Category Archives: culture

Real Questions, Thoughtful Answers, Part 4: The Church as a Welcoming and Holy Community

A friend asked recently, “How does the church love everyone and maintain the holy standards of Jesus for believers in the church? We say, “Welcome!” and sincerely desire that everyone feel the warmth of Christ’s love through us. At the same time, when we call people to believe the gospel and follow Christ wholeheartedly, there are moral absolutes that many unbelievers think make us intolerant. What is a way forward?”

A great question, and even the most thoughtful answer will still upset some! We live in a world where meaning is malleable and morality is relative.  We live with competing world views and many looking at Christianity with hostility or indifference, seeing it in the rearview mirror of history.

It is essential that we define and integrate two key concepts so that we are loyal to the timeless faith once entrusted to the saints (I Corinthians 15:1-6; Jude 3) and timely in our presentation of truth with love, knowing that it is God’s will that the church reflect God’s glory, with women and men from all backgrounds, classes, cultures, and ethnicities (Galatians 3:28-4:7; Ephesians 2:11-21; 3:3-10; Revelation 7:9).

Hospitality to All

The first concept is the biblical call to hospitality: we welcome all seekers from any and every background to experience the love of Christ in community and discover, in the words of Augustine, “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Both Old and New Testaments call upon God’s people to love and serve the “outsiders” in their midst. Moses’ marriage, the stories of Naaman the Syrian healed by the Prophet Elijah and Ruth the Moabite convert, and the Book of Jonah were provocative reminders to God’s elect that they were chosen as a light to all nations (Isaiah 42-43, 49; 60-61). F.F. Bruce said it well a generation ago: God did not choose Israel to be an exclusive community, but that through them all nations would be blessed. The journeys of Jesus and the Apostles in Luke-Acts reinforce this embracing of all people. Luke 4, 7 and 19 find Jesus commending the faith of outsiders, welcoming the outcast, and challenging his fellow Jews to learn from them. The progress of mission in Acts moves from a Jewish prayer meeting to a universal faith. For almost 2000 years the church has failed deeply and at times succeeded miraculously in experiencing the new sociology where former enemies are friends and diverse classes and cultures find community in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Thoughtful believers affirm the wonder of the beautiful community the Holy Spirit creates when all are welcome and we dedicate ourselves to removing all human barriers to inclusion and empowerment (Ephesians 2:11-21; 3:3-10). Even more, we aim that diversity is not symbolic but substantive, not window dressing to assuage majority guilt, but in the water of the community as faith and baptism unite believers.

Practically, this means we welcome spiritual seekers and are unafraid to answer tough questions. We see every person we encounter as both beautiful and broken: a divine image-bearer and in need of the saving grace of Christ (Genesis 1-2; Psalm 8; Romans 3:21-31). We aspire to see all gospel churches filled with all kinds of people experiencing reconciliation, redemption, and restoration through the gospel and being included in the community (II Corinthians 5:11-6:2).

The call to follow

The second concept is a companion to the first: following Jesus requires the believer to die to their sovereignty – letting go of self-will, sinful actions and attitudes – and live under God’s loving and holy rule as a new creation in Christ, a member of the Body of Christ, and one liberated from darkness and called in to the light of faith and truth (II Corinthians 5:17; Colossians 1:15-23; Ephesians 4:1-12; 22-24). Put simply, being a Christ-follower includes obedience to God’s Word and a love for the ways of God – principles and practices that are much different that the unbelieving world.

We confess that too often the church has imposed religious traditions that are not rooted in the grace and truth of the Scriptures. With humility, we must repent of sometimes either being more religious than Jesus or making excuses for our proclivities toward idolatry, immorality, and injustice (Isaiah 44; Amos 2, 4: I John 5).

With love and grace, the church does promote the clear moral absolutes of Scripture. The Bible is replete with even the heroes of faith failing miserably. This does not however, change the divine standard or allow for excuses. When we fail, we are called to repent and allow the community to restore us (Galatians 6). If someone confesses Christ as Lord, they are incorporated into the Body of Christ and called to accountability in the local church (I Corinthians). Old beliefs and habits, attitudes and actions now yield to King Jesus, who calls us to a much better way – the way of humility and joy (Mark 10:45). 

