This past summer I had the honor of traveling in the Middle East in areas and locations I am not permitted to share publically. I worked with, taught, and trained Christian leaders who came from many war torn areas due to fighting of ISIL/ISIS and other rebel groups. There, near the border we learned together, trained together, and prayed together. It was an experience I will never forget.
Below is an excerpt I wrote for Ananias House. This is a ministry that exists to help and minister to the persecuted church in the Middle East. The reason for the name of their ministry is stated below which was taken from their website:
Ananias House seeks to preserve the New Testament heritage in the Middle East and North Africa. Just as Paul was sent from Damascus into the world, the people of Ananias House rise above war and persecution to grow the body of Christ in their region.
While I would love to share pictures and faces, I am unable to do so because of the danger it would cause those I was able to train and minister to.
As a young Christian, I read many books, articles, and blogs about Christian martyrs. Their passion and dedication left me speechless and motivated. Their struggle and dedication were hard for me to identify with because I didn’t walk where they walked or live where they lived. Nonetheless, these books and articles bridged a gap in my understanding of their faith and dedication.
Little did I know that 15 years later I would have the honor and joy of serving and walking beside persecuted Christians. This opportunity came for me in the summer of 2017. I took part in Ananias House training sessions about learning to read the Scriptures, as well as teaching an independent course on Colossians.
Along with this opportunity, I witnessed the work of a brave couple ministering on the frontlines near the Syrian border. Their work was dedicated to reaching MBB’s (Muslim Background Believers). What follows is a snapshot of my time working with Christian brothers and sisters whose passion for Jesus and multiplying the church are unmatched.
When I first met with those who came for the training, I was struck with their disposition toward what they were living through each day. Nothing in them glorified their ordeal, and they made no spectacle about their faith and passion for Jesus. They were simple people. They loved Jesus, loved people, loved their enemies, and wanted to spread the fame of Jesus. I came to the realization that I elevated them much higher than they would elevate themselves.
Along with their humility was their pure joy. These were men and women who were facing difficulty and trial each day as they lived and ministered throughout Syria. They were facing extreme danger and struggle, but you would never know it. These men and women were filled with a joy I had never seen or experienced.
I spoke with one man whose car he was driving was hit with, as he put it, “a rain shower of bullets.” Miraculously not one bullet touched him, and the terrorists continued on. After telling me this story I was speechless, but him? He began to laugh! With a smile from ear to ear he said, “Those terrorists make it hard to love them sometimes, but I do. I love them.” This man had joy that he was spared, as well as love in his heart for those who tried to kill him.
I quickly realized that my time with these beautiful individuals was less about the teaching and training, and more about the mutual love and encouragement we would share in our time together. After each training session, we would usually have tea and food, and not once did I see a frown. Not once did I hear fear, negativity, or worry. I heard constant encouragement and thanksgiving to Christ for what He is doing in their land. In many of these conversations I was the one being encouraged! I had expectations of working with people who were sad, downtrodden, and in desperate need of encouragement. And while some of that may be true, their joy, love, and humility far exceeded anything I have ever seen or been around.
One of the older ladies (who had more energy than my 32-year-old self) shared her story with me. With a large smile she explained the work she is doing in her village, a place that terrorists were trying to take over. She stood up to the attackers and refused to leave. Many others left for fear of their lives. Many pastors and trained leaders left, but again, she did not. She explained to me how she preaches each Sunday, leads the village’s children’s ministry, and organizes songs and worship music. She does all of this ministry, and prays daily for the raising up of more leaders.
I said, “How are you able to keep up with all of this?” With a penetrating, serious look she said to me, as though I were a fool, “Because Jesus gives me strength, of course!” I smiled and said, “Of course He does.”
Everything Ananias House put together for these leaders, from printed materials, to travel arrangements, to lodging, was flawless. They were above excellent in their work and are playing a role in the Middle East that is touching more people than I could ever imagine. They are an active presence in bringing the Gospel of hope, love, and peace to this desperate region.
Following our time of training, I transitioned to meet with a beautiful couple who are doing work with MBB’s. They minister in many refugee camps and do the pure work of ministry as seen in the New Testament. Like the analogy of a farmer in Mark 4:26-29, they engage new fields, work hard in planting the seeds of the Gospel, nurture new growth through discipleship, and put the sickle to the harvest and plant churches within the camps. Their heart is like Paul’s in Romans 15:23: to serve until there is no place left to minister.
