Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jude, a Letter to the Church, Page 3

Do you write a Christmas letter?  I have one friend who always (only?) includes all of the year’s low points.  Death and illness and tragedy make for a really upbeat Christmas letter.  Another family friend used to have glowing overbearing praise for one of their children and a one-sentence update about the other child.  We have written a satirical letter, a real update, a one-sentence-per-family- member update, and just “Merry Christmas from the Vinsons.”

The big question is: What do you include in the letter?  What makes the cut?  Jude set out, eager to write about their shared salvation.  That’s a really great subject – salvation.  Salvation is a huge topic for conversation, and we could spend all day today speaking on it, but let’s look at it quickly.  In the Roman Empire, the title “Savior” was given to the Emperor.  So when you see “Savior” spoken of, it’s often in direct response to Rome, making sure everyone knows that salvation comes from God alone, and not from the government. 

When Jude talks about salvation, he uses deliverance language, which is appropriate because once God’s people were slaves in Egypt, but God delivered them out of slavery and into freedom.  This corresponds to Jesus delivering us from the bondage of sin and guilt and into the freedom that comes with following Him.

Unfortunately, things came up and Jude had to change subjects.  I’ve been there.  I’ve had to completely re-do an entire sermon series to address current events.  So it happened with Jude.  Instead of writing an eager, happy letter about salvation, he had to write “the other letter.”

He had to remind the church the nature of their struggle as a church: to urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints. (Jude 3b).  This is an incredible phrase: to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.

When he talks about the saints, he’s not talking about the Super Bowl champion football team and he’s not talking about some special class of miraculous people, Saints with a capital S. That’s nowhere in the Bible.  The Greek word is hagios, which means holy ones.  Who are the holy ones?  Those who God has set apart for his use.  Those who God has called according to His purpose. Meaning the Church.

The faith Jude is talking about is our relationship with God – our only hope of salvation in Jesus Christ, the hope that inspires obedience.  It’s important to note that Jesus entrusted the faith to us because that requires us to do something about it.  God chose the church to be the method of passing this faith down, and if we don’t do it, we’re failing at our duty.

Jude wrote to the church because their faith was under attack. Some of you have experienced attacks to your faith, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.  Too often the church simply doesn’t respond to attacks on faith, pretending they don’t exist.  Churches even go after the one who is being attacked, sometimes saying they just don’t have enough faith…

Attacks on faith are nothing new.  The letter to the Hebrews encourages Christians, in the face of attacks on their faith.  They were afraid of suffering, and that fear was crippling their faith, so the author encourages them to hold firmly to the faith we profess. (Hebrews 4:14b).

Indeed, James urges his readers to consider trials as joy, because testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.  (James 1:3-4).  
2 Peter 1:3 tells us that Jesus’ divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.
Because of Jesus’ gift, Peter goes on to give us this command:  For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge, and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is going beyond just having the saving faith of a baby Christian.  Some of you are baby Christians; you’ve never added goodness to your faith.  Some stuck there – I’ll just be really nice and that’s all I need.  Add knowledge! Self-control.  Perseverance.  Godliness. Brotherly kindness.  Love.

If you follow this path, you’ll find that you will be effective and productive in your knowledge of Jesus.  It won’t be easy.  If you think that just because you’ve accepted Jesus that everything will be smooth sailing from here on out, you haven’t been reading the Bible.  Jesus Himself said In this world you will have trouble.(John 16:33)!  If you never have any troubles, it’s likely because Satan doesn’t consider you a threat.  If he’s not threatened by your life, by your faith, then he’s not going to be sending tests to your faith. 

But when we pass those tests, with faith growing into knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and finally into love, we will be productive and effective.  Our faith isn’t supposed to be all about us; it’s supposed to be productive and effective. Did you ever think about this?  The seminary word for what Jude is talking about is: fruitfulness.

This concept is all over the Bible.  Jesus was especially clear on this:  (Matthew 7:15-20) Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. 
It couldn’t be much clearer than that.  So I ask you: what is your fruit?  To believe you can be a good Christian without fruit is heresy.  Plainly said, it’s a lie.  So I ask again: what’s your fruit?

Jude’s church was undergoing tests. For certain men whose condemnation was written about long ago have secretly slipped in among you. They are godless men, who change the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord. (Jude 4)

The nature of the challenge was insidious.   They rightly observed the power of the grace of God; that it is greater than all our sin. They rightly showed that there is nothing, no matter how horrible, that will take away God’s love for us in Christ Jesus.  They also remembered that there is nothing we can do to make us more loved or more deserving of God’s love and grace.  All of this goes along with the greater biblical testimony; The Apostle Paul taught that there was no longer clean and unclean and that circumcision was no longer required to be a part of God’s inclusive Kingdom.  No longer would God’s family be based on race or ethnicity.  But the problem came because the leaders in question went beyond this; they taught that God’s grace removed every moral requirement for Christ followers.

That’s unfortunately not the truth.  Over the past several weeks, I’ve mentioned multiple times that Jesus limits his family to those who hear God’s word and put it into practice. (Luke 8:21).  