Women and men who come to our churches carry burdens and scars, histories of hurt, the strongholds of false ideologies and religions, as well as amazing potential as those for whom Christ died. We welcome all – and we call ALL to repentance and renewal, unselfish love and holiness born of gratitude for God’s grace (Deuteronomy 10:12-13; Ephesians 4:1-6). Here are some examples of what changes when Jesus is Lord:

  • Gospel grace means sexual ethics are now celibacy for singles and fidelity in biblical marriages…and the community will walk with people from all arenas of gender identity as they learn conformity to Christ (not fallen subcultural norms).
  • Business ethics change completely as all work is now for God’s glory and the good of others.
  • Relationships of all kinds change for the better as unselfish love and wisdom guide deeds and words instead of selfish advancement.
  • Political service is now for the common good, not personal power.
  • The creative arts are unleashed, exposing our deep wounds and offering hope and healing.

Compassion without compromise and patient pilgrimage are the order of the day, in a world where inversion and perversion are celebrated (Romans 1:18-32). The early church faced similar challenges and rose to the occasion well. The Acts 15 council united Jew and Gentile around a common faith and morality. Gentiles did not need to become Jews to be included in the community and Jews did not need to reject their heritage. All followers of Christ were expected to say no to any other gods, reject sexual immorality, and live at peace with each other (I Corinthians 8-10).

Historians say that the reason Christianity grew in influence in the Roman Empire was the love and morality of the believers. Julian the Apostate, a pagan Emperor in the 360s AD, lamented that he could not rally people around the old Roman gods and virtues the way Christians could mobilize their communities for good. A century earlier, Roman governors in a variety of provinces asked that they be allowed to delay persecution of Christians because the Christians were helping serve the victims of the plague. The incarnational apologetic of a changed life and virtues born of gratitude are powerful demonstrations to God’s grace.

In sum, we are called to joyful hospitality, opening our communities to people of every background. We are also called to articulate clearly the holy love expected of followers of Jesus and aspire to the obedience of faith. We will be met with opposition, declared intolerant, and often marginalized for our “backward views.” In the words of N.T. Wright, we must remind ourselves and the world around us that the ethics of Scripture are the “radical” ones and represent a departure from the norms of pagan (and 21st C. neo-pagan) culture.

May we discern well how to welcome all around us and embrace the cross in our discipleship.

The Way Forward, Part Four: Sanity about Being Human

We are in an anthropological crisis. What does it mean to be human? Do male and female identity have any meaning? What does “the science” say about human identity? Is the biological family still the key unit of society or do children belong to “the collective?” For people of faith, how do truth and toleration unite for a peaceful world?

In coming essays, I will speak to the issues of sexual identity and practice in more detail. For this work, I want to offer three guiding principles for a sane way forward regarding human identity and how we see “the other.” I am writing as a Christian, and as a public thinker desiring for all others the liberties that I claim for myself. Having firm theological convictions is not intolerance.

The first step toward sanity is love and respect for every individual we meet. Love means that we desire their best. Respect in this context is seeing identity and potential, not necessarily instant trust. The reason we love and respect each person is that they are created in God’s image. Every person possesses inherent value, regardless of class or culture, gender or race, ability or social situation. The Bible’s opening chapter contains the most dignifying words about being human (selections from Genesis 1:26-28):

“Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness.
And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea
and over the birds of the heavens
and over the livestock and over all the earth…

God created humankind in his own image,
in the image of God, he created him,
male and female he created them.”

And God blessed them. And God said to them
“Be fruitful and multiply…”

Notice the order of the poetry. We are created in God’s image. We are given work to do: overseeing (not exploiting) creation. And thirdly, we do this as male and female, equally bearing God’s image/likeness. Identity, purpose, gender…the order matters! From the earliest moments of recorded history to the present, people of all cultures and faiths and have found ways to misinterpret, rebel, and subvert this beautiful passage. We allow blood and soil to lead to subjugation of other groups. Sinful structures define male and female in ways that oppress the latter and pervert the former. The church has mostly failed in her history of welcoming men and women as equal partners and inviting all classes and cultures into a beautiful community of love and justice. There is hope…and it is found in the second principle.

