Tag: emerging

A must read: ‘The New Conspirators’ by Tom Sine

Tom Sine’s latest book, The New Conspirators, celebrates the increasing diversity in the church. Sine’s book continues the theme of his classic book, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy, published in 1981. Sine was a ‘red-letter Christian’ before the official group existed, and in this hopeful volume he gives us examples across the spectrum of the 21st century church.

Divided into five “conversations” Sine takes his readers on a tour of real places where real people are living out the gospel as they understand it in communities and congregations around the world. In Conversation One, Sine introduces the unfamiliar to the four streams of the postmodern church — emerging, missional, mosaic, and monastic. Sine celebrates the gifts each brings to the body of Christ, giving an even-handed, generous perspective on each.

In Conversation Two, we are reminded of our global culture from massive consumerism to militant terrorism. This is the world in which we all live, and Sine reminds us that there are those who covet our American materialism, and those who despise it. But, despite the negatives of globalization, Sine sees positive things in our shrinking planet, such as the connection young people around the world are making with each other, transcending local cultures.

In Conversation Three, we are encouraged to take the future of God seriously. Sine isn’t talking about “going to heaven when you die” either. After several illustrations of kingdom thinking and acting, Sine weaves a lyrical scene, his take on Isaiah 25 and Revelation 21, where “God’s presence is palpable and we sense his generous welcome.”

Conversation Four reminds readers to take “turbulent times seriously.” Sine pulls takes us below decks in his version of humanity’s “Ship of Fools” examining the stark contrasts between the fabulously rich, the increasingly shrinking middle-class, and the world’s abject poor.

In Conversation Five, we are encouraged to “take our imaginations seriously.” Sine paints new pictures of “whole-life” stewardship, community, and mission celebrating those on the entrepreneurial edge. He states, “we need musicians, poets and artists to create new forms of worship, in which we celebrate coming home as a great resurrected community to a world where the broken are made whole, justice comes for the poor and shalom to the nations.”

If you want a tour of where church is headed in the 21st century, read ‘The New Conspirators.’ If you despair of the future of the church, let Tom Sine fill you with the same joy he shares over the growth of these mustard seeds of the kingdom. If you’re looking for something to give fresh direction to your own life, and form it in new ways, grab a copy of Sine’s book and join ‘The New Conspirators’ yourself. As Shane Claiborne says, “This book is a gift to the church, and to the world.”

The “No Adjective” Church

the dictionary  ad·jec·tive [aj-ik-tiv]  1. Any member of a class of words…functioning as modifiers of nouns, as good, wise, perfect.

Have you noticed we are now in the age of the “adjective” church?  Modifiers like missional or purpose-driven or seeker-sensitive or externally-focused or a dozen others precede the word “church” to define a particular church’s philosophy.  I guess this isn’t anything new because the old modifiers were denominational names like Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, and so on.  But, now we have both, and it’s getting to be a bit cluttered.

What happened to the word “church” along the way?  How did “church” lose its meaning as a place where the least, the last, and the lost could find hope, healing, and hospitality?  Why do we need modifiers to distinguish one church from another.  Are “purpose-driven” churches distinguished from those that have no purpose?  Are “seeker-sensitive” churches  truer churches than those that don’t use that modifier?

“Church” has become so meaningless a term now, that we expect the adjectives that precede it to define what a particular church does.  But, in the Book of Acts, they didn’t need adjectives.  Church was a community, a refuge, a place of healing, a gathering of God’s people, open to others, driven by fellowship and mission, obedient to God, gathered for worship, inclusive of slave and free, innovative, sharing, caring, loving, powerful, prayerful, worshiping, gifted — an expression of the kingdom coming in the world now.

Wouldn’t it be great if the word “church” again meant all those things?  Without the adjectives.  Church.  Why doesn’t that say it all?

In the church as abbey: Why rituals are important

celtic-crosses.jpg In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.

Learning How to Be A Christian

These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.

When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.

Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.

Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church

Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.

Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.

The Importance of Ritual

Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.

Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.

I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.  

Sermon for Sunday, Mar 9, 2008: Can These Bones Live?

Can These Bones Live?
Ezekiel 37:1-141 The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”4 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD!
5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ “

7 So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. 8 I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

9 Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.’ ” 10 So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet—a vast army.

