Jesus, the Church Planter

Matthew 16:18, "And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." 

 

Jesus told his disciples not to despair after he left them, because he was sending a comforter, the Holy Spirit, and that even then they would be better off, they would do works “greater than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). The Holy Spirit that was promised would indeed come after Jesus ascended into Heaven, and it is the Holy Spirit that drives the evangelistic work of the early church and the growth of churches all over the ancient world, to Jerusalem, Judea, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). That same Holy Spirit, that same Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:11), does propel the growth of the church all over the world today. Jesus is head of the church (Eph. 1&2), and we are the body. For all our efforts, it is the Lord who grows his church. And that church just isn’t going anywhere.

 

There are many alarmists ringing unnecessary alarm bells about the decline of the church, when what we’re really seeing is a decline of nominal Christianity in America. According to researcher Ed Stetzer, “The truth is that, yes, there is decline among self-identified Christians in America. According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of self-professing Christians is down 11 percent over two decades. But, that same ARIS study also revealed an actual rise in the number of evangelicals.” Evangelical churches continue to thrive in the United States, and look at the rise of the Christian faith in China, Africa, and South America. Jesus continues to grow his church. We have within us the most powerful multiplication app the world has ever seen: The Holy Spirit.

 

A winnowing is not the same as a willowing, and for the church, we see this as a positive: we don’t need to assume that our culture will sustain its Christianese, or that our civil institutions will reflect the values of the church – they haven’t done so in a long time. The church will continue to be the church, because Christ is at its head, whose powers make kings of the earth look infantile.

 

But what that means for us, the church, is that a recognition is necessary also: don’t fall into this malaise about the church, but be zealous for the church. We want your commitment to it, not for the purpose of filling buildings, but rather for the fulfilling of the great commission: to be the church universal, making disciples, whose impact changes cultures and communities. Be active. Be a toe in the body because we need a toe. Just like anything we do as the church, be fervent in the church, work hard at it, and then step back and praise God for what he has done. We are never spiritual robots, but the living, breathing, being of God’s body for the life of the world. Jesus loves church planting. He’s been doing it for a few thousand years. 

Real Life

 

In 1983, the Australian synth-pop band Real Life released their hit song, “Send Me an Angel.” The song failed to gain traction outside of Australia until it was featured in the BMX racing movie Rad, which failed to receive Oscar consideration, though every teen or pre-teen male in the United States at that time knew that this was the greatest film ever made.  The movie played out on screen all of our dreams: racing glory, winning the girl, and foiling the villainous pimply bad guy.

 

Every person wants glory, everyone wants true love, and we want justice to be done: these are the hallmarks of every good story, and can be found in the greatest of novels to the simplest of movies.  But our sights are often limited by the glories introduced to us in our season of life: as we get older, these desires expand, but far too often we settle for short-sighted pleasures and self-centered comforts. If we have these, then we will be fulfilled, so we think. Consider this quote from C.S. Lewis’ The Weight of Glory:

 

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

 

In the short story The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, the protagonist tells the tale of his change from a melancholy that would end his life to a life of purpose and selflessness. The turning point was a dream he had where he is whisked away to a faraway planet. The world looks in every way like our own, with one major difference: it’s a world without sin. The man sees their love for one another, their desire for justice, and the happiness which reigns in a world without error. He introduces to them sin, and it seems so attractive, they fall into this pit and quickly their world dominoes into the very world in which we live. The man was transformed by the dream because he had an encounter with real life. By real life I don’t mean he saw people falling into temptation and sin, but rather real life as a world without it. For if Jesus is real and the story he gives is absolutely true, then real life is that world, not quite the one we know now. It’s the one we were made for. All this sin here has taken a palace at Versailles and plastered it with cheap wallpaper. At dinner they serve chili dogs.