The second step in the path forward is understanding that the person and work of Jesus Christ creates a new humanity liberated from the unjust ideologies and systems created by power-hungry sinful people. The Christ Event includes:

  • The divine affirmation of the goodness of being human – in body and spirit – for in Jesus Christ, God is forever one of us! (John 1:1-18)
  • The joy of Jesus as he willingly offers himself as the ransom of liberation and reconciling sacrifice, atoning for the sins of the whole world. (Mark 10:45; Romans 3:21-31; I John 2:1-2) Everyone we meet is worth Jesus’ sacrifice.
  • Jesus’ resurrection announces victory over death and hopelessness, and offers a preview of our future. (Romans 8:28-30; Colossians 1:15-22). Everyone we meet can receive the gift of salvation and be part of a new community anticipating the future.
  • The Holy Spirit is God in and with the church, empowering her for worship and witness, comforting and convicting of sin, and giving gifts to all, regardless of past transgressions or particular identities. (Acts 2-4, 11-15; I Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 1:13-14)

The third guiding insight for sanity about being human is the biblical hope of a new community of joy and justice, embracing all cultures and empowering worship and work on a renewed earth. The poetry of Revelation offers these visions for all who believe (Revelation 5:9; 7:9; 21:3):

You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals,
Because you were slain,
And with your blood you purchased for God
Persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priest to serve our God,
And they will reign on the earth.
And there before me was a great multitude that no one could count,
From every nation, tribe, people, and language,
Standing before the throne and before the Lamb.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“Look! God’s dwelling place in now among the people, and he will dwell with them.”

This destiny is not automatic, for this future rests on people freely saying yes to the good news of Jesus Christ. This said, we have a beautiful trifecta of truth guiding our relationships. Everyone we meet is made in God’s image. Everyone we meet is worth the sacrifice of Jesus. Everyone we meet can enjoy a destiny that is anticipated today in community.

Let’s ground our thinking and actions in God’s design, deliverance, and destiny instead of our preferences and prejudices and we can foster foretastes of a beautiful future.

All Shall Be Well

Juliana of Norwich was a 14th century anchorite and spiritual writer and the first female author published in English. She was not formally a nun, but lived most of her life in a small room, receiving daily food through a window and dedicating herself to prayer. Her best-known book is Revelations of Divine Love. Her infatuation with God and desire for others to know divine love and grace influenced thousands in her day and millions of readers over the past centuries. She shared her hope and love in a world full of plagues and wars (that make COVID-19 seem tame), ecclesial disputes, and social unrest. Why was she so happy?

Juliana experienced deep intimacy with Christ, both as the Crucified Savior and Risen Lord. She knew the entire biblical narrative and the final chapters of the Book of Revelation spoke to her as she reminded her suffering friends, “All shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” The hope of the resurrection and the beautiful visions of eternity detailed in Scripture informed her optimism in the midst of so much degradation and tragedy.

We need Mother Juliana’s hope in our world. Easter reminds us that death does not have the final word and our current afflictions are working new affections of compassion and endurance in our souls. Injustice and underserved pain, the selfishness of the powerful, and our own self-inflicted wounds all conspire toward fatalism and hopelessness. But Easter has come and our mourning turns to joy as our tears are dried by the nail-scarred hands of Christ!

It was the Holy Spirit that gave Juliana of Norwich her revelations of divine love and hope. The same Holy Spirit lives in every believer and in the church opening our hearts and minds toward courage and wisdom, and loving service. The same Holy Spirit will empower the sharing of the Gospel as we invite others to experience forgiveness, healing, and foretastes of eternal delight.

While we contend for truth, work for justice, and engage in all domains of our culture, we will have defeats and victories, tragic reversals and miraculous advances. In the midst of it all, our Risen Lord reminds us, “All shall be well.”

Two Questions

As we consider the turmoil in our streets and online, there are two guiding questions that may help us with a civil and insightful conversation. First, what does “there” look like as we aspire for a more humane, just, and loving world? Second, what are some practical steps toward this vision?

It is much easier to agitate and destroy than it is to build just and sustainable structures that help offer a flourishing future for all. Tearing down monuments to an unjust past is emotionally understandable. Yet, thinking deeply how to teach and understand the many narrative of American history will require more thoughtfulness that current reactions.

Conservatives tend to ignore the historical and systemic shortcomings and focus on personal opportunity and responsibility in achieving the ideals of the Founders and Framers. Some (not all) progressives find it hard to affirm anything positive about the past but offer few practical and economically feasible solutions for all the crises we face.