11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “

Back From The Grave

In 1974, peasants digging a well near the city of Xian, China, broke through the dirt into a pit where the scene before them was amazing. Scores of clay soldiers, the size of full-grown men, filled the dirt before them. Little did they know that they had uncovered the burial ground of the first emperor of China and his army of 7,000 life-size terracotta soldiers. The now-famous Xian Terracotta Warriors are from the Qin dynasty, and accompanied the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huangdi to his burial. Shi Huangdi was a powerful ruler who united the warlords in China, unified the Chinese language, and connected ancient fortifications into what is now called the Great Wall of China.

The terracotta army now boasts more members, as archaeologists have opened other excavations which have unearthed more soldiers, bronze chariots, horses, weaponry, and other artifacts. The excavation site is so extensive that the Xian Terracotta Soldiers are called by many the eighth wonder of the world.

Like the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, Qin Shi Huangdi aspired to immortality. And, to insure that his next-world success was equal to his achievement in this world, he commissioned artisans to sculpt this vast army of soldiers to march with him from this life into the next. The detailing is so fine that the treads on the bottom of their footwear are still visible, and every face in this vast army is unique and wears a different expression.

Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones

But, about 350 years before the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, the prophet Ezekiel sees his own vast army spread out before him. Only in Ezekiel’s vision, the army is in disarray. Individual warriors are dismembered, the flesh has disappeared from their bones, and this disjointed valley of dry bones is all that is left of the once mighty army. Quite a contrast to the emperor’s fully-armed terracotta brigades.

The setting is the Babylonian captivity of Israel. In 597 BC, Ezekiel was taken from his homeland and exiled to Babylon under the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. In 593 BC, God called Ezekiel to prophesy to his fellow exiles that things would get worse before they got better. God’s call to Ezekiel was this –

1 He said to me, “Son of man, stand up on your feet and I will speak to you.” 2 As he spoke, the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet, and I heard him speaking to me.

3 He said: “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me; they and their fathers have been in revolt against me to this very day. 4 The people to whom I am sending you are obstinate and stubborn. Say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ 5 And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. 6 And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. 7 You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. 8 But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.”

9 Then I looked, and I saw a hand stretched out to me. In it was a scroll, 10 which he unrolled before me. On both sides of it were written words of lament and mourning and woe. Ezekiel 2:1-10 NIV

Ezekiel’s message was not “the prosperity gospel” or “I’m OK, you’re OK!” Ezekiel preached that if the people thought things were bad now, just wait, they will get worse. He prophesied that Jerusalem, the home of the magnificent Temple of God, built by Solomon, would be destroyed. Ezekiel even acted out this judgment with a miniature model of the city of Jerusalem. The people were outraged until Ezekiel’s words came true in 586 and 587 BC, when Jerusalem was totally destroyed. In Ezekiel chapter 10, Ezekiel recounts his vision of the departure of the glory of the Lord from the Temple itself.

But with chapter 37, Ezekiel begins to prophesy of the restoration of the nation, and that’s what we have in this vision of the valley of dry bones — a vision of restoration, life from death, a revivification of God’s people.

Can These Bones Live?

So, this is the nation of Israel, depicted as dry bones scattered throughout the floor of a valley. God leads Ezekiel back-and-forth among the bones. Ezekiel records “I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.” In the midst of that scene of death and hopelessness, God asks Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” Ezekiel wisely replies, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know.”

Ezekiel is right, only God knows if life is possible again. Up to this point, Ezekiel’s messages have been those of doom and gloom. Sermons explaining why God is judging Israel, sermons predicting that Jerusalem will be destroyed. Sermons that also speak judgment against the very nations that God is using to chasten Israel. No one escapes Ezekiel’s vision of God’s work.

Then God says to Ezekiel –

“Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! 5 This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. 6 I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ” Ezekiel 37:4-6

Remember creation? What happens there? God’s words speak creation into being. The writer of Genesis writes, “And God said…” and the earth is formed, the sun and moon hung in place, the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and animals appear on land, and man takes his place in God’s good world. All because God’s word spoke it into being. And, at the end of every creative day, God looks at his work and pronounces it good.

John begins his gospel in similar fashion, as he tells the story of Jesus in a unique manner:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was with God in the beginning. 3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

So, Jesus becomes the living word, the logos of God, the word of God to the world he has created. The word of life, and the word of hope, and the word of love.