 

Hebrews 4:14-16

 

14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

 

Jesus is alive and well friends. And his ascension into heaven and sending of the Holy Spirit confirms for us his ever-living presence with us and his church. We are to be a people most connected to real life, for it is the one we know now, fueled by the Spirit. Though we do see through a glass dimly, we will see God face to face, and he has promised his presence in his church in the right now, a power not to be ignored or minimized, but a power that we embrace in all that we do. For we are no longer dead to sin, but made alive in him; we are people not just “send me an angel,” though angels are recently part of this reality, we are a people who received God himself, and he will never let us go. 

Our Union With Christ and the Giving of Ourselves

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God's word is not chained.”

2 Timothy 2: 8-9

 

Here in this text Paul points to an important dichotomy, that of being chained and being free. As the Word of God is unchained, so too our Lord reigns in Heaven, free from the chains of death, just as he was at the time Paul composed this letter to Timothy. Paul can endure the chains, suffer, and wait in eager anticipation, only if there is another reality at work in his life. In this life he is bound, but he is united with Jesus, as are all believers. So we suffer with him, even dying to ourselves (v.11), because we will be exalted with him in glory. Our union with Christ is so strong that if we deny Jesus, as Paul tells us, then God will deny us, and if we are faithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (v.12-13).

 

The gospel writer Matthew tells us that “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28). So too we follow him into serving others, not because it earns us favor with God, but because we know the riches of his mercy. It is the natural outpouring of a penniless beggar who has been given immeasurable wealth. And because we know the one who has given us this wealth, and know of his trustworthiness, the pains in service or suffering are but a “light, momentary affliction, preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). We give of ourselves because Christ gave all for us. This is how, to use more of Paul’s paradoxical language, how we who are poor can be infinitely rich. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength, but lest we forget how that impacts our world around us, we’re reminded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We love not only neighbor, but love our enemies, and serve them not out of naiveté, but out of Christ’s love and wisdom, for when we were enemies of God, he loved us, and gave his Son to bring us into the family of God.  

 

The world knows this truth on some level of course. Psychologists will tell you that nothing is more satisfying than giving of yourself, and yet we find it so hard to do!  Perhaps this is because we are, as creatures made in God’s image, made to be in service of others, but corrupted by the Fall, we tend to be servants of ourselves. Remember that you are an eternal person with an eternal reward, and encourage one another to be in service of others, by helping a friend who is struggling or by working with your child in raking an elderly neighbors’ lawn. By doing so, we proclaim loudly Christ’s love to the watching world. 

Angels Among Us

The presence of angels in our world is an oft-neglected reality in Christian circles today. We do not deny their presence, as certainly they are common in the Bible (34 of the 66 books in the Bible mention angels), but we do sometimes trivialize their existence. Angels in popular culture tend to be reflected as a Precious Moments, child-like fairy creature that might leave a mint on your pillow. True angels stop the mouths of lions (Dn. 6), and they bring about that graceful, terrible awe (Luke 1:29), that brings about not worship of them (Rev.22:8-9), but of the one true God. Angels are a further reminder of the continuity of this world and the next. The Lord is king of earth and Heaven, and his angels minister to his people, in service of the king. They are not wimps ready to offer a pat on the back or a “thumbs up,” but servants of the mighty Lord, equipped with boldness, power, and compassion that can make even the hardest of hearts weep. 

            We will find ourselves at times in despair, about the world and about our own lives. But we should remember that there are angels among us, and though we may be unaware (Heb. 13:2), they are protectors, comforters, and warriors. Martin Luther wrote, “that the entire world is not a mass of flames, that all towns and villages are not lying in a heap of ruins, we owe to the working and doing of good angels.” Bad news reaches our doorsteps in newspapers, televisions, and phone calls, but the world is not chaos. Goodness will reign as it does at the end of good stories, because this world, like the fantasy worlds that we read about, are under care of a good king, with good sentries who serve the people. Each of us has had the sense that this world is not our home, but like finding a memento in your luggage at camp from a parent that reminds you of that place, we too should find solace in knowing that the comforts of angels in this world is a foretaste set to explode into uncontrollable delight in the Lord when we reach our eternal rest.  

On A Cold Winter's Night...