What does “there” look like? I long for a day when every (of every color or culture, class and gender) person – from conception to coronation – lives in a world with access, equity, and opportunity and can, with the help of others, flourish personally and add to the goodness of our world. “There” includes immigration reform, so America is hospitable and welcoming immigrants ready to contribute. Neither open borders nor separating families are good solutions.

Practically, serious reforms are needed in all sectors (business, criminal justice, education, political accountability, mental health, strengthening families, and more) so that these pathways are created and sustained. We can forge and better future without extreme deficit spending and defunding law enforcement.

Will we find the courage and wisdom to get past anarchy and ignorance, nostalgic and utopian dispositions and work toward justice? The road ahead is perilous but full of promise.

Holy Week 2020: Daily Reflections

Dear friends,
Here are some thoughts I composed for our church as we walk in the steps of Jesus this Holy Week. In the midst of our current crisis, it settles our hearts to remember all that Jesus has done for us. Thank you for your prayers and support as we seek God’s glory and the good of others. 

Introduction

From the 2nd Century AD to this moment, Christians of all nations and traditions have understood the Passion of Christ as the central narrative of the Gospel. From the triumph and tears of Palm Sunday to Jesus’ victory over death, hell, and the grave on Easter Sunday, Holy Week has been a part of the church’s devotional reflection and evangelistic mission. Each day we will follow our Lord as he walks in obedience. With the Help of the Holy Spirit, we can find new intimacy with the Lord, hope for our circumstances, and wisdom for navigating life’s challenges. Each daily reflection will begin with the key passages from the Bible. This is followed by the main ideas in the passages. Finally, we will consider the applications arising from the Word. Welcome to a special week! 

Palm Sunday (April 5, 2020)

Key Scriptures: Matthew 21:1-17; Mark 11:1-19; Luke 19:28-47; John 12:12-19

This first day of Holy Week or the Passion is a moment of celebration as Jesus fulfills prophecy and receives worship. In these moments of celebration, Jesus surprises all around with his humility – riding on a young donkey – and his authority – commending the worship and cleansing the Temple. 

This moment of public exuberance will not last, as many in the crowd will be indifferent or hostile to our Lord just days later. Even as Jesus approaches the Holy City, he weeps over the refusal of most of God’s ancient people to understand the special moment of God’s kingdom in the person and work of Jesus. God’s Anointed One – the Messiah (the Christ) is here! God’s blessings of love and justice, joy and forgiveness, deliverance and healing are here…but without the military and political power. The first coming of Jesus focuses on liberation from sin and eternal death. The second coming will bring complete restoration (See Hebrews 9:23-28). 

It is important that we have our expectations informed by God’s word and not our feelings or the daily news. We know God is faithful and we know that the Lord is working in all circumstances (romans 8:28-39). We must expect the Lord to do great things and endure suffering at times. The crowds in Jerusalem wanted the victory without the sacrifice. 

Will we welcome King Jesus on his terms of holiness and humility? Will we clear the way for all to come to faith in the Lord, making room in our hearts and homes for new friends and 

members of God’s forever family? Let’s take a moment and praise the Lord for his goodness and power, love and mercy, and the promises on which we can place our lives. He is faithful! 

Holy Monday (April 6) 

Key Scriptures: Matthew 21:12-22; Mark 11:1-14; 14:3-11; Luke 19:45-46; John 12:1-11

On this second day of the week, scholars and church tradition place the anointing of Jesus with oil at Bethany here, along with the cursing of the fig tree and cleansing of the Temple. We also discover in John’s Gospel that some leaders are planning to kill Lazarus – Jesus’ friend he had raised from the dead – because Lazarus’ testimony was leading too many people to believe in Jesus.

The anointing of Jesus with expensive perfumed oil was considered extravagant by the religious – and received as a beautiful expression of love by our Lord. Jesus is not being wasteful; he is receiving the highest sacrifice that this repentant follower could offer. 

The cursing of the fig tree was a symbolic act, representing God’s judgement on those who – in spite of many invitations – refuse to believe. In today’s world, many are uncomfortable with the reality that some will enjoy God’s presence forever by their own choices. Our loving Lord is persuasive and powerful and constantly wooing people to himself. But in the end, following Jesus is voluntary. 

The Cleansing of the Temple was an act of divine judgment on some of the religious leaders and practices, especially the unfair treatment of Gentile converts to Judaism and God-fearing people desiring to know the Lord and experience his presence. The moneychangers were making it more expensive for certain groups to participate. Jesus prophetically prepares the way for the new temple – not a building of human hands but the expanded people of God, including all Jews and non-Jews that place their faith in Jesus (See Ephesians 2). 

