the apostles were simply telling what they knew to be true, or did they have some motive to conspire together in a lie? Consider:

  • Wallace points out that the three key motives for being involved in a crime revolve around money, sex, or power. The apostles did not stand to gain in any of these things, in fact they stood to lose their lives for sticking to their testimony that Jesus was risen.
  • Some would say that we should not even consider the testimony of the apostles, for they had become Christians, and their testimony therefore is biased toward a “Christian slant.” Of course they were biased. They became biased because of what they saw and knew to be true. To not admit their testimony would be like not admitting the testimony of a witness because they were now biased regarding the guilt of the person they saw commit a murder. To quote Wallace from Cold-Case Christianity: “The disciples were not prejudicially biased; they were evidentially certain.”

Jesus called the apostles to fulfil the role of witnesses:

After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. . . . He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 1:3,7,8 (NRSV emphasis mine)

While we often apply this text to all Christians, we should not lose sight of the fact that Jesus is talking specifically here to the apostles. They were to fulfil the role of witnesses, telling everyone they knew, and everyone they didn’t know, about what they had seen and knew to be true. In the writing of the documents that make up the New Testament, their testimony has been preserved. They are still eyewitnesses down to this day. They are good witnesses, of some very very Good News! What will you do with their testimony?

 

The Uncomfortable Message of Repentance.

The Church is called to deliver an uncomfortable message. If we look to Peter’s first sermon to the people on the Day of Pentecost following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus we will find a key word. Upon being asked “what should we do?” (Acts 2:37), the very first word out of Peter’s mouth is “Repent” (Acts 2:38). This has been a central part of the Church’s message to the world ever since. The word “repent” literally means ‘to have a change of mind’ and the Church is to call people all over the world to have a change of mind in their worldview, and in their ethics. This does not sit well with everybody and needless to say many Christians find this message of repentance to be uncomfrotable. Given that the culture of Canada is slowly but surely slipping away from Judeo-Christian values, a proper call to repentance will become even more uncomfortable for the Church in Canada in the days to come. Perhaps we would rather have a comfortable message, like “every religious worldview is valid,” or “God does not really care about how you live”. But we must go with an honest message, not a comfortable one.

Ezekiel was called to deliver an uncomfortable message as a prophet and there are some things we can learn from his experience. Let us consider the following passage:

You shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house. 8 But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you. 9 I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. 10 He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. (Ezekiel 2:7-10 emphasis mine)

This is going to be uncomfortable! While Biblical scholars debate whether Ezekiel was to literally eat the scroll, or rather if it is meant to be taken figuratively with Ezekiel knowing well the word he is to speak, there is no doubt about one thing. This will be a bitter message. The people will not want to hear it, and no doubt Ezekiel did not want to deliver it. Sounds a bit like the message of repentance the Church is called to deliver today. However, let us read on:

1 He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey. (Ezekiel 2:1-3 emphasis mine)

Bitter words of “lamentation and mourning and woe” end up being as “sweet as honey”? Could it be that the call to repentance is sweet? Let us consider why the scroll is sweet.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because apathy is bitter. There is nothing worse than a broken relationship with God. If you don’t believe me, ask Adam and Eve. Our hearts break for people when they experience health troubles and the like, but do our hearts break for people who experience a broken relationship with God? To be unaware of, or without care for, the judgement the lost are facing, and so to not share the good news of God’s love and salvation in Christ would be a bitter thing. To hear the word of woe and so have a broken heart for the lost is sweet indeed.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because injustice is bitter. Mention the justice and judgement of God and eyes roll. Yet when a criminal gets off on a technicality we cry out for justice. People naturally tend to have a keen sense of justice, it is part of having a conscience. Throughout the world you can hear cries for justice, it is something humanity yearns for. If you love justice you are really going to love God, for his justice is perfect, more thorough than any legal system, more keen that any judge, more to be trusted than any jury. The scroll is sweet because God’s justice is perfect.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because a missed opportunity is bitter. Contrary to what many believe, the prophets of the Old Testament did not share predictions of the future to satisfy curiosity. Rather prophets speak on behalf of God, often pointing to the future so that people could make wise choices in the present. Ezekiel is to bring a message of woe, he is to help the exiled people see that they are now experiencing the consequence of their sin by being in exile. But Ezekiel also will deliver a message of hope, God will remain faithful to His covenant promises. The hearers of Ezekiel’s message, in hearing the bad and the good, have the opportunity to make a good decision regarding their standing with God. The Church, in its prophetic role, is to speak of the coming judgement, and the love and grace of God in Christ, so that people can make the wise decision of facing the future with Christ on their side. In fact Christ has already shown He is on everyone’s side through the cross, but those who reject Him show that they do not want to be on His. It is a bitter thing to miss the opportunity for reconciliation with one’s Maker. To be motivated to think through all the implications of one’s relationship with God is sweet. The scroll is sweet because it speaks of the God-given opportunity to experience grace.

“Words of lamentation and mourning and woe” are sweet because being stuck is bitter. The yucky feeling of regret can lead us to a better place. Over the past three years I have lost 107 pounds. Mind you, I am not 107 pounds lighter for my weight has been up and down like a yoyo and I have gained weight over that time as well. But had I never experienced the yucky feeling of regret I would be well over 300 pounds by now. To be feeling healthier has been sweet. While the evil one can use regret to keep us in a bitter place, the Holy Spirit uses regret to change us and bring us to a sweeter place. The Holy Spirit uses regret to drive people to repentance, to lead people to that place of being unhappy living in sin, and wanting to live in Christ instead. Regret leads people into the arms of God, and there is no sweeter place to be. The scroll is sweet because it unglues people.

The Church has a similar calling in the world as Ezekiel did for God’s people in exile. We are to call people to repentance. Throughout history being a prophet has been an uncomfortable thing, but truly, the message of repentance is very sweet.

(Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)