My favorite scene in Home Alone is when Kevin McAlister goes into the church searching for answers as to how he can get his family back. He sits in a pew and quietly listens to the children’s choir sing “O Holy Night” as he notices the frightening old man who lives down the street listening also. Their situations are vastly different, in some ways, juxtaposed as one is old and the other a child – and yet they seek the same comfort: someone who loves them to give them a hug. Their beautiful interaction is a reminder that people young and old can carry with them the embrace that someone desperately needs.

 

The cold night can bring this need out in us: in the dark and chilly earth we need the light that a friendly hug can bring. Someone near you needs that: who amongst your neighbors needs the light you can share right now?

 

Isaiah 43:1-3a

 

But now thus says the Lord,

he who created you, O Jacob,

    he who formed you, O Israel:

“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;

    I have called you by name, you are mine.

2

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;

when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,

    and the flame shall not consume you.

3

For I am the Lord your God,

    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

 

When Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea, the waves did not come down on them; when Daniel’s friends encountered the flames of the furnace, they weren’t burnt in the slightest. Our God is one of his word. The best part is this: you don’t need to fear, and why is that? Because he is with you – he has redeemed you. I have purchased you for myself, I have called you by name, you are mine. And it’s not a “ra ra” “buck up, bucko” speech. It can’t be, because the waves and flames will come. Instead, he is with you. We are never asked to depart from fear in our own power, but only in knowing the God who would walk the ends of this death-ridden earth for you.

 

It is against this dark hill that the angels cry, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” This is the kind of peace (God’s shalom) that trumpets joy from our hearts. Go and do. Go and radiate. Be the joy in someone’s night this night. Perfect love casts out all fear. 

About Those Starbucks Cups

There are a few things that have become clear about American cultural Christianity amidst this Starbucks controversy, a recurring controversy that simply manifests itself in different locations each season. The first is one of irony: the same cultural Christianity that laments each year about the commercialization of Christmas is now asking for perhaps the most prominent commercial emblem in the United States, Starbucks, to carry its message. Christmas has become commonly a holiday about buying things and giving them as gifts; and while we participate in this tradition we will enjoy a steamy vanilla latte (non-fat), and those baristas had better play along, because if not we might just get the inclination that the world rejected its Savior and that for me to follow him might just lead to things that are unpleasant. And who wants unpleasant? After all, it’s Christmas. This leads me to the second observation…

 

It is not our religious beliefs that are offended, but our traditional, cultural beliefs. No one is asking Starbucks to display on their cups, “Sin entered the world through Adam, and now through the babe Jesus, atonement for sin can be possible.” It is clearly not an attack on Jesus, but on our traditional view of Christmastide. We remember (or fantasize of) false 1950’s neighborhoods where every person on the street cried “Merry Christmas” to one another, dismissing any other belief or tradition as being “outside of normal society.” So which set of beliefs are we really holding this Christmas? Have we clung to the one who has come, that babe in the manger who is Immanuel, God with us, celebrating within the church, amongst the fellowship of believers, his coming? Or do what we really hold is an appreciation for the “good ol’ days” (which didn’t really exist anyway), where the secular world played along with our religious traditions? Because if we are truly holding on to the latter, then we are in fact, in a sad state. This is not new news of course, but what we see in every day life, not just approaching the holidays. And it is no surprise to true believers in Jesus, the exiles in a strange land. We are part of a different kingdom, and our king was born in a cattle stall.

 

Christmas is about the birth of Jesus, and who celebrates that? Not Starbucks, and they certainly don’t have to. The body of Christ, the church, celebrates that. And by doing so, we ring out those bells into the night air, we are the city on a hill. It is our job to do so. So I have a new plan for those who will protest Starbucks this Christmas who claim to be Christians… go to your nearest Starbucks in search of the source of the problem, walk in the front door, and order nothing. Find the bathroom, over the sink you will see a mirror.  Then go home, open old Christmas hymns and live in those hard words about the state of the world and the state of our hearts without God, and wonder, what would it be like to truly worship him this Christmas? O Come, let us adore him. 