For you, as well as for Jude’s audience, this was not new news. 
Though you already know all this, I want to remind you that the Lord delivered his people out of Egypt, but later destroyed those who did not believe. And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home—these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great Day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 5-7)

Jude is clear that judgment is real.  Justice demands it. But remember that it is God who delivers justice, not us.  God’s justice is absolutely real.  And he will deal with all of us.  Some accepted God’s salvation but turned their backs on him.  This brings up an age-old question: can you lose your salvation?  Jude believes we can. He references the people of God whom God delivered (saved) from Egyptian slavery (if you read through the Bible, salvation is often presented in terms of being delivered from slavery), but they rebelled against God.  They went so far as to build a golden calf to worship.  Later, (as detailed in Numbers 16), Korah led a rebellion against Moses, which resulted in God’s judgment: the ground opened up and swallowed them, their households, and everything they owned.  So when Jude talks about the rebellion of Korah (Jude 11), he is talking about open rebellion against God.

This isn’t just open rebellion against God; it’s open rebellion against God by the people of God. And they are subject to judgment because of it.  And Jude is writing to a church influenced by those who came in saying, “Whatever you want to do is fine – you’re free to do whatever you want because of God’s grace.”  Jude is standing firmly in line with the totality of scripture when he calls them godless. 

Listen to how Jude describes them: These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead.  They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.

How would you like to be described like this?  Nobody wants to be known as a blemish.  Or as shepherds who feed only themselves?  This is exactly what it’s like to be one who has accepted the love of God in Jesus Christ yet hasn’t shared it.  Imagine that you’re lost out in the desert, and you come upon a tent.  You look inside, and there’s a huge feast there, and you’re starving.  But the guy in there turns you away.  This is the imagery that Jude brings.  And if you’re not actively sharing your faith, you are, in essence, turning people away from the banquet.  

I’ve heard evangelism described as one beggar showing another beggar how to find bread.  And the opposite of that – not sharing your faith – is willfully keeping bread from others.

Jude isn’t finished with his imagery; he describes clouds without rain.  I remember one hot summer, praying for rain, and then clouds blew in.  It looked like rain, but then nothing happened.  I held out my hand and nothing.  It was raining but none of it hit the ground.  Useless. Is that what you want your legacy to be?  How would that look on your gravestone?

Jude reaches into the writings they were familiar with at the time:  Enoch. Enoch wrote about judgment: “See, the Lord is coming with thousands upon thousands of his holy one to judge everyone, and to convict all the ungodly of all the ungodly acts they have done in the ungodly way, and of all the harsh words ungodly sinners have spoken against him.” (Jude 14-15)

Did anything stick out to you as you read that passage?  Maybe a word?  The word “ungodly” was repeated four times.  He wanted to make sure that you know just how ungodly they are: some of you remember the Hebrew thought pattern: that if you repeated something, it was emphasized greatly, and three times was the ultimate… well, we hear the word ungodly here four times.  Do you think he’s trying to emphasize something?  The people who don’t look or act like God, those who don’t obey his word, those who are ungodly… they will be judged for their actions. 

Here’s something to remember: when we accept Jesus’ gift of salvation, he expects something of us. He expects us to hear God’s word and obey it.  Jesus put it this way in Matthew 7:21-23:
 "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?'  Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

I pray that nobody here will meet this response, but this is really serious.  Unfortunately, many people have confused church membership with salvation.  Just because you’re a member of the church doesn’t mean you’re saved.  Just because you’ve kept busy doing all kinds of churchy stuff doesn’t mean you’ve accepted Jesus.  This was one of Jude’s points when he brought up those who had been delivered from Egyptian slavery – they were part of God’s people, but they turned their backs on him and were subject to judgment.
Jude ends this section of his letter like this: These men are grumblers and faultfinders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage. (Jude16)

Grumblers and faultfinders… there are some people in churches who claim these as their spiritual gifts.  “My gift isn’t to do evangelism; my gift is to moan and complain.” Grumbling and finding fault are not spiritual gifts.  In fact, when Jude talks about them, he’s pretty harsh: they don’t have the Spirit.

 But, dear friends, remember what the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ foretold. They said to you, “In the last times there will be scoffers who will follow their own ungodly desires.” These are the men who divide you, who follow mere natural instincts and do not have the Spirit. (Jude 17-19)

So that’s the bad news; even in the church there are ungodly people who don’t have the Holy Spirit.  Jude realizes that as long as there are people and until the final judgment, they will be tearing the church down from the inside out.  But that’s not the last word on it.  He makes a command to the church:

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.
His command starts with personal instructions.  First, he tells us to build ourselves up in our most holy faith.  What kinds of things build up your faith?  Remember what God has done.  Perhaps keeping a journal will help you.  Share praise reports.  Find out what’s happening around the world, how Christ is being proclaimed and followed in China, how Muslims in closed countries are seeing visions of Jesus and coming to Him.  Continue reading the Bible and being bold enough to talk about spiritual matters. 

