Our Prodigal God: Luke 15.11-32

Who’s with Jesus? That’s the question we’re asking this summer at Woodland. Some people in the gospel accounts “got” Him, recognized Him, identified with Him. Others missed Him.

True then, true today.

We looked, last week, at two and a-half parables—The Lost Sheep, The Lost Coin and The Lost Son (Act I, 15.11-24). Three separate parables, one point: Rejoice with me!” the major figures of the three parables say together.

In the most complex of the three parables, the lost son, experiencing his father’s grace, admits his unworthiness, accepts his father’s love and enters into his father’s joy. And, through the figure of the Younger Son, we learn that God’s terms for reconciliation includes grace that preempts our efforts to establish ourselves in His favor.

Wonderful as it is, there’s still more.

Unlike the first part of the parable, Act II (:25-32) takes places in speeches. Listen to the points made, watch how the text is arranged. Jesus hasn’t even made his main point yet to His immediate audience of “sinners” and Pharisees (see Luke 15.1-2). The “smack-down” yet awaits.

Even as the Younger Son has returned from the fields, the Older Son approaches the house, likewise from the fields (:25). Notice, he comes last, like a good foreman shutting down the operation for the day, like a diligent executive, shutting off the lights. As he does, he hears symphonia (the mixed-voiced sounds of laughter and feasting). The fattened calf is slaughtered, “quickly,” we’re told earlier, in time that the workers in the fields might celebrate that evening. “Why was I not invited?” we know he asks.

The Older Son arrives at the house and asks for news (:26-27). We note, along with commentator Kenneth Bailey in Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (Eerdmans, 1983) that this is not an American farmhouse, entered through the side and the kitchen. This is a Middle Eastern house with a wall dividing the lane from a private courtyard that stands in front of the house. The invited guests would have been inside. The Older Son stands outside, along with the children and the hangers-on and “keeps on” (imperfect tense) asking for news.

When he learns all that has transpired, the Older Son responds (:28a). He becomes angry and won’t enter the feast. He doesn’t want to distribute his father’s remaining wealth that he supposes to be his. But more, and here we credit Bailey once again, there was a custom throughout the Middle East that the oldest son of a hosting nobleman would stand in the doorway barefoot. It is as though the nobleman was saying to his guests, “Even my oldest son is your servant.”

And again, what was Jesus criticized for, in the opening verses of the section (:1-2). Hosting sinners, right?

The Father leaves his dinner guests, humbling himself, to enter the courtyard, to plead with his son (:28b). The Older Son responds to the Father. “Look (you!) … ” This is hardly the way to address the paterfamilias. “For these many years I’ve served you …” This isn’t son talk at all, but slave talk.

“You never gave me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” the Older Son continues (:30, ESV).

Note the emotional distance from the family: “This son of YOURS.” And, note the Older Son’s concept of joy that includes a good time with friends and that doesn’t include the Younger Brother or the Father. He’ll have meat without family fellowship; he’ll work to take the benefits of sonship, while living on his own terms. He’ll establish himself apart from the Father. And what was the sin of the Younger Brother?

Tim Keller, in his The Prodigal God (Dutton, 2008), in which he interacts with Bailey’s work and to which I’m much indebted for this reading of the parable, remarks at this point,

The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness,  but because of it. It is not his sins that create the barrier between him and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father (35).

The Father responds to the Older Son (:31-32). “Son,” he says, in a unique use of the word (much like I speak to my two sons when their fishing lines are tangled, but they choose to cast them anyway), “You have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Here, the Father reminds the Older Son that he, the son, is the heir. But, the Older Son is not content. He would, like his younger brother, have the right to distribute his father’s wealth. Is he not likewise saying, “I wish you were dead!”?

“We had to celebrate and rejoice,” the Father responds (NAS reading). Or, literally from the original, “It was necessary to celebrate and rejoice.” Necessary for whom? we might ask.

” … for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (:32).

And so, the Older Son, experiencing his father’s grace, claims that which he perceives to have earned, judges his younger brother, rejects his father’s love, and—by refusing to enter the feast—demonstrates that all these years he has been lost in his father’s house.

Thus ends the parable … Or, does it?

 

We noted last week that a parable is much like a joke. Both have a response. To the joke, we laugh (hopefully). To the parable, there is a life response. What response would Jesus ask of His audience? And, of us?