Emptiness Regained

“I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been - if you've been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you - you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing is ever going to happen again.” - C.S. Lewis

Do you know that moment, when all the pain you feel in your body keeps compressed into that little nugget in the back of your throat? You are lying on the floor, a bed, or something else horizontal because your legs just couldn't bear what has now been handed to a great, deep earth. Our Lord has felt that too. He wept that night in Gethsemane, he wept for his friend, he wept over Jerusalem.  In a world where distraction reigns, where comfort rules, and we sweep away pain a patting "It'll be okay," or "everything happens for a reason," let's lift one up for emptiness. The soil must be tilled before the plants can grow. We've got to clear those weeds and shake up that soil so that life can be planted there. Water and sunlight is what this seed needs. 

Revelation 22:4-5 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. 

If you've ever known real emptiness then I pray you've known too, real comfort, that moment when a shoulder to cry on is the softest, firmest rock in the world with all its nestling, craggy perfection. You know when you are on that shoulder or on that breast that comfort is heavenly, that the emptiness was actually worth it, and perhaps makes this comfort more splendid. When we weep together as people we are the broken being broken before the broken, but our togetherness gives some sense of hope that something somewhere is already being fixed, and we could end there too if we can find the source of this surprising gladness we've found in each other. 

Come to me, you who are weary, and I will give you rest. - Matthew 11

I am reminded of a lyric from Sufjan Stevens' Vito's Ordination Song: 

And when you write a poem
I know the words, 
I know the sounds
Before you write it down

When you wear your clothes
I wear them too
I wear your shoes. 
And your jacket too



 

A Farm to Table Story

To farm was our calling,

In bloom and leaves falling,

With dignity, purpose and grace.

But then came the weevil,

That cowardly evil,

To tempt us away from his face.

 

And now there is toil –

No fruit from this soil,

But gravel and sickening waste.

We’ve tried in our own power,

Enslaved, crushed, and scoured,

To find just a slight little taste.

 

And we’ll never be able,

To bring farm to table,

In our strength, but rescue we need.

His whole mighty plan,

To the dumpster he ran,

Gives life in a new tiny seed.

 

And though there is scavenge,

Wellsprings just of ravens,

One day the foragers rest –

Because he is father,

The chef – porter – lodger,

Holding the hungry to breast.

 

And when we arrive then,

It won’t be a drive-in,

But a banquet prepared for a king.

We’ll sup to our fill,

Laugh hard and be still,

‘tween chords of praise that we’ll sing.

 

Water and sunlight, soil and hands;

Let there be might, and strength;

And dirt – oh that bed-pillow of life…

God, in his wisdom, brought food. 

A Vision Sharing Evening!

This past Sunday evening a group of over 40 people (kids and adults) met together to discuss vision ideas for our new church. While we look to God's Word as our guide for worship, leadership, and life, we are left to our own wisdom as to the feel and fellowship of a church. It was a delight to hear everyone's input, entertain concerns as well as ideas for what our new church will be like. So many of our folks are passionate, driven followers of Christ - we are blessed with such maturity and vision! As others will come and see what God is doing in our midst, we pray that we would exude beauty, grace, and love. 

Martyn Lloyd-Jones tells a story of a man who walked past his church at the time of the Sunday evening service. He was meant to go take his own life - and he stopped his march, when he heard the choir from the ancient church building. He walked through those doors, sat, and listened; beauty saved his life that day, and the his engagement with the church and the preaching of the Word saved his life eternally! Let us be in our struggles, our songs, our disagreements, our doctrine, our fellowship, frustrations, and ministers of grace - always beautiful. 

A Bible Study Begins!

The core group of the new plant will meet beginning Sunday, July 26 @ 6 pm for a study of the book of Hebrews; this is the first step in many in planting a new church. We have a vibrant group of committed folks and we're excited to begin envisioning a new church with them! We'll be meeting at the home of John & Kate Collins, 2691 Derbyshire Rd. in Cleveland Heights.