This valley of dry bones that Ezekiel sees is dead. There is no life in it. No possibility of self-healing, or spontaneous organization, or of natural restoration. But, God says, “Hear the word of the Lord!” These bones that cannot hear, can now hear God. These bones that do not form a living organic system, of which ears are an organ, can now hear God. These bones that cannot gather themselves together in a coherent, functioning body, can now hear this creative word of the Lord. For they know this voice. It is part of their DNA. It is in the cells of their being. It is that voice which gave them life in the beginning. It is the only voice they can hear. It is the only voice they can obey.

And what does God say? What is the word of the Lord to these dry bones?

“I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”

Just as God breathed into Adam the breath of life, so He breathes into these dry bones that creative breath that gives life. This is creation all over again. This is God’s recreative act for the nation of Israel. Old bones, new life. The word of the Lord, the people of God, the life-giving breath, all together again.

But, God goes on:

I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’ “

Not only is God reviving them, he is making them new. Recreating them as they were intended to be. Not dry bones that can hear. Not dry bones that can move around, but bones that now have muscle and tendon and flesh attached to them. Bones that are covered with skin. Bones that become the building blocks for God’s people, again.

So, Ezekiel preaches that message. And guess what happens? Ezekiel says, “there was as noise, a rattling sound” and the bones come together. Now this is where the song, Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones, takes its lyrics.

The toe bone connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone connnected to the leg bone,
The leg bone connected to the knee bone,
Now hear the word of the Lord.

And hear they do, until all the bones have come together, until muscle and tendon and flesh cover them, until breath enters these recreated bodies, and they stand, in Ezekiel’s words, as a vast army. And then God explains to Ezekiel, what must be all too obvious now.

These bones are the house of Israel — without hope, without life, cut off from God, defeated, and dead. But, God says, “I’m going to open their graves. I’m going to bring them up from the pit. I’m going to bring them back to the land of Israel.” God goes on, “I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it!”

And sure enough, about 70-years after they are taken captive, the nation returns to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, to repair the Temple, and to occupy its land again — the land that God gave them, and brought them back to.

A Lesson for Lent

Now what does all that have to do with Lent? you might ask. Well, let me tell you a story:

In Japan, there is a Shinto temple, called a shrine, that is about 2000-years old. The shrine is located in the city of Ise, and is often called the most sacred shrine in all of Japan. Several years ago, the Japanese government submitted the shrine to UNESCO, the United Nations agency that catalogs ancient historic sites around the world. The Japanese were proud of the shrine, believing it to be the oldest continually existing religious shrine in the world.

But, here’s the amazing part. UNESCO didn’t believe their claims because the shrine is built of wood. They said, “this can’t be the same building that was originally constructed. It would have deteriorated by now.” So, the Japanese had to explain about the buildings.

It seems that every 20-years, the entire shrine is torn down and rebuilt. This process has been going on since 690 AD, when the first rebuilding took place. The entire wooden shrine is taken down, and wood is cut from the same forest that furnished wood for the original shrine building, hundreds of years ago. The last time the shrine was rebuilt was 1993, and it is slated for rebuilding in 2013, again.

UNESCO was not impressed. They said the building was what they were interested in, not the on-going religious life of the community, and so they denied the government’s request to list the shrine in their records.

UNESCO’s viewpoint is very much like Israel’s and our own today. Israel’s confidence was in the place — the land, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple of God. They believed that as long as they had the Temple, they had God on their side regardless of their political alliances, idolatry, or other breaches of their covenant relationship with God. God showed them otherwise.

We find it very easy to criticize the Jews — “Of course, the Temple and God aren’t the same” we are quick to point out. But, then we become attached to buildings, traditions, history, and practice, as though those things were more important than our relationship with God.

Periodically, God takes apart the church and remakes it, just to remind us that our relationship is with Him, and it is the Word of the Lord that gives life, not our plans, and pride, and priorities. It is God’s Spirit that moves where it wills, breathing life into dead bodies, and revitalizing the people of God.