They do not seek recognition, nor do they seek to spread a church brand, or become popular. They are nameless people who exude humility and courage. They love and serve Syrian refugees with no strings attached. I did not do any work with them per se other than meet with them, learn from them, and encourage them. Little did they know that their ministry to me in my short time with them was more than anything I could ever hope to return.
In fact, that was the theme of my time with these persecuted Syrian believers. I went with the expectation of giving and serving until I had nothing left. I quickly realized that by talking with them and hearing their stories, I was learning more than I ever could have hoped to impart. I am forever in debt to each of these precious Christ followers for the love, joy, and courage they displayed to me.
I encourage all who read this to pray for Ananias House and the work they are doing. Pray about serving, partnering, and supporting them financially. They are truly pioneers on the frontlines doing the work of the Gospel.
In summary, here are 5 key points I learned and experienced while with my Syrian brothers and sisters.
1 – The Gospel is simple. Living the Gospel is costly.
These individuals have counted the cost and their courageous example beckons all Christians to rethink what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
2 – Jesus is at work in powerful ways through the simple obedience of His people.
The same power of God that we read about in the Scriptures is at work in the neighborhoods, villages, and camps throughout Syria and neighboring countries.
3 – Christian work should be intentional and urgent.
These followers of Jesus display a radical passion to extend the fame and glory of Christ through evangelism, discipleship, and church planting.
4 – Evangelism and Church Planting will win the lost for Christ.
These Believers understand that large churches, slick sermons, and charisma will not change their nation, nor turn the hearts of their enemies. It requires what Jesus originally sent us to do: go, share the gospel, and make disciples.
5 – Although the West tries to present Islam as a peaceful religion, this is not always the reality. We must meet the violence with love and pray for the salvation of Muslims.
While learning from those on the frontlines, I was made vividly aware of the evil and ideological hatefulness they face. We must pray for the triumph of the Church and that Muslims would come to know the saving hope and grace of Jesus Christ.
May the Lord continue to strengthen and multiply the churches in Syria to the praise of His glory.
A pastor from Ohio
I encourage you to please do three things:
Pray for the persecuted church around the world. Pray for many of the beautiful Muslim and non-believing Arabs in this region who are caught up in the pain and torture of war. Pray for the soldiers of ISIL/ISIS as well as other rebel groups. That peace would come and their passion for violence, death, and an Islamic caliphate would cease.
Visit Ananias House and prayerfully consider partnering with their efforts. I witnessed first hand where 100% of their resources are going. Visit their website here and their Facebook page here.
Lastly, please share this post as this will help spread the courage and passion they so bravely display for Jesus Christ. Their stories are more than worthy to be shared and heard.
8 Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. 10 For
“Those who desire life
and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
and their lips from speaking deceit;
11 let them turn away from evil and do good;
let them seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.
A Dirt Road South of Cairo and a Response that Shocked the World
On May 26th of this year on a dirt road leading to a Monastery in Egypt, 130 miles south of Cairo a group of terrorists hijacked a bus leading to the monastery and killed more than half of the people inside. This was part of a continued rise in sectarian violence in Egypt. Immediately the outpouring of anger, frustration, and hate poured over from many throughout Egypt and the world since many of these victims were also children.
Those killed were Coptic Christians which is an ancient group of Christians who reside mostly in Egypt. They have a long history of violence coming against them. Their understanding of what propels them forward has always been the faith and blood of their martyrs, as they say.
And so over the years we have grown used to hearing these kinds of stories. Usually what follows are scenes where loved ones are carrying coffins in the streets on their way to the burial site. This then is usually followed by people speaking into cameras expressing their rage and frustration. Crying tears of vengeance and bewilderment. I get it.
However, with this latest attack in Egypt we come across something we rarely hear if ever. It came from one of the leaders of the Coptic church in Egypt. I am going to read what he has to say and I want you to keep in mind who he is talking about. He is talking about young men who took the lives of 28 people, many of them children. Here is his message to them:
“You are loved. The violent and deadly crimes you perpetrate are abhorrent and detestable, but YOU are loved. You are loved by God, your Creator, for He created you in His Image and according to His Likeness, and placed you on this earth for much greater things, according to His plan for all humankind. You are loved by me and millions like me, not because of what you do, but what you are capable of as that wonderful creation of God, who has created us with a shared humanity. You are loved by me and millions like me because I, and we, believe in transformation.”
“Christians believe in transformation”, he said, adding that even those who had persecuted Christ“went on to live with grace. We believe in transformation because, on a daily basis, we are personally transformed from a life of human weakness and sinfulness to a life of power and righteousness,” he added. “We believe in transformation because the whole message of the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is to take humanity from the bonds of sin and death to a liberation in goodness and everlasting life.”