This flows right into Jude’s second command: to pray in the Holy Spirit.  As I collect our prayer cards, I’ve noticed something.  Almost every card is asking for prayer for physical healing.  It’s not that physical healing isn’t important, but I very rarely see cards for spiritual needs.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a prayer card that someone has filled out for their own spiritual need.  I know that physical needs are important – in fact, if your physical needs aren’t being met, most people won’t even tend to the spiritual whatsoever.  But for most of us, the physical needs are being met to abundance.  So what are the spiritual needs?  Pray in the Spirit, not merely in the flesh!  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask “Thy will be done” – praying in the Spirit involves discerning God’s will and praying God’s will. 

Jude continues by telling us to keep in God’s love as we wait for eternal life.  Again, he’s clear that it’s only through God’s great mercy that we receive eternal life. But while we’re waiting, we are clearly told to keep ourselves in God’s love.  In Romans 8, we are reminded that: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  To remain in that love, we must remain in Jesus.  “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:4-5

The only way to bear fruit is to remain in Jesus, and every tree will be judged by its fruit.

With this, Jude transitions to his final commands, which are others-centered.  Indeed, Christianity is anything but an individual religion.  It’s always in community.  Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

Jude commands mercy for doubters.  He commands us to go intentionally to others, recognizing that our very actions might be what leads to the salvation of others.  Do you really care that people you know (your neighbors, your friends, maybe even your family members) are going to Hell?  Do you realize that you have the keys to heaven?  That you have the Words of Life?  That you have bread to feed the spiritually starving? That you have Living Water to feed the spiritually dry? That you have God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit to give to people?

He ends with a warning – as we give of ourselves to be Jesus for others, watch yourself, that you don’t fall into sin.  Be ever vigilant for yourself. Jude is telling the church to reach out to those who have been tainted by false teaching, all the while, being careful not to be tainted with it themselves. How do we do that?  By remaining in Jesus and by praying in the Holy Spirit.

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore!  Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Jude, a Letter to the Church, Page 2

Last week we started Jude’s letter to the church – we got all the way through the first verse, the “who wrote it” and “who was it written to” of Jude.  Today we continue with his introduction.  
Jude continues with the introduction to his letter: Mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.  I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: May God give you more and more mercy, peace, and love.

The concept of mercy is rooted in God himself.  In Exodus 33, Moses asked God to show him His glory.  And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.”

Do you think it’s fair for God to say “I’ll have mercy and compassion on whoever I want to have mercy on”? What do you think?  Let’s push on this for a moment. Does this mean God plays favorites?  To this I ask: does God have to show mercy?

The answer is no.  God doesn’t have to show mercy.  In fact, the Bible tells us that we don’t deserve mercy.  Romans 6:23 begins by reminding us that The wages of sin is death. The just payment for our sin is death.  That’s what we deserve.  All of us.  But remember, we are called, invited, by God, to be a part of His plan. That’s why Romans 3:23 continues: but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In Matthew 20, Jesus tells a parable about vineyard workers: A landowner went out in the morning and agreed to pay day laborers a denarius for the day’s work. At noon, he saw some others waiting for work, and he hired them as well, telling them he would be fair in their payment.  At three, he did the same thing, and later, at 6, he did it again.  After the day’s work was done, the owner of the vineyard came with payment for the workers, starting with the last to arrive and going to the first. The workers who came just before closing time were each given a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’

“But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ (Matthew 20:10-15)

God’s mercy comes, not because we deserve it, but because of his generosity, because of his steadfast love.  To understand mercy, we have to understand power.  There is a distinct power imbalance here; we are helpless in our sin, and God, who is powerful, does not have to release us from its punishment.  That’s why Daniel prays this way: We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy.” (Daniel 9:18b)

In God’s great mercy, he offers grace – unmerited favor.  It is God’s mercy that gives us life. Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4-5)

Jude’s desire for the church is abundant mercy.  What would we do with more and more mercy?

This is an easy one if you’ve been reading through the Bible.  God’s desire is for us, we who have been shown mercy, to show mercy.  Zechariah 7:9 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another.

I had a fraternity brother who quit smoking.  He immediately became the world’s ugliest anti-smoker.  He would knock cigarettes out of people’s hands or stub them out. He would loudly complain about cigarettes and the smoke.  As one who is allergic to cigarette smoke, I actually agreed with him, but I couldn’t stand his methods. 

And unfortunately the church has behaved in the same ways as my fraternity brother.  You don’t think so?  The examples are too numerous to count.  Someone’s sin becomes known, and instantly that person is branded by it.  We get on our high horses and pretend that none of us ever struggle with sin, because we wouldn’t want them known all around town.  And so when someone is struggling, who is he going to share it with? He’s probably more likely to share it with his non-Christian friends, because they’re way less judgmental.  Because the church is so judgmental, people are intimidated from obeying God’s word, which tells us to confess our sins to each other and pray for each other that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)  Did you ever think that our prayers are ineffective because we have failed to confess our sins to one another, and we haven’t confessed our sins to each other because we as a church have failed to show mercy?

And if we do not show mercy, we do not receive mercy.  That’s the negative side of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:7: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

I have many areas of disagreement with my liberal brothers and sisters, but one thing we have to learn from them is the centrality of mercy in the Gospel message.  The Good News is all about God showing abundant mercy to us; how can we do anything but extend it to others? In your bulletin this week is a flyer about foster and adoption – this is one area in which mercy is desperately needed.  Whenever I take spiritual gift inventories, I come up with mercy as one of my lower gifts, but remember this: showing mercy isn’t a suggestion; it’s a command.

