Sunday, June 26, 2016

Grace Pt. 9. Grace for Enemies

One morning as I was mowing my lawn, a young mockingbird began to repeatedly dive-bomb at my head. Naturally, my initial reaction was to find an old badminton racket to scare off the birdie. It was to no avail.

Mockingbirds are thugs. They often make me wish they weren’t the State bird of Texas so I could take one out to teach the others a lesson. But that morning as I was swinging into the air, and no doubt giving my neighbors a good laugh, words of Jesus began to come to mind.

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. … If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. … But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men.” – Luke 6:27-28, 32-33, 35

Could these values work with a thuggish mockingbird? It was worth a shot.

I went inside and got some pieces of bread. With the lawnmower not running, I went over where he was perched, whistled, dropped a couple large crumbs and went back to mowing. The young mockingbird never went for the breadcrumbs, but it immediately stopped dive-bombing at me.

Over the last month or so, that mockingbird has become quite friendly. I can recognize it by a particular set of markings on its chest. It comes out every time I mow, and will often perch just a foot or two away from me. The little guy once flew over and stood on the handle of my lawnmower while it was shut off and I was right beside it looking at something on the ground. We shared a moment together as it just hung out there for about a minute.

The early Christians didn’t view the command to love our enemies as hyperbole, they understood it as an imperative and one of the most effective methods of evangelism.

They comfort their oppressors and make them their friends. They do good to their enemies. … They follow the commandments of their Christ with much care, living justly and seriously, just as the Lord their God commanded them. – Aristides 125CE, Volume 1, p. 443-444 [CD-ROM]

Now we pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us unjustly so that they too may live in accordance with Christ’s wonderful teachings, that they too may enter into the expectation, that they too may receive the same good things that we will receive from God, the ruler of the universe. – Justin Martyr 160CE (cited in Eberhard Arnold, The Early Christians in Their Own Words, fourth edition, p. 106.) 

I realize how difficult those words are to swallow. I really do. I’m a Texan, and Texans scoff at the idea of loving enemies. Texans don’t really do the whole turn the other cheek thing. If you slap a Texan on the right cheek, you may get fired upon, and it’ll probably be legal. That is the culture I’ve always lived in.

The way of Jesus, however, calls us to not regard anyone from a worldly point of view.

Instead of seeing enemies as threats to security and safety, we are called to view them as potential friends and family. And the more I've pondered Jesus’ sacrifice for all of humanity and the early Christians’ passion to see all people embrace Christ as Lord, the more my beliefs have changed.

I’m not against gun ownership, but I am for all human life. In all situations. From the womb to the tomb. For, as Jesus has demonstrated to us on the cross, the only way to stop cycles of violence is to absorb it. Not only does that method have the power to stop cycles of violence, it can turn mass-murderers into missionaries. 

Once again, though, I won’t pretend like loving and blessing enemies is an easy task. It’s usually an excruciating endeavor. But when it is done with sincerity, the power of the gospel is unleashed.

There was once a woman at a previous church I worked at who spread a vicious rumor about me designed to destroy my ministry and marriage. Eventually, she was found out, and admitted to what she did. I tried hard to keep it from affecting me, but to tell the truth, I was bitter toward her for a couple of years and we did not exactly get along.

Later on after I became the interim pastor of that church, the same lady began to feel overwhelmed by difficulties within her family. One Sunday as I was walking through the parking lot, I saw her weeping beside her car. I passed her by, but then was reprimanded by the Holy Spirit to go back and pray with her.

I had a brief argument with God, but then by grace submitted to His promptings and went outside. I told her I knew things were rough for her and her loved ones, and I was sorry. I put my arm around her shoulder and asked if I could pray for her. She said yes.

From that day forward, things were different between us. We didn’t instantly become best friends, but it wasn’t cold like before. She would give me give me hugs when we said hello. The power of the gospel was growing like a mustard seed.

It’s easy to love those who love us; that’s why Jesus says there’s no credit in it. Interestingly, the word ‘credit’ in Luke6:32 is charis. Grace. Real grace is unleashed when we depend on and imitate Jesus by loving our enemies. And Jesus promises real rewards for those who do. 