He admitted this is far from the reaction people may expect, but said it was the “Christian message”. Bishop Angaelos said he grieves for young men who see it as “not only justifiable, but glorious, to take the lives of other young men and women”. “No family should lose a son in this way, even if they are partially or wholly responsible for this flawed ideology,” the bishop added. Bishop Angaelos said these attacks come due to a loss of understanding of the sanctity of life.
The bishop concluded: “What is important is not that this message be read but that it be communicated; not that it be accepted but that it be understood as another perspective [lived out]; and not that it should be fully embraced, but that it may create at least a shadow of a doubt in the minds of those intent on inflicting harm and pain.”
You see the hope of this humble and Christ-like man is that this message will not so much be read to the attackers but rather demonstrated before them. That radical love and forgiveness would be what wins over the hearts of those set on inflicting harm. This is of course in opposition to the alternative which is with bullets and bombs.
In a day and age when retaliation, fear, and vengeance permeates much of our politics, society and even personal relationships, the words of Bishop Angaelos comes rushing in like a river of fresh water to a thirsty society and church. The ideals of not only forgiveness. Not only loving your enemies. But an ideal even more difficult than those two.
Forgiving is by no means easy, but it’s doable. Loving your enemies is also not easy but this too can be done. It is what this Bishop does which is inconceivable to many of us: Seeing Christ in the other person. Seeing Christ in the person who has harmed us. Seeing the image of God in the person who is grating at our patience. Seeing the beauty of Jesus in the person who has so harmed us, so wronged us. It is this ideal which is often the hardest and impossible among us Christians.
The height of Christian hypocrisy is demonstrating bitterness, un-forgiveness, and hate to others. It is completely antithetical to our nature. It shouldn’t be in our DNA. If it is then we must take a look in the mirror because everything we show towards others must run through the filter of what has been shown to us in Christ. We have done nothing to earn or receive it but in Christ we have mercy, forgiveness, gentleness, kindness, grace, love, and a continued disposition from Jesus where he sees the image of God in us. To not show all of this toward others denies the very pillars of the faith which we say we believe in.
I am sure many of us can think of situations, people, and circumstances where we have bitterness. We have hate. We have frustration. Guess what, its Ok! You are human! But we must never settle for this. What we must strive for, work towards, is to be so full of the love and power of Christ that we are able to demonstrate the skill of seeing Christ in others.
It begins right here. It begins with one another. In order to do the unthinkable of forgiving the unforgivable, seeing Christ in the most evil of people, it must begin first within our own heart but then in the community. As we revisit these words from Peter let us possess one trait more than any other this morning: humility.
1 Peter 3:8- The Tools of Our “Counter-Culture”
In order to get the full punch in the gut of Peters words here we must take a step back for a moment. Let’s remember exactly what is going on here. We have a large group of Christians who are trying to navigate their new lives in the midst of persecution, suffering, trials, and many other serious obstacles to their faith. They have people coming against them, kicking them out of the synagogues, families being split apart, people losing their jobs—all for their faith in Christ.
It is in this context that Peter reminds them to focus on two things: loving one another; and blessing others. If I was there I can imagine my response. “Really Peter? Do you know what this is like? Do you know what we are going through? This is every man for themselves! We can’t do this! We have to compromise somehow. We have to figure out a way to get through this!” And Peter would reiterate what he said. The way to get through it is to display the radical love of Christ first to one another and secondly to your persecutors. To those who bother you, grate at you, and cause you frustration.
What this speaks of isn’t conflict resolution 101. What Peter is instructing is embodying a foreign and supernatural culture. The big buzzword is being “counter-cultural.” That by the way we live and interact with others both in the church and outside of it, is so different and foreign to our culture that we are displaying a counter culture.
John Stott, an amazing British Christian writer, wrote a book on the sermon on the mount. This is the section in the book of Matthew where Jesus lays out what he expects from his followers, you and I, in how we live and interact with one another. Stott says,
“If the church realistically accepted Jesus’s standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counterculture.
Instead of doing this, the church throughout history has too often developed clever ways of explaining why Jesus didn’t really mean what he said or why his teachings are not to be applied in the present time. Thankfully there have been prophetic voices bringing us back to the authentic gospel down through the ages.