The history of the Christian church contains many examples of God’s tearing down and rebuilding his people. A few of the high points in that process include:

  • The Desert Fathers and Mothers who fled the institutional church of North Africa and Egypt, left the cities, and found refuge in the desert. There they recovered a spirituality based, not on politics, but on prayer.
  • The Celtic Christian church from about 500-1,000 AD, flourished as first Patrick and then others preached the good news of God to receptive Irishmen, who were already worshipping the creation, and who then embraced the Creator.
  • The Friends of God emerged in the 13th century to reclaim a spirituality that was both mystical and devoted to God, in the midst of the political intrigue of the organized Church.
  • The Reformation in 1517, when scripture was given a place of primacy over tradition, and faith was emphasized over works as the path to salvation.
  • The Great Awakenings of both England and the United States in the early colonial period roused working people to become followers of Christ, and created movements like the Methodists and Baptists with their revivalistic approaches.

Today, God is still in the business of taking apart and remaking his church — of gathering the dry bones and putting flesh on them, and breathing life into them, again. And, that is what Lent is about. This time of reflection and confession and repentance. It is about getting ready for God’s creative breath to blow over us, again. To raise us from our own graves, to fill us with his spirit, to revive us again. Not to be the same people, but to be new people, recreated, remade, redeemed, and revived.

But, unlike our Japanese friends who take down and rebuild their own temple every 20-years, God is both the demolition and construction crew on his on-going project called the Church. We are his people, the sheep of his pasture, this is his work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

A Personal Story

Let me tell you a more personal story. Several months ago, when things weren’t going too well, I wondered if I was the pastor you needed. In my attempts to lead the church in a new direction, I realized that I had pushed too fast and too hard, and had changed too much. In addition, people had left the church, and few new members had joined. This was of great concern to me, because I do love this church, I love this town, and I know that God brought us here. Debbie and I prayed many days together about what we should do. Now, don’t worry, we’re still here and have no plans to go anywhere else. But, let me continue.

Now this is where the story gets weird. I want you to know that I think this part is weird, so you will realize that this doesn’t happen to me all the time. In our praying about what we should do, Debbie kept telling me to be patient that the “sheep were coming.” It didn’t look like the sheep were coming to me, but she assured me they were.

One night, I had a dream. I saw the letters S-A-U-B-R-I-G in big block letters, like they had been printed on a large sheet of paper. That was it — “saubrig.” When I woke up, I wrote the letters down, because I felt there was some significance to them. But what?

So, I did what anybody does now — I turned on my computer and googled, S-A-U-B-R-I-G. What I got back were a bunch of references in some foreign language that I did not recognize. But, one entry was in English. It was an article about ancient Yorkshire surnames and place names. Not exciting reading, but as I scrolled down through the article, there it was, the word saubrig. Only it was two words — sau brig. Let me read you the article at this point –

Sau (pronounced sow) in Scandinavian is sheep. Brig is a dock, or trading post area. Perhaps it [sau brig] was an old way of describing a ‘sheeptown’s dock’ or, gathering point – the Saubrig…

Isn’t that amazing? And that settled it for me. I knew that in spite of my mistakes that God was still at work. And, that this is the sheeptown’s dock, the gathering point. I believe the sheep are coming. I believe they are coming here to this place, to this town, to this church, to our community, to this congregation.

And, what God is doing, is taking down the old, and rebuilding the new. What God is doing is breathing new life into our tired dry bones. That which looks like death and disorganization to us, looks like hope, and joy, and love to God. The Spirit of God is breathing into this church the breath of life. God is putting muscle and tendon on bones and covering them with flesh.

One day we will rise from the valley of our uncertainty, and from the grave of our discouragement. One day we will stand like a mighty army, not made from clay, but made from the hand of God. That day is not long from us, for God is at work now.

Can these bones live? O Sovereign Lord, you know!

Sermon for Sunday, Feb 17, 2008: Born From Above

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, February 17, 2008, the second Sunday in Lent. The text is John 3:1-17, and the title is “Born From Above.” Hope you have a great day tomorrow!

Born From AboveJohn 3:1-17 (NRSV)

1 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

What We Think We Know About This Text

Today is the second Sunday of Lent, and we come to a very familiar Gospel reading today. This passage from John’s Gospel, chapter 3, contains what is probably the most famous verse in the New Testament — John 3:16:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

Immediately, we think, “Yeah, I’ve heard that before. I know what that means. God loves me, Jesus died for me, and I have accepted him, so I’m saved.” And, certainly those ideas are there in John 3:16. But, the verses that surround this most famous verse give us the real clues to what this conversation was really all about. Jesus is talking to Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, maybe because he’s afraid of being seen with Jesus, or maybe he waited for a time when the crowds around Jesus had drifted back to their homes for the evening. Whatever the reason, Nicodemus is certainly the nicest Pharisee we meet on the pages of the New Testament. Now, before we get into the story, I want to offer a disclaimer, and here it is: I’m using the phrase “born from above” intentionally, rather than “born again.” The text can be translated either way, but the term “born again” has taken on meanings that aren’t here in the text.

