This New Year (2018) I challenged our congregation to seek God for a particular scripture to “inhabit” this next year. My faith has been shaped deeply by scriptures that have come along at various moments in my life, inviting me to dwell and ponder for an extended time. Some of these “Life Verses” changed the entire direction of my life; others gave birth to new visions for ministry; while others encouraged me to continue on in faith when facing periods of self-doubt.
Today let me share the scripture I am inhabiting this year in my personal discipleship and my role as a pastor of a small congregation.
I am living and ministering out of Ephesians 4:11-15. The BOLD ALL CAPS reveal my desires and prayers for the saints under my spiritual care:
” So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all REACH UNITY in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and BECOME MATURE, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.15 Instead, SPEAKING THE TRUTH IN LOVE, we will grow to become in every respect the MATURE BODY of him who is the head, that is, Christ… You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made NEW IN THE ATTITUDE OF YOUR MIND;24 and to put on the NEW SELF, created to be like God in true RIGHTEOUSNESS and HOLINESS.”
There’s way too much to unpack here in one post. As I said, there’s a year’s worth of material to swim in (if not a lifetime’s!), so let me share a few words (1,644 if you’re counting) about how this scripture is challenging me at this particular moment.
Tossed Back & Forth in the Cultural Storm
The underlined verse 14 above is the problem dogging our society in general and crippling the church of Christ in particular. Too many American churches have been coopted by a consumer-driven model and have exchanged deep discipleship for entertaining the crowds. We’re trying to fill the seats and we’ve become a mile wide and an inch deep in the process.
We have the Bible at our fingertips, but we’re more biblically illiterate than the truly illiterate peasants of other eras. We have a Chicken Soup for the Soul faith that gives us happy thoughts, but we’re not really being “made new in the attitude of our minds” (v. 23). Paul shoots straighter than many spineless want-to-be-liked and don’t-want-to-offend pastors today when he say, “You’re a spiritual infant! You need to grow up! You’re so easily swayed by every new teaching that blows in on the cultural breeze. You have no root or foundation in the true wisdom of Christ.”
Even though we read a few verses each day on our Bible apps, we’re still being more powerfully shaped and influenced by the narratives of Hollywood, cable news, pop music, and the University.
God tapped me on the shoulder this past year and said quite loudly:
“Jeremy, its not enough anymore for you to keep preaching safe sermons that merely aim to inspire and help people to live out their personal faith in private. People need biblical teaching to help navigate these crazy times in our broader cultural conversation. People are “being tossed back and forth by the waves” of the most recent Twitter War, Fox News or CNN story, the latest terror threat or the most recent redefinition of sex/gender. People are being blown about like tumble weed by their favorite political pundit, talk show host, or the author of the latest New York bestseller. Jeremy, they need you to remind them that the entire goal of our faith is to have our minds rewired by a fuller “knowledge of the Son of God” (v. 13) and “to be made new in our attitude of mind” (v. 23). You need to teach the flock how to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (v. 13b). We need to learn to see the world with Jesus-goggles and through cruciform lenses.”
So, if the goal is a gaining a deeper and a more mature knowledge of the Christian worldview in these days of world-altering confusion and societal unsettledness, the next thing we need to learn is how to engage culture in a Christlike way that wins people to Christ rather than just adding to the noisy shouting match and mud-slinging nature of the public discourse. Paul and Jesus show us what’s needed.
Finding Unity in Christ, Not Politics
In a world of increasingly deep divisions and mean-spirited discourse, Paul charges the church (and its leaders) to be about striving “until we all reach unity in the faith and knowledge of the Son” (v. 13a). Now, it would be nice if unity was the happy consequence of having a congregation of people who happen to agree on everything and have no differences of opinion — theological or political. Ha! Such unity shall never exist on this side of eternity, so long as churches are populated with fallen human beings.
Rather, we are to strive for a unity in Jesus as our center and shared focal point. I’ve barely begun this new season of teaching and I’m already growing hoarse trying to get people to elevate the teachings of Jesus above their long-held political views. We’ve kept Jesus’ teachings out of the social-political realm for so long, its hard for us to imagine he taught anything beyond personal morality and the path to individual salvation.
Yet the heart of his message was about a rival ‘Kingdom’ — the most political term possible — and he died as an enemy of the state with a placard over his head that read, “King of the Jews.” Matthew Bates, in his recent book Salvation By Allegiance Alone (2017), makes a compelling case that the meaning of the word “faith” in our New Testament — i.e., faith in Christ — really means allegiance as to a King.