The Christian community must be in some sense “other than” the world around it, maintaining fundamental points of divergence. That where the common ways of society and how we treat one another go this way, we represent a different way. For so long the church has tried to be “counter-culture” in all the wrong ways.
Through t-shirts, through alternative music, through our own education, our own this and our own that. Those do not make us a counter culture. Wearing a bracelet or a cross on your neck does not make you counter cultural. Posting the most Christian status or picture on Instagram does not make you countercultural. To be countercultural is to do exactly what Christ does for others; exactly what we see this Bishop doing: see the beauty of Christ in every person around us, which then transforms how we speak, view, and relate to them. That is real transformation. The rest is cheap, sleezy, and void of depth.
Peter is very specific on what the “tools” are for making this culture exist within our community which then goes outside these walls. He first mentions unity of spirit. This is the simple understanding that we are in this all together. No one has their stuff completely together. What we do have is each other. As imperfect as we all are, we are a family together.
Peter then mentions sympathy, love, and a tender heart for one another. These three adjectives really boil down to one thing: being selfless. Usually when we lack sympathy, when we lack love, when our heart turns brittle and cold it is due to a deep root of selfishness within us. We are either imposing our standards on the other person or we have outrageously high expectations that are unrealistic. We must be tender towards one another. Acknowledge the flaws, but wow, lets love one another through them.
Peter is a wise man. He is slowly turning up the heat on the community. He begins with unity, then heads to three areas that are doable, and now he is turning to something that is nearly impossible. The last tool he gives is the height of Christian maturity and character because it is the very essence of Christ himself.
1 Peter 3:9- The Height of Christ-likeness
Our Lord Jesus, when he was being crucified cried out with a loud voice, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do!” Other ancient Christians who were either being martyred or persecuted offered forgiveness to their persecutors. A man by the name of Anacleto who was an advocate for peace during the Cristero war in the early 1900s in Mexico was quoted as saying with his last words,
“I pardon you from the heart; very soon we will see each other before the divine tribunal; the same judge that is going to judge me will be your judge; then you will have, in me, an intercessor with God on your behalf.”
As followers of Jesus our highest aim is to always emulate Jesus. Just as many who came after him have done. Just as Anacleto has done. And just as many of us can do today in the simple act of choosing to bless those who cause us frustration.
You know, Peter has some nerve to instruct the church to do this in light of what they were going through. Can you imagine right now living in the days of Peter, like many places around the world right now, and you are being instructed to bless others. To love your enemies. To show kindness, love, and mercy to those who have wronged you? This would be so difficult for us. But for Peter, this is our divine destiny.
Do you notice how he says “repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called that you might inherit a blessing.” The word blessing has been often hijacked from Christian pop culture. Over time it has been watered down to the point where we say we are “blessed” over everything. If we have a new car we will say, “God has blessed us!” Well not exactly. You are very fortunate to have a job, credit, and you have chosen a car to buy. Sorry to burst your blessed bubble.
Blessing is much deeper than that. The ancient understanding of blessing comes from the relationship of a parent to the child. For the father or mother to bless the child is to say, “I love you. I am for you. I empathize with you. I am proud of you.”The word blessing is tied more to relationship, less to the attainment of material goods. Even in ancient Israel when the Psalms or the prophets would seek the blessing of protection, food, or anything it was always within the context of their relationship with God.
Therefore, when Peter says to return a blessing after being insulted, he is not saying to bake cookies for the one who has wronged you. He is saying “look them in the eyes and find Christ, and find the good within them to love. Find what you can empathize with. Discover the pain and heartache that causes their lashing out. Pray for them. Sit with them. Have coffee with them. Value their personhood. Show them grace.” That is being a blessing to others. Baking cookies is easy. Finding Christ in them takes time and diligence.
Peter then ends with this beautiful phrase for his readers as well as us. He says, “so that you might inherit a blessing.” Again, keeping the right understanding of blessing in mind, let us remember that we do not bless others to receive anything in return. We do not aim to give our tithes and offerings so that God can “bless” us with financial prosperity. That is a lie and a gross misunderstanding of the Scriptures.
No. We bless others, we find Christ in others, we love and live in unity, empathy, humility with others, so that we might receive the blessing from the Father. And what is that blessing? It is a Father, a parent looking at their child saying, “I love you, I am for you, I am with you, I am proud of you!” This is the purest understanding of what it means to be blessed by God. Sure, our jobs, are food, our shelter are signs of Gods providence and we are fortunate to have these.