Will we offer our lives extravagantly to the Lord, submitting all our time, treasure, and talent to him? Will we make sure we place no barriers to fellowship and ministry in the way of anyone, regardless of background? Will we aim for fruitful obedience and total dependence on the Lord, and refuse to exchange godliness for greed? 

Holy Tuesday (April 7, 2020)

Key Scripture: John 12:20-50 

In John’s Gospel, chapter 12 marks the final moments of Jesus’ public ministry before he retreats with the disciples to the Upper Room and spends several chapters ministering to “his 

own” (John 13:1-6). Some believe that the early moments of John 13 may have occurred on Tuesday evening, though others place John 13-17 on Wednesday and Thursday nights. 

Beginning with verse 20, Jesus responds to some Greek inquirers and offers a brilliant summary of his true glory – his “lifting up” on the Cross and the healing that will flow from this moment (John 12;20-33). There is a deep sadness on this day as John reminds us that rejection of Jesus was prophesied hundreds of years ago (John 12:34-41). In spite of much opposition, there were some timid believers that kept their faith quiet and the writer is clear this is not honoring to God (12:42-43). 

John 12:44-49 represents a final plea of Jesus – and therefore the author as well (John wrote his Gospel and Epistles toward the end of his long life) for all to believe and come into the true light (see John 1:1-18) of spiritual rebirth and eternal life. 

John recorded these words of Jesus to encourage us as we face many pressures to doubt and be afraid (especially in this pandemic moment). We are also encouraged toward boldness, not covering up our love for the Lord and his invitation for all who believe. Will we take time and share about the Lord with someone this week? Will we trust God even in hard circumstances? The Lord is with us and he will honor us as we honor him. 

And, taking a peek at John 13, will we respond to Jesus’ love on the Cross and live under Christ’s “new” command to “love one another, as I have loved you”? 

Holy Wednesday 

Key Scriptures: Matthew 26:1-5; Mark 14:17-21; Luke 22:1-6; John 13:21-30 

Sometimes called “Spy Wednesday” – this is the moment Judas is paid to betray Jesus. The celebration known as Tenebrae (shadows, deepening darkness) occurs Wednesday evening into early Thursday morning. Religious leaders conspire to silence Jesus and there is a tangible tension as Jesus, aware of all these events, still washes feet and shares bread with his betrayer (Judas Iscariot) and future denier (Peter).

The Gospels reveal Judas’ fiscal dishonesty and portray him in a negative light from the first lists of Jesus followers (Luke 8) to the final drama of his hypocritical kiss, deep regret, and eventual death. How did Judas go from hand-picked follower to, “the son of perdition”? Yes, it was the Lord’s plan that Jesus deliberately offer his life as a sacrifice for our salvation (Isaiah 52-53; Mark 10:45; John 10:10-18; Acts 2-3), but there is still freewill at work in Judas’ life.

The late Campbell McAlpine, renowned Bible teacher and leader, offers these insights into Judas…and they serve as a warning to our own hearts: First, Judas became offended when he realized that Jesus’ Messiahship was not going to mean immediate political power for himself and the disciples. Second, Judas became disloyal. He helped himself to the treasury and plotted 

with the leaders to arrest Jesus. Finally, Judas betrayed his Master with a kiss. Notice the progression: offense, disloyalty, betrayal. 

May the Lord help us guard our hearts when we are disappointed and hurt, lest we nurture an offense in our hearts and become disloyal to the Lord, other believers, and God’s church. Will we remain faithful, even when circumstances disappoint our expectations? Will we trust that Jesus is still the Light when shadows fall around us? We have a wonderful High Priest Jesus who is praying for us (Romans 8; Hebrews 4, 9-10; I John 1-2), and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can agree with him and bless others.

Maundy Thursday 

Key Scriptures: Matthew 26:26-75; Mark 14:22-72; Luke 22:14-71; John 17:1-18:27 

We are now in the central act of this divine drama of salvation. Notice the extensive details in all the Gospels. Floyd McClung, summarizing our Lord’s Passion, declared, “The Lord used a criminal act of evil persons against an innocent man and turned this into the foundation of their forgiveness.”