“Born again” has come to mean a person has had an experience of being saved. But, it has also come to mean “born again” Christians from evangelical churches versus mainline Christians from Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Catholic, and other expressions of our faith that do not place the emphasis on the “crisis experience” of becoming a Christian, but also allow for a more gradual “growing into” faith. I don’t want us to think about those distinctions today, so I’m using the term “born from above,” and I think you’ll see why as we look at this passage more closely.

The Conversation in Four Parts

Have you ever spent an evening talking to a friend, and the conversation flows from one topic to another, until finally someone says, “Well, how did we get off on that?” This conversation that Nicodemus has with Jesus has that kind of flow, moving from one idea to the next related idea, until we wind up in a totally new place. Here’s the first part of the conversation:

Part 1: Born from Above

As I said a moment ago, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus one evening and says –

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

This statement in itself is amazing. Here is a Pharisee, and a leading Pharisee at that, saying that “they” know Jesus is a teacher come from God. And, Nicodemus goes on to reinforce that statement by saying, “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” This is the only time a Pharisee will come anywhere close to saying that Jesus ministry is of God. At every other encounter with Jesus, the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus, challenge him on his observance of the Law of God, and prevent him from becoming more popular with the people.

So, just the act of sitting down with Jesus is a big stretch for a Pharisee, but Nicodemus not only sits with Jesus, he acknowledges that Jesus is from God, and doing the work of God.

Now at this point, you might think that Jesus would say, “Well, thank you, Nicodemus, that’s the first time a Pharisee has ever said that to me.” But, Jesus makes a strange reply that at first glance seems to have nothing to do with Nicodemus’ statement. Jesus says,

“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

What does that have to do with Nicodemus’ statement to Jesus. Nicodemus is not asking “how can one see the Kingdom of God?” Nicodemus is making a statement to Jesus that he believes that Jesus is from God, and that God is with Jesus as he performs signs of God’s presence. But, in reply Jesus says “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

The conversation then continues on the topic of being “born” with the following exchange:

  • Nicodemus: “How can anyone be born after they are old? Can they enter a second time into his mother’s womb?”
  • Jesus: “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

So, the first part of the conversation is about being born from above, and Jesus explains the difference in being born “of the flesh” and being born “of the Spirit.” But, back to Nicodemus’ question — how does one get “born from above?” Jesus has the answer –

“It’s like the wind which blows where it will, and you hear the sound of the wind, but you don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes.” And to make this even clearer, Jesus says, “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Let’s stop and recap here:

  • Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is from God.
  • Jesus says to see the kingdom of God, you must be born from above.
  • Nicodemus doesn’t understand.
  • Jesus says, being born from above is like the effect of the wind — you hear it, but you don’t know where it came from or where it’s going.
  • Nicodemus still doesn’t understand, and asks, “How can these things be?”

Here’s my take on this:

  • Unlike every other Pharisee, Nicodemus recognizes and confesses who Jesus is.
  • Jesus’s comment to Nicodemus is much like his comment to Peter later when Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say I am?” To which Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” To which Jesus replies, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father has.”

I think Jesus is saying the same thing to Nicodemus. I think Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you have it exactly right. You’ve been born from above by the Spirit of God. That’ how you know who I am and what I’m about.”

Of course, all this talk about being born from above, born anew, is confusing to Nicodemus. He can’t hear what Jesus is saying to him, because he’s stuck back at the concept of being re-born. But it is the Spirit of God who has blown over Nicodemus. Nicodemus doesn’t fully realize it yet, but the evidence — his words — show that God’s Spirit has re-made him, given him new life, changed his perspective, opened his eyes, given him fresh insight into who Jesus really is. That is the work of the Spririt of God.

I know that this isn’t how most folks see this conversation, but it’s the only interpretation that makes sense out of what Nicodemus and Jesus are talking about. But, let’s look at the second part of the conversation and see if the flow continues.

Part 2: Earth and Heaven, Flesh and Spirit Meet

Jesus appears to change the subject when he says –

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things?