Jude goes on to pray for abundant peace.  As a citizen of a country at war, I want peace, too.  I want our soldiers home.  But the peace Jude is talking about here is not just harmony as opposed to dissention.  It’s not just an inner feeling.  This kind of peace is being completely reconciled to God.  It’s what Paul writes about in his letter to the Romans: Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:1).

Remember Christmas, when we heard the angels praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”? (Luke 2:14).  This peace has shown up – because Jesus brings it through his death, which paid the penalty for our sin, the sin which separated us from God, which brought enmity between us and Him. 

Jesus tells his followers, Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid. (John 14:27) Jesus brought peace in two significant ways.  The world first experienced conflict back in the Garden of Eden.  With Adam and Eve, sin came between God and his creation, and we’ve been in conflict ever since.  For a couple of thousand years, the only way to make peace with God was temporarily – through sacrifices.  And those sacrifices had to be made again and again. Hebrews 10:10-12: Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest [Jesus]  had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. … v. 14 By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Jesus brings peace because he brings us eternal reconciliation to God.  Not just for a while, not just in a while, but right now, and for eternity.  Last week I reminded you that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  This is what peace is all about. Knowing that Jesus will protect us for eternity gives us the freedom to follow him in everything.

As if this weren’t enough, God also sends His Holy Spirit to us.  Shortly before he was crucified, Jesus tells his disciples, It is for your good that I am going away.  Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7). This “Counselor” is the Holy Spirit, who brings inner peace to those who will accept Him.

Since God has given us peace abundantly, he calls for us to share His peace.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. Matthew 5:9. What an amazing thing, to be known as God’s children.  To be God’s son or daughter means you will actually look like God.  Children resemble their Father.  When the world sees Christians, do you know what they see?

According to groundbreaking research from the Barna Group, young people in our country see us as hypocritical, sheltered, too political, judgmental, and anti-gay.  We can’t just go in and share Christ with them into that environment; we’ve got to be the ones to break the stereotypes. 

Here’s what the author of the letter to the Hebrews says (Hebrews 12:14) Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  This is why we are to live at peace with one another – besides the fact that we might actually learn from someone else.  Guess what: we don’t have the market cornered on knowing everything.  What would we look like if we had peace with one another?

Here’s something else: an objection I hear frequently is “why can’t you Christians get along?” It’s a good point; if we can’t have peace with one another as Christians, how do we expect to have peace with non-Christians?  How do we expect to see peace in the Middle East if we American Christians can’t get along together?  There is too much fighting between churches… and within churches.  I hear people make negative and snide comments about other Christians and it hurts.  I confess that I have been judgmental in my treatment of other pastors, but that had to end.  When he was on the run from King Saul, he had the chance to get revenge – Saul went into the cave where David and his men were hiding.  David’s men told him, “God is giving your enemy into your hands.”  David cut the corner off Saul’s robe, but afterward he was conscience-stricken. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him, for he is the anointed of the Lord.” (1 Samuel 24:6).  Notice that Saul was not following the Lord’s leading at this time, but that didn’t change how David thought of him.

What would we look like if we looked like this: If at all possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everybody. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.  On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:18-21.

Jude follows up mercy and peace with love.  If you heard nothing else last week, and if you remember nothing else from any sermon, I hope you remember this: God loves you.  God loves you with a love that is uncomprehendible.  The closest we come is the love of a parent to a child or a love between husband and wife (that’s why God often uses marriage metaphors to talk about his love for the church), and the truth is, our love, even for our children, looks like hatred when it’s compared with God’s love.  When Jesus was teaching about prayer, he posed the question: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:11-13.  The fathers there would have protested, “We’re not evil!” It’s all about the comparison.  That’s how much God loves us.  Not only did He give us his Son, who died to save us from our sin, to reconcile us to God the Father, but he also gives us the Holy Spirit.

This is love.  God gives himself.  Today is Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate God giving the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church.  This is the most important gift ever given.  Now, have you ever been the recipient of a gift you really didn’t like?  I remember once I received a package of coffee as a Christmas present.  The gift itself was a good one…  It would have been a good gift for Rudy (if you’re thinking about it – their anniversary is only 2 months away).  I would have appreciated it were I a coffee drinker.  But it wasn’t a good gift for me.  I remember hearing a radio show; it was near Thanksgiving, and they were talking to someone who had worked a turkey-preparation hotline.  Someone called and asked if a 5 year old bird (frozen) would still be good.  They were told it probably wouldn’t be any good. “OK” was the response. “Then I’ll donate it to the church.”

God’s not like that. God only gives good gifts.  God gives Himself.  That is love.  The Bible is a love story, a story of a God who created – not to rule over, but to love – and of the length He will go in order to demonstrate His love.  He gives himself to us.

1 John 4 tells us (twice) that God is love. (1 John 4:8, 16). This is who God is.  Because God is love, we are called to love.  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  1 John 4:7-8. How about this:  And he has given us this command: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:21).