But they are not the end all be all blessing. The only blessing that ever means something worthwhile is the Father looking at us and our obedient hearts and saying, “I am proud of you. I love you. I see Christ in you.” That is it. And that is what Peter is longing for, for these people. But for them to get there, they need to begin to live differently from the world around them. The same goes for you and I.
What We Must Do/Be
A few weeks ago I had a rare parenting “win.” It’s nice to see when you are doing something right. My three children, whom I love with all of my heart, become combatant with one another occasionally. Well, one day a few weeks ago it was my oldest two going at it. Caleb and Kennedy were fighting so much. Rather than yelling I called them over. I sat them down. I explained to them that it wasn’t ok to talk to one another and treat one another the way they had been. They then rushed to say sorry and a little while later they were back at it.
This time I knew I had to do something different. This time I called them back. I made them come together and this time they each had to make a list of ten things they loved about each other. You would have thought I asked them to climb Everest. It took about 20 minutes but they did it. The rest of that day something was different in them. They played together, they laughed together, they helped one another. And why? Because they intentionally found the good in one another and it changed everything. At its simplest level, this is what Peter is instructing, this is what Jesus did with everyone, and this is what Bishop Angaelos did with those attackers.
Being a counter cultural community of love and Christlikeness begins in your own mind and heart. After we experience that same transformation this Egyptian Bishop speaks of, maybe then we will see ourselves truly walking in the footsteps of Jesus like never before.
We will know we are walking in those footsteps when we no longer look with suspicion, distaste, disgust, or even hate at groups like ISIS, the LGBTQ community, or people on the other side of the political aisle (yes believe it or not the love of Christ is found in Democrats, Repuplicans, Socialists, Communitst, and even Marxists) Or even people of a different race. People who bother us. People who have hurt us. People who grade at our nerves. Peter says it best: let us seek to live in
“unity of spirit, sympathy, love, and tenderness of heart. Not seeking to repay insult for insult but rather a blessing. Hoping that in doing so we might make our heavenly father proud.”
This is what HighMill church needs beofre anything else. We are not all going to always get along or see things the same way. But in walking out our faith we will seek to look at one another with humility as better than ourselves.
This is what our community needs. This is what our vast world needs. You want to change the world? Change you first. But to change superficially. Change deeply.
I encourage you. I beg you. As you go home today begin to look at your circle of family, friends, husband or wife, children—and ask the Holy Spirit to show you who you must first begin to find Christ in. Who you must begin to seek unity with.
As hard as it may be, it is the only right(eous) thing to do. If we fail to do so we are being disobedient. While walking this difficult task out, take joy in realizing you are experiencing the mysterious and beautiful transformation of your heart.
Fear: an unwanted and unpleasant emotion caused by being aware of danger.
As followers of Jesus we have a peculiar situation when it comes to fear. On the one hand modern evangelicalism has taught us that to fear is to doubt Gods ability to work in a given situation. Therefore we must eradicate all traces of fear and doubt.
This is unfortunate because if you doubt, you lack faith. Sadly, if you lack faith then of course God cannot act and you are left all by your lonesome to fend for yourself. (Note sarcasm)
So what do we do with this topic of fear?
If there is one type of message not being preached in churches today it’s this: fear is healthy for the Christian soul. I just finished preaching today on the 4th Sunday after Easter and fear was a major part of today’s text in the lectionary.
We are a few weeks behind in the lectionary so I planted the congregation in 1 Peter 1:3-9. In this text the Apostle Paul is adamant that our trials, our sufferings, our “aggravations,” as Eugene Peterson puts it, are in fact not something to fear but rather something that we ought to face head on. Because, as Peter explains, “our faith is being proved genuine.”
Jürgen Moltmann, Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at Tubingen, has been one of the leading theologians concerning the integration of the risen Christ in the Christian life. In his work, “Jesus Christ for Today’s World,” Moltmann speaks to the challenge of fear and what the Christian ought to do with it. He states,
“Fear does not isolate us from God. On the contrary it leads us into deeper communion with him. Christian faith in God is essentially fellowship with Christ…who was tempted and assailed, who suffered and was forsaken. In our anxiety we participate in Christ’s anxiety.”
What Moltmann says is true and in complete alignment with the words of Peter. Before all of us, there are or will be moments of fear. Moments of dread. Moments of suffocation and anxiety. The temptation will be to do one of three things.
Three Options on Dealing With Fear
First, we might deny the hardship and the fear, put on a brave face, and tough it out. This sounds noble but it does not benefit our Christian growth.
