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A Life Worthy of the Gospel

Conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.-Philippians 1:27

Dallas Willard died last week.  Though I did not know him personally and never met him, I consider him to have been my mentor.  His writings never failed to stir my heart and challenge my life.  Two of his books, The Divine Conspiracy and Renovation of the Heart were especially significant to me.  Just last year I led a Sunday School class study of The Divine Conspiracy.

In that book, he used the image of a bar code to illustrate a major problem among the Christian community.  He said that a lot of people had the bar code that said “Christian” but whose life really was something different.

It is sad but the lifestyles of many people deny their labeled identity as Christian.  Lifestyle is the result of character.  It is the form or expression given to a character when lived out in a world.  The dictionary defines “style” as a manner, a method, a way, a practice, a habit, as a characteristic behavior.  It has to do with a pattern of life, not just isolated incidents, not just a particular choice or action but a pattern of choices and actions.  Our jobs are involved, our leisure, how we spend our money, the food we eat, the goods we consume, the house we live in, how we raise our children.  Everything about our lives suggests a certain style of life.

A classic example is found in the movie “Chariots of Fire.”  the story of young men preparing for the 1924 Olympics.  One is a Scottish missionary to China.  His name is Eric Liddle.  Liddle qualifies for the Olympics, but on the ship with the British Olympic team in route to Paris, he discovers that one of the races he is to run will take place on Sunday.  He refuses to run.  He is pressured from ever quarter to change his mind even to the point of bringing in the Prince of England to persuade him to run “for the honor of the country.”

Eric Liddle’s refusal to run was not just an isolated incident or sudden whim.  It was a logical development from his pattern of life.  It was in fact predictable.

Now the manner, the style of life has always been a major concern for Christians and it is clearly reflected in numerous New Testament passages.  These are just a few samples:

-To the Corinthian Christians- “you are still of the flesh.  For while there is jealously and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving like ordinary men?”
– In Ephesians Paul raises the question in terms of conduct, talk, and labor.
-The book of Phillipians says, “I hope…Christ can be honored in my body. (1:20).
“As Christians we are to be “Lights in the world” (2:15).
-We read about some who by their conduct are “enemies of the cross of Christ.”
-Those at Colosse are asked, “Why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? (Col.2:20)
-“Give up living like pagans” (Eph.)
-There are those who profess to know God “but deny him by their deeds(Eph. 1:16)
-In Titus we read that we ought to live so that in “everything you may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (2:10).

          From the beginning, there was never any doubt that those Christians were different.  Their style of living set them apart from the rest of the world.  But we are called not only to lives that are different, also life worthy of the gospel of Christ..

Wineskins

And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. -Mark 6:22

In his book, Aquachurch, Leonard Sweet wrote, “If you’re doing church the same way you were a year ago, you’re falling behind and failing.”  Never has change come so quickly to a society and the Church is not exempt from the consequences.  Yet for many of us the Church is where we seek refuge from the dizzying pace of life.  It is where we look for stability and security, something familiar and comfortable.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  For God in Christ is our stability and security.

However, the containers in which we experience God in our life and share it with others have to change and adjust, flex and give or we lose him.  Jesus was talking about that when he said “you can’t new wine in old wineskins.”

Our problem is that we sometimes have trouble separating the wine (Jesus) from the container.  That is often why we have trouble keeping up with and accepting the changes necessary to be faithful.  It doesn’t matter where it’s in music, or forms of ministry or worship.

It can be scary.  But it’s also exciting to have an opportunity to share Jesus in new and different ways.  For be sure of one thing, Jesus is still the greatest need people have.

Be My Valentine

For God so loved…that He gave…His son…. John 3:16

Today, Valentine’s Day, love is on everybody’s mind, everywhere you look and crosses lips where it’s seldom at any other time mentioned.  We are told by retailers to say it with flowers, chocolate, jewelry and anything else they’re trying to peddle.

But we have a problem with the word “love.”  We say, “I love ice cream, my house, baseball, to swim, listen to good music and my wife” (not necessarily in that order).  We can really get confused about what love means.  I once heard Stuart Briscoe say we think love means “to like an awful lot.”  However, it is possible to love someone and not like them at all.

The benchmark, the standard of love’s expression is found in these words: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever heart-cross-thumb12673094believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)  And that provides us with the clearest idea of love.  It is not in words but deeds.  It is not about how we feel (as nice as that might be) but what we do.