What does love look like?  1 Corinthians 13 describes it pretty well: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.  And this is the type of love that Paul prescribes for the church – in the midst of divisions.  We sometimes look at this kind of love as the pinnacle for married couples to strive for – no; it’s the baseline, the lowest standard of love, where love starts.

It couldn’t be much clearer.  If we are God’s people, God’s children, we have to be loving people.  This is what the church is all about: love.  Your job, as a Christian, as a human is twofold: love God and love people.  That’s it. 

I want to suggest that we have a lot to learn about loving.  I hear negative, downright nasty comments some of you have made about one another.  A lot of it goes way, way back, and it’s got to stop.  You’re bickering your way to hell.  And you’re paving someone else’s path, too: that someone who sees you and says, “If Christians are like that, I don’t want any part of them or their God.” How about doing an experiment this week: right now think of the most unlovable person you can.  If nobody comes to mind, then maybe the hardest-to-love person.  Your job this week is to build that person up.  Pray daily for him or her.  Some of you need to start with your spouse. If you don’t know how to be loving toward that person, think of this: what would it look like if you did love him or her? What might you say?  What might you do?  Now go and do it.

God has offered you mercy, peace, and love abundantly. Your assignment for this week is to show mercy to someone who needs it, to make peace with someone you’re in conflict with, and to love. Now, may God give you more and more mercy, peace, and love, that you may be more merciful, peaceful and loving.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Jude, a Letter to the Church, Page 1

As we get started today, I want to give you a little background.  First of all, I’ve preached in different ways for different times.  My first experience preaching was simply to pick a scripture and go with it.  Do all the research, write a sermon, each one standing alone.  Then I preached from the Revised Common Lectionary.  The Lectionary is a three-year plan of scriptures, four per week, and the idea is that if you use all four scriptures, you’ll get parts of the whole Bible in three years (or, if you only use one scripture, you’ll hit it in 12 years).  As an associate pastor, I was once handed a sermon to preach on a particular Sunday (which I found out later had been plagiarized to begin with).  More recently, I have been doing a “series” style of preaching, where we follow a certain topic (we’ve done such series as the Lord’s Prayer, Emotional Health, the armor of God, signs and wonders from the book of John, the Fruit of the Spirit).  But I realized that there’s one thing I haven’t done.  I haven’t simply taken a book of the Bible and preached through it.  

One thing I do as I put my sermons on the internet is categorize what scriptures I’ve referenced.  And I figured out that although I’ve given the benediction from this book, not only had I never preached from Jude, but I haven’t referenced the book whatsoever.  So I’m setting out to remedy that! 

The book of Jude is one of what is known as the “General Epistles” – or general letters to the church. It was written by Jude, the brother of Jesus, and he write about false teachers who have entered the church.  His purpose is to condemn the false teachers as well as to encourage the believers to fight for their faith.

So let’s get started in Jude!

Jude: A Letter to the Church, Page 1

I was a senior in high school, ready to graduate, and I got a strange letter.  There was no return address, but for some strange reason, I recognized the handwriting – I just couldn’t place it.  When I opened it, I found a single page, written in red ink in that same familiar handwriting.  I quickly looked down to see who had written it, and for a moment I was surprised – I had written it!  As an eighth grader, I participated in a class assignment to write a letter to myself.  Our teacher sent those sealed letters out shortly before we graduated.   
Now, if I can figure out how to write a letter back to the eighth grade version of myself and ask me to take that assignment a little more seriously…

But whenever I get a letter, the first thing I do is look on the envelope.  Why?  Because I want to know who it’s from. I recycle the paper at the post office, and it’s amazing how many “letters” are never even opened; we can tell when it’s an insurance ad or credit card application (as an aside, you know the economy is bad when you get credit card applications – pre-declined).

So we look at the book of the Bible which we entitle simply “Jude” and find the first question: who is it from?
Thankfully, because of the way letters were written back then, we find that out first.  It was written by Ioudas, a common name in the Bible – referring to Judah, the son of Jacob (brother of Joseph) or to the territory in Israel also called Judah.  In the New Testament, there were a couple of Judases – the most famous being Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus.  This isn’t our author; the author of this letter was Judas, the brother of Jesus.  There are some striking points of contrast between these two Judases.  One was a physical brother of Jesus, but we read in John 7:5, (For) even his own brothers did not believe in him. The other was unrelated to Jesus but certainly believed in him and was even picked to lead ministry with him as part of his inner circle, even to be known as his brother.  But the brother who didn’t believe later came to believe and ended up leading the church. The brother who did believe betrayed Jesus and killed himself. 

The Judas we read a letter from doesn’t identify himself as Jesus’ physical brother.  Why?  Because all of this time as his brother, he didn’t believe.  It was only after his resurrection that Jude believed.

This should come as a reminder that membership in Jesus’ family is not limited to bloodlines.  Jude knew that his physical family relationship with Jesus didn’t mean anything.  It didn’t all of a sudden make him someone special.  In our celebrity culture, I often see someone whose claim to fame is that they are related to someone famous.  I hear the same attitude expressed in church, whose grandfather built the building, whose great-grandfather was a Methodist pastor, etc.  As far as all that goes, that and Jesus’ death on the cross will get you into heaven. Guess which bears more weight? (for those of you reading this, I’m being sarcastic – our family background most certainly does not bring about our salvation).