Jesus is referring to the conversation about being born of the flesh and born of the Spirit — one earthly, the other heavenly. Nicodemus obviously did not comprehend that point, so Jesus simply asks, “If you don’t believe what I’m telling you about what happens here, how can you believe about what happens in heaven?”

I heard a preacher not too long ago, I think it was David Jeremiah, who said something like, “If we believe God can save us and take us to heaven, we need to start believing that God is at work in our lives here.” Same idea. Jesus has explained to Nicodemus that being born from above, born of the Spirit, takes place here on this earth. But, Nicodemus doesn’t understand how God can do that. Jesus point is — if you don’t understand how God is at work in your life here and now, how can you possibly understand how God is at work in heaven, in eternity, in the future?

We have the same problem today. We trust God to save us in the future and take us to heaven, but we’re short on what God is doing in our lives now. Then, continuing this line of thought, Jesus says,

No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended, from heaven, the Son of Man.

In other words, Jesus is saying I’ve been there, in the presence of God, and now I’m here to show you what that means. Which is another way of saying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, says that in Jesus, heaven and earth meet. And, also flesh and Spirit meet. Jesus is the intersection of God and Man, flesh and Spirit. He has been born of both physical birth, and Spiritual birth. Jesus is the new Adam, born both in the body and in the Spirit.

But, as they say in the Ginsu knife commercial, “But, wait! There’s more!”

Part 3: What Kills Us Saves Us

Jesus doesn’t stop with the notions of earth and heaven, he uses a real life example. He says,

“And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

What does this statement have to do with being born from above? Well, to understand that we have to understand the story that Jesus refers to, the story of the poisonous serpents, found in Numbers 21. The nation of Israel has left captivity in Egypt (the Passover), and is on their way to the Promised Land. But, the story of their getting to the Promised Land is a story of disobedience to God over and over again. We’ve been talking about that on Wednesday nights as we moved through the first books of the Old Testament. On one occasion, after having to fight their way through a particularly aggressive army, the people begin to complain to Moses — “Why have you brought out here in the wilderness to die? There’s no food, no water, and we hate this manna!”

This did not please God, and so poisonous snakes invaded the camp. If you were bitten by a snake, and many were, there was no cure. You died. Well, the people got the message real quick, and realized that their impatient complaints to Moses were disobedience to God. So, they came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you.” Then they asked Moses to pray to God to take away the serpents.

But God does an interesting thing — God tells Moses to make a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole. If anyone is bitten, all he has to do is look at the serpent and he’ll live. So, God doesn’t remove the snakes, but sends a way to be saved from them. Look and live!

So, that’s the story. But, what has always bothered me about that story is “Why make a bronze serpent?” Why not something else? Why did God use the thing that was killing them as their salvation? Reading this passage from John this week, I think I understand it now. And it has to do with being born of the flesh and being born of the Spirit.

Remember I said that Jesus is the only person who has been born of both flesh and Spirit? Jesus is the only one who has come down from heaven to show us what the unity of flesh and Spirit looks like? Okay, remember that point.

Now, what is the cause of our own death? Not serpents. It’s our flesh, our humanity, our willfulness, our sin. So, if the same thing that kills us saves us, what is that? Again, not a bronze serpent. Are you ready for this? If our humanity is what kills us, and it is, then we need another human to save us. But, that’s not possible. Until we have a human who is both human and divine — both flesh and Spirit.

And that’s why Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”

Part 4: For the World

Born of flesh and born of Spirit, Jesus becomes the only one who can save us. And, then he tells us why he came –

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

God so loved the world. Not just the people in the world, but creation. All of it, including us. And God’s love for His creation led him to save us in it, so we could again be stewards of it. Listen to what Wendell Berry, poet, farmer, and Christian, writes –

The body cannot be whole alone. Persons cannot be whole alone. It is wrong to think that bodily health is compatible with spiritual confusion or cultural disorder, or with polluted air and water or impoverished soil.

Healing is impossible in loneliness…To be healed we must come with all the other creatures to the feast of Creation.

He goes on –

The soul, in its loneliness, hopes for “salvation.” And yet what is the burden of the Bible if not a sense of the mutuality of influence, rising out of an essential unity among soul and body and community and world?

The Bible’s aim, as I read it, is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.