Even in the church we are not always clear.  I heard someone say that Jesus came to show us God’s love.  It is as if our only message to the world is “smile, God loves you.”  It’s great to know that but the real message is because of God’s love Jesus died on the cross for my sins (yours too).

Then Jesus really set the bar for us when He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Nothing less than to love the way God loves will do.  The only way that can happen is to receive God’s love and let God express that love through us.

Thanksgiving

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thess 5:18)

Someone has said, “The most intense moments of thankfulness are not found in times of plenty, but when difficulties abound.” It was that attitude that led Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the first official Thanksgiving Day in the midst of our country’s civil war.

Some people simply do not know how to give thanks.  The London Times reported this story several years ago:

Thousands of letters sent each year to God end up in a sorting office in Jerusalem. According to the Associated Press, the letters arrive from all over the world in the city’s undeliverable mail department. “We have hundreds of thousands of letters sent either to God or Jesus Christ, and for some reason they come to Jerusalem,” said post office spokesman Yitzak Rabihiya.

In one letter an Israeli man asked God for 5,000 shekels ($1,000), to ease his poverty. Postal workers were so moved that they sent him 4,300 shekels.

“After a month, the same person wrote again to God,” Mr. Rabihiya explained, “but this time he wrote, ‘Thank you, God, for the contribution, but next time please don’t send it through those postmen. They’re thieves; they stole 700 shekels’.”

In the classic story, “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” the Grinch expects cries and wailings after he steals all the village gifts and even food.  Instead he hears them singing a Christmas carol.  And he learns, “Christmas resides not in things but in the heart which is thankful.  He could not steal their gratitude.”1

In Joe Batten’s book, Tough Minded Leadership, he says that gratitude is “highest form of mental and spiritual health.”   It creates humility.  I defy you to maintain pride while thanking God.  It also produces generosity and overcomes discouragement.

But most of all it leads to praise which honors God.  In the last book of the Bible when God’s great plan is coming to its conclusion these word reverberate through all creation: “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign.”  (Rev. 11:17)

My prayer for you and me is for a grateful heart.

1Brett Blair, http://www.eSermons.com, November, 2003

Suffering and Growing

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name [of Jesus]…. In those days…the number of disciples was increasing. –Acts 5:41, 6:1

“this century [the 20th],…has produced more martyrs than all other centuries combined.” – Philip Yancey

 Recently, as I was looking to update for our church newsletter something I once wrote, I went to the website of the World Methodist Council.  This headline caught my attention: “General Conference in Fiji to Begin Wednesday.” When I read the news report and some background I found out that the government had not allowed the Methodists to meet for four years.  This year they have been given permission to meet under some very strict rules.

Tensions between the MethodistChurch in Fiji and the government erupted in May 2009 when the rulers of the nation took steps to ban the annual conference, cancelled weekly radio programs associated with the church and even arrested nine Methodist leaders…. Police Commissioner Brigadier General Ioane Naivalurua has warned there may be a police presence to ensure attendees do not stray off topic from a pre-approved agenda.

This kind of experience is not an unfamiliar one in church history.  Christians have often faced great personal and corporate obstacles to their journey with Jesus.

            Some years ago Susan Bergman published a book entitled Martyrs: Contemporary Writers on Modern Lives of Faith.  It is stories of those 20th Century Christians all over the world who have sacrificed their lives in witness to Jesus Christ.  In the reviews of the book, Philip Yancey says, “this century,…has produced more martyrs than all other centuries combined.”  The 21st century may well pass that.  Richard Wurmbrand, who spent 14 years in prison for his faith, says that a third of the Christian church today must operate in secrecy, under the threat of extermination.

In our own denomination, depending on your source, there are now estimated to be as many as 70 million Methodists in the world.  In the last generation some areas of the world have shown staggering increases while others have declined.  What is thought provoking is that the growth areas almost always correspond to those areas of the world where it is costly to be a Christian and the declining areas are where Christians enjoy privilege and comfort.  For instance in a 30 year period;  Methodism in Africa grew by 178%;  Asia 319%;  in the Pacific 158%; and in Latin America 583 % (source World Methodist Council).

In those same years churches in both Europe and the United States were in decline.

Even where the church is declining, there are exceptions, individual congregations which defy the pattern and grow.  Again almost without fail, those churches are where the cost of being a disciple is made real in some way.