This is the moment of Jesus’ agonizing prayer and personal decision to take up the Cross. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we have a window into Jesus’ human feelings. Jesus knew it was God’s plan, yet the suffering (and horrible separation) of the Cross caused him to cry out to the Father…and after his cry, to submit to God’s plan for our salvation. We were the “joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:1-3) that propelled this decisive act of love. As he is crying out, John 17 lets us know that he is interceding for both his immediate disciples and for all believers. Jesus prays that we would be holy, united, and walk in love, just as God is holy, one and love. 

We also see Peter denying Jesus and then repenting of his cowardice. In Luke 22:31-34 Jesus predicts Peter’s denial – and eventual restoration! This is why the Mark 16:7 tells the astonished women, “Go tell the disciples and Peter…” that Jesus is alive. This is why Jesus askes Peter three times in John 21, ‘Do you love me?” With each affirmation of Peter, Jesus restores and commissions. What a wonderful Lord we have who restores us when we cry out to him.

Jesus is arrested and his (mis)trials begin. First, he appears before the religious leaders and remains mostly silent as they accuse him of blasphemy as he affirms that he is the Messiah and King. The religious leaders were threatened by Jesus’s words and works Their delicate political situation with the Roman Empire would be threatened if the people rallied around Jesus as King. As evening turns to morning, the final trials come. 

As we ponder the pathway of our Lord, will we choose divine love over human power, offering our lives for God’s glory and the good of others? Today is a good day to bring all past mistakes and regrets that still haunt our memories and realize that we serve a God of restoration. Though not all consequences are always removed, we can live with a clean conscience and hope for the future because Jesus is praying for us. 

Good Friday 

Key Scriptures: Matthew 27:1-61; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18:28-19:42 

Why is this moment of horrific, undeserved suffering called, “Good Friday” by all Christians? Because even though our Lord is condemned to a Cross, with a weak Roman leader capitulating to the paid-for-mob and jealous religious leaders, our salvation is secured though this deep suffering. Our Lord bears all of humankind’s sins and sorrows, sufferings and sicknesses, unspeakable evils and unanswered questions as he atones for humankind. “It is finished” indeed! At the very moment darkness appears to win, forgiveness and reconciliation are secured (See Romans 3:21-5:21).

Our Lord’s final mistrial is before Pilate – a poor leader who would prefer to beat Jesus and release him rather that have a martyr on his hands. Pilate knows Jesus is innocent of any capital crime and he is perplexed by this humble Rabbi claiming divine authority but not questioning Pilate’s civil leadership. But corruption and fear win the day and Pilate hands Jesus over to a squad of soldiers for crucifixion. 

In addition to an unmerciful beating and the taunts of the soldiers, Jesus must carry the cross beam to Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, where criminals die a lingering death. Jesus is so physically weak that Simon of Cyrene (located in North Africa) is plucked from the crowd to carry the beam, leaving his two sons among the watchers. Though weak, Jesus finds time to comfort weeping women on his bloodstained pathway. 

Jesus is on the Cross from 9 AM to 3 PM, with the final three hours full of unspeakable suffering. For the first time in all eternity, fellowship with the Father is broken (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) as Jesus bears our sins. He is suffering between two criminals. One curses; the other humbly pleas for mercy. Jesus promises the latter that they will enjoy God’s presence together in just a few hours, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” While on the Cross, Jesus forgives his tormentors, makes provisions for his Mother, refuses drugged wine, accepts a drink of water, and, at the very end, declares, “It is finished!” and “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” 

As Jesus utters his final words, in the Jewish Temple, the veil into the Holy of Holies is torn, symbolizing access for all who believe and a New Covenant. The very moment our adversary thought was his victory, becomes our salvation! “It is finished!” means all sins are covered, for in this one sacrifice, God’s love and justice are fulfilled and all who believe are forgiven and granted favor (Roman 5:1-11; Hebrews 7-10). 

Jesus is hastily buried in a borrowed tomb as the Sabbath approaches. The tomb is sealed and guarded and Jesus’ followers scatter, wondering what the future may hold. 

What does the Lord ask of us as we consider all this? He calls us to believe, turn from our selfishness and sins, and humbly say thank you with obedience to his commands – summed up in the command to love God and neighbor (Acts 2:38; Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 22:37-40; Ephesians 4:1-6). Just as Jesus submitted to a pathway of service for us, will we reframe our lives for God’s glory and the good of others? 