So, our being born from above, our being born of flesh and spirit, our being born anew because God so loved the world is so that we can love the world, too. It is so that we can unite that which sin has sundered — ourselves, others, God, creation — so that all can be made new as God intended. Being born from above changes everything, even if like Nicodemus, we don’t understand it yet.

St. Kevin of Glendalough was a Celtic Christian hermit, who loved God’s creation. He said, “All the wild creatures on these mountains are my house mates, gentle and familiar with me.” St. Kevin’s calling was to live alone with God’s creation, and pray for Creation’s care. Here is a prayer taken from the Celtic tradition that St. Kevin might have prayed –

Jesu! meet it were to praise Him,
There is no plant in the ground
But is full of His virtue,
There is no form in the strand
but is full of his blessing.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no life in the sea,
There is no creature in the river,
There is naught in the firmament,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!Jesu! meet it were to praise him.
There is no bird on the wing,
There is not star in the sky,
There is nothing beneath the sun,
But proclaims His goodness.
Jesu! Jesu! Jesu!
Jesu! meet it were to praise Him.
Holy Companions: Spiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints, Mary C. Earle & Sylvia Maddox, pg 58.

For God so loved the world, that He sent his only son…

My posts on McChurch removed

I took down my two posts on the McChurch franchise discussion re North Point and Cumberland Church.  These were poorly thought-out, gut reactions to Eddie Johnson’s post at his blog using franchise as a church model.  For a more helpful post, with a more positive tone, try 5 Ways Church Models Can Be Helpful, and Eddie Johnson left a nice comment on that post, I might add.

I try to be helpful here, and my posts on that issue weren’t.  I even tried fixing them with extensive editing, but it still didn’t work.  So, here’s my pledge to you.  I’ll keep it positive, and helpful, and leave the critiques to others.  Thanks.

5 Ways Church Models Can Be Helpful

a_church_model.jpg A “church model.” Not the kind I’m talking about.

Mea culpa. That’s Latin for “I pulled the trigger on my mouth before it cleared my holster, and I shot myself in the foot.” Or something like that. Now that I have calmed down over the McChurch post at Out of Ur, let me do some backpedaling. I now understand —

  1. Eddie Johnson described his church using the analogy of a franchise to point out the very positive aspects of the North Point strategic partnerships.
  2. The franchise description was Eddie’s, not Andy’s, according to Eddie himself.
  3. Eddie is a really nice guy who responds with grace and good humor. Unlike some folks who have called him the ‘anti-christ.’ (And I thought I was over the top!)

Which brings me to a reasoned discussion of the whole business of “church models.” Eddie’s right — we all use church models to describe the approach we are taking in our particular ministry situation. Reference to church models has become a kind of ecclesial short-hand, helping others know who we are and what we do. Church models include purpose-driven (Saddleback), seeker (Willow Creek), video (North Point, Life Church), externally-focused, servant evangelistic, missional, emerging, denominational, and so on.

With that in mind, here are 5 ways church models can be helpful:

  1. Identity. Denominations served the purpose of identifying a church in the 20th century. In the 21st century, affiliations are more in vogue. Many churches advertise that they are Purpose-driven, or seeker-friendly, or video-oriented to identify themselves to their communities.
  2. Processes. Eddie calls this systems, but however you say it, it’s how you do things. Churches that affiliate with a particular model do things consistent with that model. The use of proven methodologies helps jump start many church planting or church revitalization efforts.
  3. Focus. As Eddie said, they don’t offer the church program buffet. They know what they do, and they don’t get distracted by other “good”– but off-message — opportunities.
  4. Support. Most church models originated because someone had done it at least once. I like the Celtic Christian abbey model, and that was done over 1,000 years ago. Others are more current and provide literature, promotional materials, training events, and programs with support on-line or on the phone.
  5. Metrics. Church models usually have measurements that are important to that model such as baptisms, new members, attendance, or participation in small groups. Many have benchmarks that incorporate several measures of mission success. Each model is looking either for growth, development, progress, maturity (Willow’s study), or some other attribute that is measurable.

Church models are helpful in all the ways I’ve mentioned and more. But, church models are just that — models. Our daughter and her husband own a franchise restaurant, and the reality and the model can be vastly different. Models provide a good framework for us to shape ministry around, but I have to constantly remind myself that “God gives the increase.” However you measure it. What do you think?