So what authority does Jude have to write?  He pinpoints it in his opening: a slave of Jesus Christ.  As I read this earlier, the NIV uses the word “servant” but the Greek word is doulos, which clearly means a “slave.”
This is absolutely important.  It’s not popular to talk about biblical references to slavery.  I hear arguments that the Bible condones slavery. Because people in Bible times had slaves and because they don’t see Paul speaking out against slavery, they conclude that the Bible is pro-slavery.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.  For Greeks and Romans alike, a slave was not a person but a piece of property.  Aristotle could define a slave as “a living tool, as a tool is an inanimate slave.” But within the believing community slaves as much as free persons were brothers and sisters “for whom Christ died.” (F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT). In other words, Paul demonstrates that a slave not only a person, but one who can even be a leader in the church, where there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Sythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11)

But this is uncomfortable on a personal level as well.  Jude refers to himself as a slave. A slave of Jesus Christ.  With the a Greek or Roman viewpoint of slavery in mind, Jude is making an important statement.  We try to present ourselves as powerfully independent and autonomous.  We can make whatever decisions we want to whenever we want. We often cover this kind of decision making with Christian masks.  We say things like: that’s not my spiritual gift.  I can’t do it because it’s not my spiritual gift.  In other words, “I’m not good at that” or “that makes me uncomfortable” or “I don’t really care that Jesus commanded that; I’m just not going to do it.”

Too many people say, “I don’t have the gift of…” and use that as an excuse to blatantly disobey Jesus’ commands.  He commands us to make disciples. Commands.  Not asks. He commands us to give – the Old Testament command is 10% (the first 10%), but the New Testament command is everything.

As Christians, we don’t have the option to pick and choose which of Jesus’ commands we will obey.  As humans, we have a choice.  Jesus doesn’t force us.  But as we saw last week, Jesus makes the distinction: the ones who are in His family are the ones who hear God and obey him.  So our choice is: do we accept or not?  Where did we get the idea that we somehow can pick and choose which commands we will accept?  That we can stand and shake our fists at God and say “this doesn’t match up with my culture, so I won’t obey.”?

The Apostle Paul says it like this: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19b-20a). Do you realize what this means?  It means you don’t just get to choose whatever you want. God’s people tried that once, and the result was this: In those days, Israel had no king; everyone did as he saw fit. (Judges 17:6).  This was not a positive thing at all.  God’s people were meant to follow God’s commands.  We weren’t supposed to be ruled by a king or a dictator or even a president.  We were supposed to be ruled by God. 

So let me make it abundantly clear: if we are Christians, we don’t get to pick and choose which commands we will follow.  Though it’s not popular to call someone “Master” that’s exactly who Jude is saying Jesus is.  His Master.  Is He your master?

Now that we know who wrote this letter, let’s get on to the audience.  Jude wrote this to someone: who was it?  He says he wrote it To those who have been called, who are loved by God the Father and kept by Jesus Christ.

Right away in the letter, we get into deep theological concepts.  The letter is written to “those who have been called.” The word “called” is sometimes translated “invited.” Jesus used the same word in a story he told comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to a wedding banquet:  (Matthew 22:1-14)

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
"Then he sent some more servants and said, 'Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'
"But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
"Then he said to his servants, 'The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.
"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 'Friend,' he asked, 'how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.
 "Then the king told the attendants, 'Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'
 "For many are invited, but few are chosen."

I used to get upset about the guest who showed up without wedding clothes – why should he get thrown out?  Because the guest didn’t provide the wedding clothes.  The host provided them.  So for the guest to not be wearing them would be a slap in the face of his host.  Saying, “You invited me, and you provided me with these clothes, but I choose not to wear them.”

That’s exactly the attitude we have when we come to Jesus yet demand to do it on our own terms.  And the response is chilling: tied up, thrown out into the darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. Many are invited, but few are chosen. 

How does one get to be chosen?  By hearing the word of God and obeying it!  And Jude writes to those called.  Meaning to the many.  To those who have answered the call and even to those who haven’t. 

As we ponder what it means to be called – recognize that we are called by someone who would be our Master. When I hear words like “Master” I immediately cringe, because it’s scary to lose my freedom to do whatever the heck I want.  We don’t like to admit that we are slaves to anything or anyone, but to be perfectly honest, we humans all to often sell ourselves into slavery.

It’s easy to recognize the chains that bind alcoholics and other addicts, but how many of us are enslaved by other things?  How about your stuff?  You think you’re not enslaved by it? Then give it away. How about your money? If it’s not your boss, then give it away.  This was the deal with the rich young man who came to Jesus wanting to know how to inherit eternal life.  Jesus told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.  Jesus wasn’t prescribing this for everyone; he was prescribing it directly to this certain rich young man.  His money was his master, and Jesus knew that there was only one way to break the chains: to give it away.  All of it.

What (or who) is your master?  Is it your money?  Your reputation? Your athletic accomplishments? Your TV schedule?  Your job? Even your friends and family? Here’s the problem: none of these are good masters.  And the question remains: Who or what is going to control me? 