Friday, June 24, 2016

Grace Pt. 8: Real Regeneration

Recently, Trey Pearson, the lead singer of Christian band Everyday Sunday, came out as gay to his fans. He said that he had tried to not be gay for more than 20 years of his life. Now, by coming out, he says he is finally able to be authentic and real with himself and others.

Mr. Pearson has not changed his religious beliefs. He still professes to be a Christian.

Pearson recently stated, “There are millions of people out there going through what I’ve gone through that I can be a voice for, and I can hopefully help and make an impact in their lives.”

Vicky Beeching, also a professing Christian musician, came out in 2014. She said, “What Jesus taught was a radical message of welcome and inclusion and love. I feel certain God loves me just the way I am, and I have a huge sense of calling to communicate that to young people.”

These quotes are examples of the fruit of Hyper Grace teaching. An overwhelming population of professing Christians with Macklemore as their worship leader singing, “I can’t change even if I tried, even if I wanted to. … My love, my love, my love… keeps me warm … keeps me warm.”

But before everyone on the other side of the isle rallies together to bash the seed of the sexual revolution, consider this: How many times have you heard an older member of your church dismiss someone calling them to repent by declaring that’s just the way he or she is and they’re never going to change?

If sexual preference doesn’t qualify as an adequate reason to reject the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, neither does old age.

Let me assure you that the early Christians did NOT teach that God loves us so much that He continually accepts us just the way we are. Instead, the early Christians believed wholeheartedly in God’s ability to transform sinners. Though many churches today give lip service to the need to be born again and the power that follows, the second birth was fundamental to the early Christians’ belief system.

“And dipped himself,” says [the Scripture], “seven times in Jordan.” It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean, by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord, from our old transgressions; being spiritually regenerated as new-born babes, even as the Lord has declared: “Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” – Irenaeus 180CE, Volume 1, p. 968 [CD-ROM]
Do you believe that the same God who turned an idolatrous leper into a fully-healed worshipper of the one true God does the same works today in the lives of those who receive His Son? A simple reading of Paul’s letter to Titus says that’s the case. 

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. – Titus 3:3-7

Regeneration literally means new birth. Renewing means a change of heart and life that is achieved by God’s power. Put those together, and a large part of salvation involves receiving a brand new life, a new heart with new desires, and a new power to say ‘yes’ to the commands of God, and ‘no’ to the lusts of the flesh.

In a sense, Jesus’ spiritual DNA begins to grow within you, empowering you to choose God’s choices by His power.

Though I don’t struggle with homosexual desires, as someone who has dealt with addiction, I know how it feels to wonder why God would allow me to have strong urges for something that He says is wrong. In those situations, it’s so tempting to surround yourself with people who will tell you what you want to hear, and to push away anyone who challenges you to not let your feelings be your guide. It’s a tough place to be, so I feel for Trey and Vicky.

But, I also know the regenerative, grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit that transforms slaves into victorious sons and daughters. Additionally, I have experienced the tremendous support of Christians who loved me enough to hold me accountable and use various spiritual shepherd’s crooks to keep me on the right path when my heart would start to stray.

I tell you the truth, some of the times in my life that I have felt loved the most have been when a Christian counselor kept on calling me out for being feelings-oriented in my thinking, then implored me to rely on God’s grace and demonstrate love to my family by submitting to God’s commands.

Whether your issue is homosexuality, addiction, bitterness, depression or old age, don’t allow yourself to be fooled into thinking that issue is more powerful than God. The promise of regeneration, the promise of renewal is not just for the people in the Bible. It is for YOU. It is for anyone who will humbly turn his or her life over to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Grace Pt. 7: Grace DOES

I despised writing when I was younger. Not only did I dislike the process of writing papers for school, I felt incompetent when doing so. You can understand, then, what a surprise it was to me in 10th grade when the Assistant Principal walked into my English class to tell me that I had received the highest grade in the school on the writing portion of the TAAS test that year.

Though I received a significant amount of encouragement from my teacher to stop messing around, take her class seriously and tap into my potential as a writer, I scoffed at her pleas and considered the high score an anomaly.

