Deeper Hope:

An Abiding Virtue

This book explores the meaning -- and application -- of Christian Hope. It takes the fuzzy concept of Hope and reveals it in everyday settings



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Entries in discipleship (37)

The Most Excellent Way

There’s a wedding in town this Saturday, so I have at least a fifty per cent chance of hearing someone read 1 Corinthians 13 out loud. You know the passage, right? “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. . . ”

This week I conducted a Twitter, facebook, WalMart, totally-unscientific survey. I’ve been asking, “Do you think it’s possible to live up to the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13?”

No one has been comfortable with a simple “yes” or “no” but everyone has an opinion: “Oh, that’s the ideal, no one could ever do that . . . Well, the Bible says ‘all things are possible’ so I suppose so . . . On our own strength, absolutely no. With God, absolutely yes.”

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.
We want to believe these words. They fill us with hope. They remind us of what is best. They point to a life fulfilled. But we have also seen the worst, experienced the disappointment and felt the pain. Do we dare believe? When the scripture reads like poetry we are tempted to dismiss the revelation. When our life experience contradicts the good news, experience can trump the truth. Is it possible that faith, hope, and love really are the things that remain? If they remain, can we attain them? Receive them? Live them?

When I go to the wedding Saturday I will listen to the beauty of the scripture with a few practical thoughts also in mind. Perhaps they could help you answer my survey question as well:

“I will show you the most excellent way.” (1 Corinthians 12: 31) It’s easy to miss this verse because it's at the end of chapter twelve, but Paul wanted us to know from the very start that love is a way. It’s a path. With a guide we can learn the way. If we expect love to magically overtake our hearts and change our lives, we are taking to the whitewater of life--out of control. But if love is truly a way, we can learn from others how to navigate the river of life. Consider the people Paul first wrote--the church in Corinth was a confused mess of relationships and envy, debauchery and religion. Yet Paul said, “I will show you the way. You can learn how to love like this.” If the people of Corinth could learn the ways of God’s love, why can’t I?

Tongues, prophecy and knowledge amount to nothing apart from love. How many of us mistake personal spirituality, anointing or intelligence as the things that remain? No. In order to learn a life of love, we must first recognize what will last and what will not. Ministry is for this present age; love is forever. Ask any pastor, social worker or physician--you can minister to anyone without actually loving them. Yet when ministry is infused with love there is eternal effect. Anything else is smoke and mirrors.

Love never fails. These three words reveal the way things really are. “To align yourself with love is to align yourself with God,” songwriter Adam Russell observed, “because God is love.” To align yourself with love is to align yourself with victory, because love never fails. Was the Apostle Paul writing a Hallmark card or trying to explain the reality of God’s Kingdom? Are these words true, or just beautiful sentimentality? Do we sit in the wedding ceremony and hear these words as God’s promise to the bride and groom, or do we quietly think, “they will find out what life is really like soon enough”? Does our failure have the authority to nullify the truth? Here’s a meditation: what if it’s really true that love never fails?

Who can show us the way? Hidden within the crazy letter to the Corinthians is a deep truth of the Kingdom of God: there are some who have broken through the spirit of this age, and they can show us how it’s done. There are some who have learned a new way to live. “Be imitators of me,” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “just as I also am of Christ.” We can learn God’s ways--including the way of love. Nor is it merely book learning. God’s wisdom may be found in the scripture, but it blossoms into life when we find mentors in the Kingdom. The Lord never intended us to go it alone: “Here’s the Bible. Good luck.” That just isn’t how he does things. Whatever demands the scripture may place on us are met with possibility there is someone who can help us make things real in everyday life. Ask God to show you the trail guide for your life. It’s called discipleship, and it’s the way of the Kingdom.

Perhaps these ideas are the reasons no one ventured a simple yes or no answer to whether we can attain the love in 1 Corinthians 13. We instinctively know it is true, while we instinctively know we cannot do it alone. We were never meant to: love isn’t meant to alone.

Can We Grow Without Making Disciples?

Jesus is full of surprises: How can the ruler of the world become an example of obedience? How can the object of worship himself become an example of how to worship with heart, soul, mind and strength? How can the perfect Son of God call others to follow him, and then demonstrate the way to follow? It’s part of his genius, his glory, his nature. What’s more, he not only showed us how it’s done, he empowered us to do the same. Real discipling is about making a way for others to approach the Father. If we’re only talking about Jesus, most of us are comfortable with this paradox, but most amazingly--he calls us to do the same.

The gospel record demonstrates Jesus lived a life of obedience to the Father and called us into the same obedience. But Jesus did not leave us to struggle with obedience alone. Jesus, the Master Teacher, was also the Master Equipper:

“I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” (John 16: 12 - 15)
As his followers, we are called to make disciples as well, teaching others to obey everything he commanded. There are two great problems as we attempt to live up to this commission today: First, many of us see discipleship only in terms of following Jesus, and almost never in terms of leading others. Second, if we try to lead others, we run the risk of demanding of other people obedience to Jesus without actually equipping them to obey him. Both these challenges are critical to our personal development as students of Jesus. Our personal spiritual growth depends on coming to terms with these challenges, and the destiny of others depends on our response as well.