But Jude addresses his letter to those who are loved by God the Father.  I want to pause for a moment because this is one of those things that can easily get rushed by.  “God loves me.  Yeah, yeah, we know that – let’s get to the other stuff.” But here’s the heart of the matter.  God does love you.  That’s the whole message of the Bible.  God loves you. You are immensely valued by God.  God knows you inside and out and still loves you. 

Remember that God loves you.  I threw out the verse earlier: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6:16b-20a). It’s a scary thought that we are not our own.  It’s a scary thought at what the price might be for a human being.  So, how much are you worth?  God thought you were worth the ultimate price: God loved you so much that he gave his only Son. (John 3:16) That’s the price he paid for you. Jesus traded his life for yours.  That’s love.

Not only are we loved by God the Father, but we are kept by Jesus Christ.  Jesus protects and preserves us! This is something our society is looking for; we want preserved.  If you don’t believe it, just watch TV and see how many products promise youth.  Some of them promise you’ll look younger, have young-looking skin, a full head of natural-looking hair, all with whatever shade you want.  Others show young people having fun with the implicit promise that this is what will happen to you if you use their product.

All of these promises are empty, because none of that will keep you from dying.  Some of us will get old and die; others will die young.  And there’s nothing on this earth that can change this. 

While I’m on the gloomy part of the message, hardly a day goes by when I don’t hear a doom and gloom prophecy, whether it’s a Christian one or a secular one. I’ll admit that when I hear disaster reports from around the world about earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, mudslides, and so on, I wonder: is it just that the world has gotten smaller with all of the available news, or are these some of the signs of the end? 

There have always been people who separate themselves. It’s great to separate yourself for a while – even Jesus went apart for 40 days.  I went to seminary in a small town: Wilmore, Kentucky.  We called Wilmore “the bubble” – where we could imagine that everyone was Christian (in reality, 40% of the county was unchurched). It’s nice to be in a place where people enjoy sitting down over a cup of coffee to debate theodicy, where everyone is supportive and loving, where everyone is growing in faith and good works.

But we all knew that some time, we would have to leave the bubble and go out into the real world. Even Jesus came back from the wilderness. But there are people who decide that the Christian duty is to pull away and live in bunkered compounds.  They do this so they won’t be polluted by the world while they wait for the end.  Reading Biblical Apocalyptical literature can be scary, and it’s a shame that Jude isn’t read more.
Because Jude makes it clear that we are kept in Jesus Christ. 

Paul puts it this way: Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to he slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present or the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39).

So no matter what the world has to throw at you, even when Satan does his best, none of that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  So when you are tempted to worry about the state of the country or the state of the world and are tempted to bunker in and hide from the world, Jesus has you covered.  He’s got your back.  And your front, and your sides.  He keeps you and preserves you.
Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Our greatest foe, death itself, is nothing when it comes to Jesus, because He showed us through His death and subsequent resurrection that death isn’t even something to be feared.  Because when we die, we will receive the promises made to us.  We are God’s beloved.  And if have accepted God’s invitation, Jesus Himself will keep us and give us the gift of eternal life.

Next week we will continue in Jude’s letter, starting with verse 2.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Are You My Mother?

Luke 8:19-21 Now Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, "Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you."

He replied, "My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice."

In P.D. Eastman’s classic children’s book Are You My Mother, a baby bird hatches from his egg while its mother is out finding food.  Lonely and abandoned, the baby bird goes in search of his mom. What makes the story cute is how na├»ve the baby bird is – how he asks everyone and everything if they are his mother – he even asks a steam shovel.  He looks everywhere for his mother.

It was one of the first books I learned to read (after P.D. Eastman’s other classic, Go, Dog, Go), and it has a classic theme; the search for belonging.  Most of us can relate to this search; one of our fundamental needs is to belong.

 “There are an endless number of symbols of belonging all around us.  We join clubs, teams, sororities, fraternities, unions, guilds, churches, synagogues, organizations, political parties, and unfortunately, even Klans. We mark our tribes through labels, tattoos, piercings, colors, symbols, music, language, and style, and this is just the surface of an array of ways we find to belong, to fit in, to be insiders… ironically the less genuine community we have, the more we create artificial communities.” Erwin McManus Soul Cravings.

My wallet says I belong to COSI, the Columbus Zoo, MasterCard, USAA, Medical Mutual, etc. What have you done to belong?  What lengths have you gone to “fit in”?

When I was a senior in high school, I came to a cross road. I was always someone who could move pretty seamlessly between groups, but I never felt like I belonged.  However, as a senior, something happened.  My friend David and I, part joking, tried out for what was actually the most popular group on campus. We thought it would be funny if the science club and debate team members ended up on the cheer team.  Say what you will about the “coolness” (or lack thereof) of male cheerleaders; this was the pinnacle of popularity at KHS in 1989.  And we made it.  Instantly, I was granted a new status.  I got invitations to parties and to participate in other activities that I had never been asked to do.  I got asked out on dates. All of a sudden, I found myself popular… I finally belonged!

But that was totally an artificial community.  As is much of the community we see around us.