My English from my first two semesters of college were so bad I needed to retake the classes, but I held off on doing so because I was so intimidated by the coursework. However, after receiving tutoring and scholastic mentoring from my sister for a year, I decided to give English another shot my first year at Houston Baptist University. My grades were so high that my composition professor told me that I needed to consider changing one of my majors to English.

Around the time I was getting ready to graduate, I began working full-time as a youth minister at a Baptist church in Houston. While there, I was asked to write a devotional for the weekly newsletter. I remember a few occasions when people encouraged me that one day I might want to consider writing a book. I’d thank them for their kind words, but then go back to whatever I was doing, thinking nothing of it.

And yet, here I am, the author of a new book, and a blogger who posts around 1,000 words a couple of times each week. I’ve learned a lot through this experience. For one, God knows me so much better than I do. Two, God’s plans are far more satisfying than my plans. And three, as a reminder, even though God has worked certain talents and skills in us, the more we work at developing those skills and talents, the more they can be used for God’s kingdom.

Have you ever heard someone say that when people get saved, they are given all the grace they can ever receive from God? You know, something similar to the message of many grace songs we hear on Christian radio saying there is no worth in a Christian’s works because Jesus’ grace has already done it all. That's an interesting and new way to interpret the Scriptures.

One of the best ways to interpret the writings of teachings of Jesus is through His actions in the Gospels. Similarly, one of the best ways to interpret Paul’s letters is through his story as told in the book of Acts.

Look at Paul conversion in Acts 9:1-22. Luke, the writer of Acts says in VS 22 that after being regenerated through the Holy Spirit, Paul was growing stronger and confounding the Jews, proving that Jesus is the Christ. The root word for growing stronger is endunamoo. It means to be empowered.

How did Paul grow spiritually and become empowered? By repeatedly sharing his faith.

The same root word for being empowered by God is used by Paul in 2 Timothy 2:1 when he tells Timothy to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.

What are the strategies Paul gives Timothy to be empowered by the grace of Christ Jesus?

Vs 2 says that Timothy is to disciple others in the faith.
Vs 3 says that Timothy must suffer hardship for Christ.
Vs 4 says that Timothy must live to please God, not others.

If Timothy will DO these things, Paul says he will be empowered by grace.

But did any other Apostle write this way? In the last few lines of the last chapter of Peter’s second letter, he writes this: Be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:17-18).

OK, so Paul and Peter talk about growing in grace, but did the early Christians take that teaching seriously and simply? Actually, yes. Yes they did.

All our power is of God; I say, of God. From Him we have life, from Him we have strength. … But if you keep the way of innocence, the way of righteousness, if you walk with a firm and steady step, if, depending on God with your whole strength and with your whole heart, you only be what you have begun to be, liberty and power to do is given you in proportion to the increase of your spiritual grace. … Let our heart only be thirsty, and be ready to receive: in the degree in which we bring to it a capacious faith, in that measure we draw from it an overflowing grace. – Cyprian 250CE, Volume 5, p. 490-491 [CD-ROM]

Though Cyprian is not quoting or even referencing 2 Peter, he is drawing upon themes that jump off the pages of Peter’s letter. In addition to the verses we’ve already cited, consider this exhortation from 2 Peter 1:1-8.

Peter writes to people who, by grace, have received the same faith as Him. He says that God’s divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness, and that through acting upon God’s magnificent promises we can partake in God’s divine nature.

Peter then beautifully describes how to grow in grace.

He says that since God’s grace has given us the ability to partake in God’s divine nature, we need to work as hard as we can to add moral excellence to our faith. Then, we should strive diligently to add knowledge of God and self-control. Next, we should labor diligently to add perseverance and godliness. Then, we must work as hard as we can to add brotherly kindness and love to the list.

Finally, Peter gives this exhortation: IF these qualities are ours and are steadily increasing, they will render us neither useless nor unfruitful in the true knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Said another way, if we are working hard to steadily grow in grace, we will be tremendously useful and fruitful for Jesus and His kingdom! Simply put... grace DOES.

Don’t you want to grow in grace? I want that too! So may you grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and watch Him do exceedingly and abundantly more than you could ever ask or imagine! And as you grow in His grace, may you discover the amazing fulfillment of walking in His plan for your life.