Secondly, we just might buckle under the burden of fear and allow the waves of the storm to completely wipe us away. This will set our growth back quite far as we will likely doubt the very presence of God in our situation.
Or thirdly, we might do something a bit risky. If we are up for it, we may take those moments of fear and dread realizing that those are prime opportunities to deepen our faith in the risen Jesus Christ.
Obviously no one looks to find difficult and trying situations. But let us not be naive Christians who think that following Jesus will be rainbows and sunshine continuously. It won’t be. It was never supposed to be. It wasn’t for Jesus; why would it be for you?
At one time or another you will have that question run through your mind: What do I do with this fear? This anxiety? This pain? Well judging by Peter and Jürgen, the raw emotions of fear and anxiety that stem from trials are the fertile fields where we find true growth. True growth as disciples is what we are all after. Fear and trials are a natural part of that growth. They are a natural part of the Christian life. Let us not run from them. I pray we may run into them with Christ right beside us.
We thank you for your continued providence in the lives of Christ Followers. We ask that you equip us with the wisdom to navigate life. We ask that you grant us with fortitude, strength, and endurance to magnify your name with how we live. Let us not run from that which scares us. But let us learn to find those small threads of grace and truth in the midst of them.
It is for your glory that we live. It is for your Gospel that we are able to stand redeemed. We love you. Show your love to us, your church. Show your presence to us, your children. In our darkest and most challenging of trials light the way forward we humbly ask. In the name of the risen Jesus Christ we pray.
I have been asked what we will do about church falling on Christmas morning. Multiple times. Down through the years in fact.
I’ve heard the question all around me in person and on social media. “Should I stay in with my family or should we come to church on Christmas morning?”
First off, let’s be real for a moment. Whether you will be with a worshipping community Christmas morning or not does not dictate your Christianity. We all have the power to choose to be at home with our families or with our Christian family this December 25th. Jesus is not watching with a ledger. So let’s keep grace and love flowing freely in this dialog. Sadly I have observed the opposite and it’s embarrassing to see others divide on this issue.
Guard Against Pride
And so, for those worshipping with the community on Christmas morning… I would ask the question would you still desire to be with your church family if it didn’t fall on a Sunday? I’d hope so. Don’t exploit Christmas falling on a Sunday to puff up your spirituality. The answer to the question above is important. It is easy to look down our noses at others on this one. Don’t fall for it.
Three Things to Ponder
For those choosing to stay home this Christmas morning… please consider this:
Our entire message centers around the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We get two days a year to really bring that message home: Christmas and Easter. So when Christmas falls on a Sunday, you would think we would be more likely to show up to worship together. I could be the exception. (Don’t tell my leadership team, but I would love to have a small service each year on Christmas morning. Shhh.)
Secondly, I love my family a lot. I really do. But they didn’t rise from the dead for me. On Christmas morning we have the honor of giving our devotion and focus to the one who gave everything for us. Our family time is fantastic and beautiful. Memories are made and there is an overflow of joy. But in the end, for an hour or so, commemorating the birth of our savior together with other brothers and sisters in Christ seems to carry a bit more weight. A few thousand years of church history around the world across various traditions confirms this.
Lastly, where I will be on Sunday will say something to the people around me as well as my own family. I wouldn’t want my family to hear that our faith in Christ matters… but not more than the gifts we bought or the “family feeling” of Christmas morning.
In Essentials Unity…
So while I lay out the reasons for why I believe worshipping on Christmas morning with the church is important, whether it falls on a Sunday or not, there is grace and freedom in the body of Christ.
No shame, no judgment, no pride, and no ego. To each their own. Remember the oft-used phrase used in the body of Christ for centuries:
In the essentials; unity. In non-essentials; charity.
Recently our city newspaper put out a “Best of the Best” award where they voted on the best restaurants, shopping venues, and yes even places to worship. Well, someone had to respond to such a foolish and asinine reward. I wrote a letter to the Newspaper and surprisingly they published it. I will leave it below:
The Repository recently handed out a voter-led “Best of the Best Award” in an area that ought to be free of competition. If we could name one plague that has decimated the unity of the church, it has been the gross adaptation of the church being turned into a business. Something we market, brand, and compete in. Something Jesus never desired. In fact, he hoped for the opposite.
What began as a beautiful expression of unity under One Lord has digressed to divisions, denominations, and subtle competition. While many of us as pastors are working hard to repair the breaches and bring inter-denominational unity as well as an inter-faith dialogue, it doesn’t help having a newspaper give an award for “Best Place to Worship 2016.” If you truly desire to unify this city,you ought to remember to work with those who have this same desire, not against them. Such an award deepens the plague of division and stigma — a stigma that some churches aren’t good enough, techy enough, and frankly not professional enough. Not to mention the other faith traditions in our city that are slighted by this award and its exclusiveness.