Have you ever experienced artificial community? I sure have.  As a United Methodist pastor, I often find myself fitting in only based on my role in the church.  It can be extremely hard to find community as a pastor – that was one of the hardest adjustments from seminary to the pastorate. All in a week, I went from having friends and colleagues to nothing.  The closest to true community I was experiencing was on a youth ministry website.  Unless you’ve been a pastor, you most likely don’t know how lonely it is.

To fit in is a fundamental need. It’s what our souls crave.  Dr. Larry Crabb writes: “The deepest urge in every human heart is to be in relationship with someone who absolutely delights in us, someone with resources we lack who has no greater joy than giving to us, someone who respects us enough to require us to use everything we receive for the good of others, and because he has given it to us, knows we have something to give. The longing to connect defines our dignity as human beings and our destiny as image-bearers.” (Connecting, p. 45).

For many, that belonging is first found in family.  When you begin to get to know someone, what is the first thing you tell someone?  Your name.  Which you got from your family. The family was designed as a place where we first find belonging.  It’s been said that you can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family.  You’re stuck with them!

But here’s the deal: God put us in families because of who He is.  Our God is a Trinitarian God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, always in loving community with one another.  God determined that family would be the closest approximation to Himself.  This is why honoring our parents is one of the Ten Commandments [Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)]: because that kind of honor is living out the Trinitarian image of God, the image He placed in us.

As an aside, I understand that many of us have experienced the negative affects of the Fall right in our families.  We have shown ourselves to be selfish, mean, abusive, even of our family members, those we are supposed to be closest to.  This is not how life is supposed to work. The Bible calls family members, especially spouses, Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21).

So when I read about the situation Jesus finds himself in here in today’s scripture, it makes me shake my head.  Honestly, this is a confusing situation.

Now Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” (Luke 8:19-20)

As a good son, Jesus was supposed to defer to his mother. He should have packed up his stuff and gone to see what his mom wanted.  After all, they say blood is thicker than water.  But Jesus’ reply flew in the face of common wisdom.

(v. 21) He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God's word and put it into practice.”

Wow, now there’s a good scripture to read on Mothers day!  What on earth is Jesus doing by saying this?  Is this what it means to honor one’s mother? Jesus is redefining family as those called by God and following Him in His mission. As Dr. Joel Green puts it, “Kinship in the people of God is no longer grounded in physical descent, but is based on hearing and doing the word of God.” (Joel Green The Gospel of Luke: NICNT).

Please understand that Jesus is in no way rejecting his family.  He never says, “They aren’t my family.  I have a new family.” Cults like to use this verse to get impressionable young people to sever ties with their parents, telling them, “even Jesus rejected his family.”  He did not reject his family.  As it turns out, of all people, Mary, the mother of Jesus, lives out that “hearing and doing the word of God” – after all of his disciples deserted him at the cross, she was still there.  But he does make it clear that membership in his family is not restricted to blood ties.

Why is this distinction important? 

It was important for several reasons.  The Jews of Jesus’ day, especially the Pharisees, had an expectation that because of their bloodline, because they were descended from Abraham, they were God’s chosen people.  Thus they would be “saved” while all others would not, simply because of their family tree.

I know plenty of people who may not actually believe that lie, but they certainly live it out.  One is the person who has been in church for a long time, has listened to thousands of sermons, sung thousands of hymns, consumed millions of calories at fellowship dinners, yet remains untransformed.  Jesus is clear that the qualification for being a part of his family is hearing God’s word and putting it into practice.

Others are the ones who don’t seem to find the time or inclination for anything spiritual, even though their parents have walked with the Lord for years.  There’s a word for this type of person: heartbreaker.  You’re breaking your mother’s heart, and is that the thanks she gets for carrying you for 9 months, for changing your diaper, and so forth. (As a dad, I can’t really sell the mother’s guilt thing).

Why is this important?  If we claim to be Christians, accepting Jesus as our Savior, we are also accepting God as our Father. We are accepting His claim over us. Isaiah 43:1 But now, this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel; “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine.”
 As our Father, God gives us life, true life.  But unless our souls are connected to our source, God the Father, they will wither and die.  As Larry Crabb puts it in Connecting, “Sin is any effort to make life work without absolute dependence on God.”
Real life is not about independence, not even interdependence.  It is all about connecting to the God who is our source, our creator, the one upon whom we can depend. 

I started this morning with the children’s book: Are You My Mother?  At the end of the book, the baby bird is delivered back to his nest, where he is reunified with his mother.  He now knows his identity.  He knows his mother.  The reality of the story is this: were that baby bird apart from its mother for long, it would die.  And apart from God, we are dying as well. In his book Soul Cravings, Erwin Rafael McManus quotes Chip Anderson, one of the pastors in his church. “If your soul is disconnected from its source, it will die.”

That’s the negative.  But the positive is this: if your soul is connected to its source, you will live.  Here’s how Jesus put it: The thief comes only to kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10).

By hearing God’s word and putting it into practice, we can have that full life.  Do you want some specifics on how to do that?  First of all, if you don’t have a regular practice of reading the Bible, start one.  And don’t just read the Bible; start by asking the Holy Spirit to speak to you through God’s Word, to give you instructions from it, to guide you.  Then actually do what you’re told.  Write it down.  Tell someone.  Blog about it. Make it your Facebook status.  And obey it.