Holy Saturday 

Key Scripture: Matthew 27:62-66; Luke 23:56

This Sabbath Day is a hush, a pause to catch our breath…and a critical moment of verifying that Jesus was not, “only mostly dead.” Jesus died on Good Friday and was hastily wrapped and placed in a borrowed tomb before the sundown on Friday. Political and religious leaders sealed the tomb and posted a guard, lest the body be stolen. 

Why does this day matter? Theologically, we know that Jesus’ work for our salvation was completed on the Cross (“It is finished”). In one sense, the Resurrection could have happened a millisecond after Jesus’ death. But in the plan of God, it was vital that Jesus’ death and sealed tomb be certified by witnesses so that the full power of his eventual triumph over death can be seen in all its glory.

It is important that we not add to God’s Word about our salvation. Some well-meaning Christians believe that after Jesus died, there was some kind of spiritual battle in Hades and Satan had to be defeated and “the keys” snatched from his hand. These speculations arose in the early Medieval times with an addition to the Apostles’ Creed that says, “he descended into hell [hades, the place of the dead].” This is not in the New Testament or any other creed. Ephesians 4:1-11 reminds us the Lord who triumphed over the grave is the same one who descended all the way…in his incarnation in Mary’s womb (see Psalm 139 for the meaning of “depths of the earth”). In I Peter 3, Jesus did not go and preach to the dead – rather, Peter is illustrating how Noah’s pleas with evil people anticipated the gospel. 

When Jesus died on Good Friday, his spirit was immediately in Paradise and his body was physically in the tomb. The same is true when a believer dies today. She or he is in God’s presence, while awaiting the final resurrection when Jesus returns in glory (2 Corinthians 5; I Thessalonians 4-5).

As we reflect on this moment of waiting, we are challenged to trust the Lord for his timing in our lives. We are called to cease from our own efforts and enter his rest of faith (Hebrews 2-4). In our busy world, waiting is a particularly challenging discipline. 

EASTER SUNDAY

Key Scriptures: Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20-21; Acts 1:1-11; I Corinthians 15 

Every Easter, around the world, billions of believers declare to each other, “He is Risen!” and respond with, “He is Risen, indeed!”

“Every Sunday is Easter when believers realize they live in the Spirit and begin to experience new life today, even while waiting for the Return of the Lord.” (Gordon Fee). Here we see victory over every opposing power, especially death and the fear of death. In our Risen Lord, we see a preview of our future – real, transformed bodies and spirits ready to worship and work under the reign of Christ (Romans 8; Colossians 1:15-22). Easter is not a psychological projection of wishful thinking (the disciples were astonished), or some kind of spiritual apparition (Jesus invited Thomas to touch him and served breakfast at the seashore). 

The Gospels all record the astonishment of the women at the tomb as they discover Jesus is alive. All the Gospels detail of awe of the disciples as they see the Lord and begin to realize (again) that God’s kingdom is present in ways they did not expect (Acts 1). The political and religious opponents spread rumors that the disciples stole the body…and these rumors persist into the 21st century. Eventually, as many as 500 will witness the Risen Lord. 

There is no historical event more studied and more attacked that the Resurrection. If it can be undermined and found false, the entire Christian message has no meaning and power (I Corinthians 15). Why should anyone suffer if Jesus is just a good Rabbi and martyr? If it is true, we see in the Risen Jesus a preview of the future of every believer and validation that death does not have the final word! 

Jesus appears to his followers, instructing them about the kingdom, commissioning them to make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15; Luke 24:44-49; John 20:19-21; Acts 1:8), and reassuring them that he will be present with them through the Person of the Holy Spirit (John 14-16; Luke 24:44-47; Acts 1:8; 2:4). 

No matter what our trials, we have a hope that is rooted in history and we have victory over sin and sorrow through the Holy Spirit. We can expect a life of resurrection power and suffering (Philippians 3), a life filled with the miraculous and with punctuated by real challenges. 

The certainty of the Resurrection is what caused this small group of Jesus followers to become millions of Christians. The Resurrection proclaims that God is working now to restore all things and invites all believers to join is this mission of reconciliation and repair (2 Corinthians 5:18-6:2). Will we joyfully receive the work of the Holy Spirit in our life and begin to live the future now, sharing our faith, doing good, and honoring God in all we do?