The evidence is clear.  History has demonstrated over and over that Christianity thrives on hardship.  The reason is clear.  Discipleship, Jesus said, is the way of the cross.  It is costly to be a follower of Christ.  When we try to make it easy for people to be Christians, we distort the Gospel and at best, it survives sterile and unproductive, or it dies.

For those willing to take the costly way of the cross there is a life of joy and power.

They Devoted Themselves

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42

Isn’t it amazing the physical feats of which humans are capable?  We are being treated to some stunning examples in the 2012 Olympics.  We have heard stories of great sacrifice and costly commitment from runners, swimmers, gymnasts and others to compete as an Olympian.  As we were talking about this with friends from our Small Group the comment was made:  “Wouldn’t it be great if Christians were as devoted as these athletes?”

And I remembered.  That is the exact term used to describe those early Christians in the book of Acts—devoted.  We say, dedicated, committed, focused.  Because that is what it takes to accomplish important things, especially doing one’s best.  We do not become like Jesus automatically, by coasting or accidently.  Being devoted speaks to priorities.  Devotion ultimately is about lifestyle.

Of course Christians are devoted to God/Jesus.  And that finds practical expression in devotion to the good news (apostles’ teaching), to each other (the fellowship), sacramental acts (the breaking of bread) and prayer.  All these things result in “doing good.” 

The surprising thing is that as popular as the Olympics is our culture does not like the idea of devotion/commitment.  It is not a popular idea.  But it is the driving force for those who belong to Jesus.

Christians Are Connected

John 15:1-17  I chose you …to go and bear fruit

          What does Jesus really want from you?
          One of the most important things Jesus had to tell his disciples in those last crisis packed hours was His purpose for them, what He expected from them and how it could happen.
            He does this by way of an analogy of the grape vine.  As the purpose of a vine is to produce fruit—grapes so He says I have chosen you to bear fruit.  It is this which will glorify my Father.  For that to happen you must abide in me because without me you can do nothing.  Just as the branches draw their life and ability to bear fruit from the main vain, so you get your life and productiveness from me I am the vine.  “Abide in me”=keep my commandments(obedience), maintain your relationship to me, keep the connection.  “Without me you can do nothing.”
            He pointedly told them He had chosen them to “bear fruit.”  That fruit is a life characterized by love.  He told them what was necessary and what would happen if they didn’t.
                      I don’t think this was exactly what Jesus had in mind, but Gerald Kennedy tells of an inquiry made of a Methodist bishop about a preacher in his area.  “Why,” said the bishop, “He is dull.  He is supernaturally dull…No man could be as dull as he is without divine aid.”
          So what are the results of being connected, of “abiding in Christ”?

 EFFECTIVE PRAYER
            “ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.”
            “so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” 
        
We are inclined to read this in one of two ways:

  • If you can believe strong enough, God will give you whatever you ask for.
              Little Johnnie was saying his bedtime prayers a week before his birthday.  In a loud voice he listed all the things he wanted.  “Don’t pray so loudly,” his mother instructed.  “The Lord isn’t hard of hearing!”  “Maybe he isn’t,” admitted Johnnie, “but grandma is.”
  • Or we ignore it, water it down, never take it seriously

The Bible and Christian history makes some incredible claims for the power of a believer’s prayer.  Frontier Methodist preacher, Francis  Asbury said, “Prayer is the sword of the preacher, the life of the Christian, the terror of hell, and the devil’s plague.”1
         
These statements need to be understood in the context.  They are about believers being fruitful, that is producing more believers.

GOD GLORIFIED BY FRUIT
      The measure of success is does it bring honor and glory to God.  As my preaching professor, James Robertson, used to say, Christians “adorn the gospel.”  Their lives are attractive and these lives attract people to Christ.  The reason there is so little impact of some Christians is there lives don’t attract to Jesus.  Richard Foster says, “People do not see anything to be converted to.  They look around at these Christians telling them to agree to these little statements and say the enclosed prayer.  They say, “But you aren’t any different from anybody else.  So, what am I supposed to be converted to?” 2

JOY
       First Jesus’ joy is in us, in our fruitfulness.  Then our joy will be full.  We experience the joy spoken of so often in the Bible.
          I confess to you, I am troubled when I apply those three tests to my life.  So I have to ask: How is my connection?  Am I abiding in Jesus?
          How about you?