Leading others: How many of us receive the call to discipleship as a personal call from God to become a leader? We may come to him because we need a Savior, but if we choose to become a follower of Jesus we must also realize we are also choosing the responsibility to lead others. This is what it means to follow him: we act on his behalf in the lives of others. It’s more than “sharing our faith.” It’s taking responsibility for other people’s lives until they are mature followers of Jesus. He showed us--in very practical ways--exactly how it works.

Equipping others: Jesus gave his disciples the tools necessary to live a healthy life with God. He did more than demand; he did more than point the way; he empowered his followers. He pointed to issues of the heart (as in Matthew 5); he included his students as partners in ministry, giving them hands-on experience (as in Matthew 10); and, as the passage from John 16 indicates, he introduced them to the Holy Spirit, effectively opening the resources of heaven to each of his disciples. What about us? As disciple makers, do we interact with those God has given us in the same way? Do we teach about heart-matters? Do we release our students into ministry? Do we introduce them to the Holy Spirit?

First things first: we cannot equip others until we believe we are called to lead others. It will not do to claim, “I have no one to lead.” Jesus is our model: he came in obedience to the Father and simultaneously became a leader of others. We must do the same, and God has provided venues for our leadership: in our homes, among our friends, at work or school, or in our community. We were called to change the world by allowing God to change us and by becoming God’s agents of change where he leads us.

Who knew discipleship would require everything we have? I suspect the Master did.

Monday's Meditation: Sex, Celebrity, & Discipleship

I’m wondering today if I became a dramatically better writer overnight. With last Thursday's post, When Famous Christians are Gay, traffic to Students of Jesus increased ten-fold, and comments tripled their usual rate.

Why did so many more people visit this particular blog post and recommend it to others? To be sure, there were some unusual elements: I’ve never written specifically about sexuality before; I’ve never focused on a celebrity before; and never addressed the politically charged topic of homosexuality before. These three elements combined to generate increased buzz and discussion--but why?

Sexuality: Does our sexual activity fall under the Lordship of Jesus? Is there a connection between sexuality and spirituality? In the 16-month life of this blog I’ve never written specifically about sex and the life of a disciple. My bad--it’s a significant part of how we express our devotion to Jesus: gay, straight, single, married, widowed, divorced. My failure to address the sexual part of our being effectively pushes sex into the closet, as if spiritual people do not concern themselves with sex. Big mistake. I’m determined to address this area soon.

Celebrity: Say what you want, Jennifer Knapp still knows how to promote an album. The twin interviews with Christianity Today and The Advocate certainly put her back into the public eye after a seven-year absence. And readers apparently care. What is it about celebrity that draws our attention? As followers of Jesus, why would we respond more strongly to her story than someone unknown? True, her celebrity stems from recording “sacred” music targeted at a Christian market, but what does this reveal about our values as consumers of Christian culture?

Discipleship: Jesus invites everyone: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28) He loves us just the way we are--but does he let us remain just the way we are? What activities are compatible with becoming a follower of Jesus? When--and how--does he change us? Do we want him to change us, or is Christianity simply another lifestyle choice we add as an accessory to our lives? His anger burned against religious hypocrisy. He called self-righteous people “snakes” and “blind guides.” Clearly, he urged them to repent. Yet when Jesus befriended tax collectors and prostitutes did he endorse their lifestyle? Although we have no record of it, can we imagine that the woman at the well in John 4 remained in her living arrangements? Is a life-long embrace of sin compatible with the life of a disciple? The yoke Jesus offers produces peace and rest--but it is still a yoke.

These three topics have saturated my thoughts in the last four days. I invite you to think them through and dialogue with me in the days to come.

Guys Like Us

“The Bible itself teaches that we are to understand it in terms of our own experience when it says that Paul, Barnabas, and Elijah were human beings like us . . . It means that their experience was substantial like our own . . . We must pray for the faith and the experiences that would enable us to believe that such things could happen to us.” ~ Dallas Willard, Hearing God