Jesus’ first followers were then persecuted for “turning the world upside down, proclaiming another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6). Do you think they gained that reputation for teaching the Four Spiritual Laws or how to have “Your Best Life Now”?
They were announcing “Jesus is Lord” and therefore “Caesar is not!” Jesus is the true Savior and bringer of world peace through the non-violent sacrificial love of the cross, not Rome and the emperor through the brutal and merciless power of the sword. Thus, the gospel of Jesus was creating a counter-kingdom and followers of Jesus were warned not to place their hopes for peace and prosperity in any worldly nation, but in Christ alone. (Read about Caesar Augustus being lauded as “Savior, Son of God, bringer of world peace whose birthday was hailed as “good news” here.)
Today, I’m concerned many believers are getting too embroiled in the politics of empire, and we need to recommit ourselves to the politics of the cross-shaped Kingdom. In a world that tends to place roaring lions on the throne, we pledge allegiance to and bow down before the Lamb who was slain:
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing!” (Rev 5:12)
But I’m extremely proud of our church as we are on the right path, evidenced by the fact that our living room Lifegroups are populated by Republicans, Democrats and Independents, and political conservatives, moderates and progressives, all seeking unity in our shared faith and knowledge of the son!
(I took an anonymous poll at our Lifegroup on election night in 2016 and we had people who had voted all across the spectrum all sharing that sacred eucharistic meal at God’s unifying and reconciling table. May we continue uniting in Christ and not letting worldly politics divide Christ’s Body!)
Speaking the Truth in Love
So, what is needed most in our public discourse today? Paul’s words pour forth like a rain shower on a dry, cracked and drought-ravaged landscape: “Speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature Body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (v. 15).
On the one hand, we have a loveless Truth wrapped in verbal explosives running around blowing things up and worsening the divide. On the other hand, we have a soft, squishy inoffensive Love parading herself around as the best way forward for society, but she forgot to pack the Truth when she set out on her journey.
Christ followers who want to winsomely engage the world with the wisdom of God and the Way of Jesus, must learn to speak the truth in a loving way. We must also learn to speak love in a truthful way. As another put it: “Truth without love kills, and love without truth lies.”
Only those who manage this delicate dance, according to Paul, can reach maturity in Christ. Those who speak the truth in unloving ways, are not yet mature. Those who preach the Beatles’ gospel of “Love, Love, Love, all you need is Love” are not yet mature if truth is left behind.
As we begin to walk grow up into a Body, or church, characterized by such aspirations, we’ll find ourselves “taking off” an old way of life like outdated clothing (v. 23), and “putting on a new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). That clothing, my friends, is Christ and the cruciform way of life he is calling us all to live.
(Sadly, the gospel has been stripped down in many circles so that to “put on Christ” means merely a momentary confession of faith or mental assent to a theological belief. This leaves transformation as an optional extra, and, hence, a church of spiritual infants.)
So, is there any higher calling than this? Do you see why I’m excited (and a bit overwhelmed) to make my dwelling in such a majestic and challenging Scripture for 2018?
Our Corporate Calling & Community Witness
Finally, let me underscore another huge thing the Lord has been revealing to me this year. If we go read the entire passage above again, we must see that Paul is not primarily addressing individual Christians growing in their own private spirituality.
He is obsessively dreaming of a community of people, the Body of Christ, being built up, becoming mature, reaching unity, standing firm together in the societal storm, resisting the cultural waves, learning to embody the truth in loving witness as we “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ” (v. 15).
What gets me up every morning is the conviction that I serve the most significant cause and organization on planet earth. This Sunday I will preach on the meaning of church membership and again tell my congregation that there’s no higher calling on earth than to be an active member of a local body of Christ — a little pinky, left arm, hands or feet, ears or eyes, or mouthpiece on the body that has Christ as our Head!
So, this is where I’m dwelling these days. Where thou dwelleth?
Let me leave you with one of my favorite prayers of Pastor Paul for his churches. Let this be our aspiration as well as we mine the riches of Christ’s wisdom in a wisdom-less age so we’re no longer tossed back and forth, blown here and there, and deceived by “fine sounding arguments” that make it on the evening news or latest Twitter feed:
“My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments” (Col 2:2-4).