The essence of this “award” is foreign to the Scriptures we read and are formed by. Jesus never mandated that his followers gather and produce some neat, pristine, finished product whereby they could win some asinine award. We are Christ-following misfits who gather together. To the best of our imperfect ability we seek to project the salt and light of Christ as we gather and live. The “excellence” in which we do so is not business-oriented. It is oriented in our faithfulness to ancient Christian orthodoxy as followers of Jesus.
As a pastor of a church, if I were to receive such an award, elation and excitement would be the furthest thing from my mind; Rather, repentance, anger, and frustration. I would then seek to redirect my city’s newspaper to a more helpful effort: How to unify the worshiping community of our city; not divide it with foolish awards or man-made accolades. As a pastor, I certainly would not promote such a foolish award in fear of being antithetical to the desires of Christ for His church.
NOAH D. SCHUMACHER, Pastor, High Mill Church
Lets challenge those that would pit one church against the other. Whether it be parishioners speaking of what place has better “this or that” or Pastors who boast about their church as though it were theirs. And even our media outlets.
Let us work for unity and nothing else. That is the desire of Christ for His church.
One of the reasons many people love the Gospel of John is due to the many encounters Jesus has with individuals. Whether it be the woman at the well in John 4 or with Nathaniel and Jesus in John 1 . Or even the infamous one on one encounter with Peter near the conclusion of the gospel. This one on one dynamic produces within us a certain ease and comfort as we read these stories because we can imagine ourselves in the position of the one to whom Jesus is ministering to.
Well if there is one thing I have realized in seeking to translate the New Testament and words of Jesus from the original Greek to our modern English, it’s that certain things get lost in translation. Literally.
You vs. Y’all
While there are many idioms, language quirks, and even metaphors that make up this list there is one functional pronoun issue that tops them all. That would be You vs. y’all.
In Koine Greek language, the language of the New Testament, there is both a singular and a plural “you.” A singular “to you” is σοι, pronounced like “soy.” While a plural “to you” is ὑμῖν, which is pronounced “who-min.” I am sure if you look closely, even if you can’t read Greek, you will notice the difference. Well for us as English-speaking people, we lack that difference. Except in the south where we will often hear “y’all” which is short for “you all.”
So why is this an issue? Well often times in these “one on one” stories of Jesus and another he speaks directly to them as individuals (σοι). However, in some of these stories he will then broaden out and a second time say “you” but this time, unbeknownst to us, include others as in “you all” (ὑμῖν).
Jesus, Nicodemus, and y’all
One such example can be found in John 3. During a nighttime conversation between the Pharisee Nicodemus and Jesus they begin to dialog about the origin of Jesus and His message. In order for Nicodemus to rightly understand this profound truth Jesus declares that he must be “born from above” or as some call it “born again.” This means to come into a saving, redeeming, and confessional relationship with Jesus and this new message of the Kingdom. However, the dialog is not meant for Nicodemus alone, but also others in Israel and the readers of this gospel. Both then and today. Keeping in mind what we read above, lets look more closely at v. 7.
NRS John 3:7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’
Do you see the difference? In our Greek translation it basically says, “Do not marvel or be astonished that I said to you (singular), ‘You all, Y’all, everyone, must be born from above.”
Well how about that. We, the reader, the listener on the outside have just been invited into the story in a deeper way. This second “you” is in the plural form relating to everyone around Nicodemus. Not just him.
Dean Deppe, a scholar out of Amsterdam, speaks on the importance of this singular/plural “you” and its importance. He says,
“This dialogue represents a conversation between unbelieving Jewish leaders in the first century and the Christian church, led by Jesus. Without realizing it, Nicodemus speaks prophetically in the plural:“We know that you are a teacher who has come from God” (3:2), Then in 3:11-12, the dialogue displays the contrasting faith of Christians, on the one hand, and unbelieving Jews, on the other hand, when Jesus gives to Nicodemus personally (sing. you) a message for everyone (plural you)….This change in Greek pronouns demonstrates that all of us must enter into a conversation with Jesus. ” (Dean Deppe, PhD., Devotions on the Greek New Testament, 45)
Why is This Important?
Understanding this helps us realize as readers of this story and others like it that we were not just meant to observe the story playing out in Scripture but rather join in on it. We were never meant to be mere observers but rather participators placing ourselves within the texts we read and study.