Lately my friends and I have been discussing the need to appropriate the Biblical experience into our own lives.  Apparently James wasn’t kidding when he said, “Elijah was a man just like us.”  But my friends and I have all recognized that Elijah, Paul, and even Barnabas seem way too spiritual to serve as effective role models.  We might as well try to imitate LeBron James.
Over the years I’ve asked believers in many settings whether they thought they could live up to the example of someone like Elijah. No one has ever told me yes. Who could attain to a life like the Apostle Paul’s? No takers. I have finally found a minor character in the New Testament who is approachable as a role model.  The book of Acts gives him ten verses, eleven if you count the shout-out he gets from Paul years later. His name is Ananias. He’s just a guy who has a daily time with God. Praying, listening, and reading the scriptures.  And God speaks to him. Ananias is no super-star of Christianity.  He’s just a guy living in Damascus who loves God and is respected by his friends.
You can find his story in Acts 9: 10 - 19:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" 
"Yes, Lord," he answered. 
The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." 
"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." 
But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." 
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
The God of heaven chose Ananias to set Saul of Tarsus on the path to become the Apostle Paul. He was just a guy. The kind of guy we should feel we could imitate with confidence.  Take a look with me at what kind of experiences an everyday disciple in the first century had with God :
  • God spoke to him in a vision (v10): Yes, visions should be normative. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost redefined the role between Creator and disciple.  At Pentecost Peter boldly tells us what kind of age has come: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2: 17)  Peter isn’t just quoting an ancient prophet, he’s describing how God speaks to his people in Christ. God still speaks in these ways, but the average North American Christian is actually suspicious of these divine avenues.
  • God gave specific instructions (vs11-12): Ananias knew where to go and what to do, because he heard from God.  How many believers today know God’s specific will for their lives day-by-day? My experience as a pastor has taught me, sadly, that most Christians are confused about God’s will for their life and important decisions. Day-to-day most Christians do not even expect to receive specific instructions from the Lord.  Ananias was apparently part of a church that trained and encouraged every member to expect to hear from God--and act on it!
  • Ananias dialogued with God (vs13-15): It was a dialogue from the heart. He was not a robot, he shared his fears and concerns.  I don’t believe Ananias argued with God.  He addressed him as “Lord” because he recognized who was Master.  His submission was so complete he even surrendered his fears to God.  True service to God does not simply come from those who have heard from God, but from those who also feel they have been heard by God.
  • God affirmed the mission (vs15-16): The Lord did not merely shake the windows or stamp his foot, he gave Ananias a picture of the future. This man Saul was God’s chosen instrument, and Ananias knew it even before Saul knew it.  Part of our confidence to do the will of God comes from knowing his purposes and plans, and God is gracious to supply such vision more than we are aware.
  • Ananias obeyed (vs17-19): Dreams, visions and revelations are worthless apart from obedience.  God does not share information “FYI,” he shares information “FYA--For Your Action.” Ananias’ actions were filled with faith and the assurance of God’s commission.  He facilitated the in-filling of the Holy Spirit; he was midwife to God’s healing grace; and he was a minister of the gospel in baptizing Saul.  Ananias was in every way a full partner with God.  He was just guy in Damascus.  I'm just a guy in Kentucky.  What are you?

Surely we could aspire to the life of Ananias! Yet the Biblical witness affirms that we are human beings--just like Paul, Barnabas, or Elijah! Perhaps we would be surprised to learn that our potential is even greater than any of these examples--we are called to become conformed to the image of Jesus Himself.  But that’s another post for another day.

Hearing the Gospel for the First Time

I have a confession to make: I had been a Christian for five years before I ever heard the gospel.  One night at summer camp I listened to the story of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for other people’s sin.  My sin.  I believed the message, I prayed the prayer and asked Jesus into my heart--and five years later began to discover that the good news was so much better than I had been told.

Jesus didn’t proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and heaven, he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  His gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die.

Why not take a few minutes and check out these passages:

  • John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching the Kingdom (Matthew 3: 1-2).
  • The very first message Jesus shared was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14-15).
  • Jesus said the reason he came to Earth was to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).
  • He said the new birth was the way to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
That’s all four gospels, and we’re just getting started:
  • The book of Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3 & 28: 31).
  • The Kingdom of God was Paul’s message from Corinth to Ephesus to Rome.
  • The book of Hebrews describes a kingdom that can never be shaken (12:28).
  • Peter and James depict the Kingdom of God as the calling of all believers.
The Holy Spirit inspired more than 150 references to God’s Kingdom in the pages of the New Testament.  And don’t even get me started on pictures of the Kingdom in the Old Testament.

If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today.  Discipleship under the Masters’ hand and maturity in Christ depend on the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

We have confused Heaven with the Kingdom.  Heaven is a great place.  I’ll get there someday because Jesus paid the price, but in the meantime Heaven is breaking into the here and now.  I believe we have become preoccupied with an arrow pointing to Heaven when we should be looking for how God is bringing the Kingdom to Earth.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added)  Jesus said plainly that God’s Kingdom should be our highest priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33)  Do we really think he meant that we should place going to heaven after we die as our highest earthy priority?

Consider his actions and words at the very end of his earthly ministry.  Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3)  In the few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God was still his passion.

The Kingdom of God is the true context for discipleship.  No serious student of Jesus ignores his teaching or demonstration of the Kingdom.  Yes: demonstration.  Jesus explained his actions in terms of the Kingdom of God.  Healing, deliverance, and feeding the masses were all signs of the Kingdom of God.  The world longed for the rule and reign of God to come to Earth, they received their answer in the actions and teaching of Jesus.  In his absence, Jesus expects us to demonstrate and explain God’s Kingdom today.  To be about the Kingdom is to be about the Father’s business.

Perhaps one reason the church struggles in the area of spiritual formation is that we are not making disciples of the Kingdom.  In our enthusiasm over God’s forgiveness and mercy, we have overlooked his purposes and plans.  Everyone who trusts in God can expect to go to heaven, but Jesus is after more than eternal reward.  He wants us to join him in the family business.

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