This understanding of the singular and plural “you” only furthers that very truth. Since Jesus was not from the south where he would have readily said “y’all”, perhaps the next time you come across one of those “you’s” in Scripture, do a simple word search on Bible Gateway. It will tell you if it’s singular or plural. The result and context may just open your eyes and draw you in even more to the beauty of Scripture and the beautiful narrative which unfolds.
Want to try one? Read 1 Corinthians 6:19 and try to figure out who it is that serves as the “temple of the Holy Spirit.” The context is more important than you may think.
While it may be ignored by most Protestants, Wisdom of Solomon may be one of the most intriguing and raw books of Scripture. It is a book found in the Apocrypha which is included in the Orthodox and Catholic bible but not in the Protestant. The reasons for this merits another post of its own. (For now, click here)
Written between Malachi and Matthew, it is the best introduction to the era of Jesus and the early church. It was also a huge influence on Paul of the New Testament as well as other biblical writers (compare Romans 1:29-32 with Wisdom 13:8-9; 14:25-26).
With that being said, from the very first line of this book we read something powerful, bold, and to the point. The author says in 1:1, “Love righteousness, you rulers of the earth, think of the Lord in goodness and seek him with sincerity of heart…”
This first verse is filled with tremendous imperatives which are commands to be obeyed and followed through on. He says to “love righteousness (justice), think of the Lord in goodness (lit. set your mind upon the Lord), and seek him with sincerity of heart. Or as the NEB translation puts it, “seek him in simplicity of your heart.” While these bold statements are enough to think about for some time, it is what follows these commands that we should never forget.
Wisdom 1:2 states, “because he is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests [reveals] himself to those who do not distrust him.”
What follows verse 1 is the answer to many “So what?” questions we may have from hearing such commands. The word connecting these two verses is the Greek conjunction “ho-ti.” The manner in which it is used here refers to what was previously said. This word is often used to introduce a cause or reason based on an evident fact that precedes it. (See John 20:29) In the present example it is giving the reason for the commands that precede it. It answers the “so what?” question that the commands bring to the surface.
I am supposed to love justice? Why? So what?
I am supposed to seek God? Ok, why?
Set my mind on Him? For what reason? Why?
Often these thoughts and questions come from a stubborn place within us that want all the answers and facts before we seek to be obedient.
Why do we seek to trust and obey?
So why do we as Christians seek to be obedient and trusting of Scripture? Why do we seek to obey Jesus in his commands and desires of us? Or the rest of the bible? To love others. To seek the Kingdom. To refrain from greed. To turn the other cheek. To not look lustfully after a woman. To share our goods with others. To not use violence. To not pursue materialism. To not…(you get it). Why ought we be obedient to the commands of Scripture? (When contextually appropriate of course)
Because in doing so we find God in the midst of our obedience and trust. When we obey and trust Him we can count on what the author says above, that he is found by those who trust and seek him (See Jeremiah 29). Somehow on the other end of our obedience and trust, there the Father waits to deepen our wisdom, Christlikeness, and growth. Because we took steps of faith and trust.
That even in our moments of confusion, angst, and doubt; when we cry out, as Jesus did, “nevertheless, your will not mine” there He is. When we exclaim, “I don’t understand! But I still trust you!” There He is with grace to accompany our raw obedience and trust. He doesn’t give us what we want or all the answers we think we may need in order to be obedient to the gospel. He gives to us just enough to spur us on to simple love and trust. Even if that “enough” is complete silence. It is healthy and encouraged to continue to wrestle and seek to understand God’s ways and the Scriptures. But never at the price of obedience and trust. Like a fine tuned instrument, there must always be a healthy tension.
In our life of following Christ, believing in this good news, trusting and obeying are two primary ingredients. We seek to obey His teaching. We put our entire lives into this truth of Christ seeking to practically walk that out. All of which requires a seeking and trusting heart.
What is God seeking from us?
Let us remember that what God is not seeking from us a mastery of all questions and issues of the Christian life. What he is seeking from us is a simplistic trust and obedience that reveals itself as we lean upon Him, trust in Him, and obey Him. Not simplistic people void of depth and a passion for understanding. Rather people longing to obey and trust Him on their journey. No matter the cost. This is the Christian life. “Deny yourself; take up your cross and follow me…” Mark 8:34
For in doing so, we find him. He makes Himself known to us in mysterious ways. Right where we already are. Because we trust and obey.