Among Kenneth Bailey’s contributions is his structuring of the second half of this parable. He notes (191) that the scenes move from the Older Son drawing near the feast, to the reason for the feast (spoken by the servant), to the Father’s pleading, to the Older Son’s first complaint. Then, the second half unfolds in mirror image fashion—the second complaint, the continued pleading of the Father, the summary of the reason for the feast, and then …??? What would we expect? Why, we’d expect the Older Son to enter into the feast!

That would be the perfect fairy tale ending the form demands. It might go something like: the Older Son, upon experiencing his father’s grace, entered the house, reconciled with his brother, joined in the music and feasting, and so his father once again had two sons. 

But, our imagined epilogue doesn’t end that way. I’ll credit a missionary to Egypt named Mike Kuhn with another possible ending to the parable: And the Older Son, spurning his father’s grace, raised his staff and struck his father over the head. And, while the Young Son and the guests looked on, beat his father repeatedly until his father was dead. 

That’s how the parable ended in the life of Jesus. And, it was in killing Jesus that the Pharisees and other “older brothers” showed what they really thought of God’s grace.

But, there’s something else missing. How about the theme of seeking? In the The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin the hero was the shepherd and the woman who assumed the burden of restoration, until the lost one was restored. Who was to do the seeking in The Lost Son? Could it not have been the Older Son?

Philippians 2.5-8 tells us that Jesus ” … did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

Jesus is the older brother that the younger brother in the parable never had. And, as such, He is our older brother. In leaving the Father’s house, He humbled Himself, united us back to the family through the cross and then dispersed the Father’s wealth.

If a parable requires a life response, what is it that the Father is asking us to do? How about imitate Christ in His humility? How about going in search of our lost brothers to invite them to the feast, through Jesus and the Gospel? How about being “prodigal” in grace?

In The Prodigal God Keller reminds us that “prodigal” means “reckless, extravagant, having spent everything”. Have we not misunderstood the word? And, in being glad that the Younger Son finally got it together and thinking that the Older Son needed to shape up, have we often misunderstood the parable?

The real hero of the parable is the Father who graciously, generously, prodigiously disperses His riches to all who would come to the feast.

And so, having come to know the heart of the Father, we must seek others with whom to share the Father’s joy. 

 

After spending some time with Luke 15.11-32, find some others with whom to discuss these questions:

How does this reading of the parable challenge the way you’ve always understood it? 

Where is God asking you to be “prodigal” in your understanding and display of grace? 

Who was it that came looking for you in a distant country before you knew Christ? 

Whom do you need to seek? 

 

 

Really? You want … chickens?!

This weekend, we passed the first anniversary of our first Sunday at Woodland, our interview weekend.

Previous to that memorable time, we met the search team on webcam. Dear friends all today, they were (mostly) strangers then. And, it was really something when we connected to see a roomful of people in the church’s welcome area, a place now familiar to us.

“Why could you see yourselves bringing your family to Woodland and Westboro?” the team asked us, naturally.

“Well,” we said. “We’d like to serve in a place where we could have … chickens.”

Not to make light of the process that was thorough and good, but “chickens” must have been the answer they were looking for. One lady in the foreground of our webcam screen seemed especially taken with our response. “Really? You want chickens? … We can get you chickens!”

That was Wendy Budimlija (Ba-dim-u-la). And now, one year later, Wendy (and Randy) have delivered. We have chickens!

It started with the henhouse that had to be repaired. We closed ourselves inside on a bright day, and marked the daylight. A board slapped here and another slapped there was enough to darken the innards of the place. We discovered fence nails, and a bit of chicken wire served to re-enforce any weakness, real or imagined. Randy came over to inspect my carpentry. “It’s a chicken house,” he said. “You’ve done fine.” I needed the encouragement. If I’m a mink or a weasel, I can still get in, but we’ll make the varmints prove they’re serious.

Wendy and Randy returned again to bring a heating lamp, bedding, chick feed and food and water dispensers. Then, a gift from the Budimlijas: the chicks arrived at the Rib Lake Post Office! We drove the seven miles, all in a dither, and picked up the peeping packet. Twenty minutes later, we opened our box on the lush, green lawn, right in front of our very own chicken house. We gave them their first drink. Two Barred Rocks, two Silver-Laced Wyandottes, two Red Stars, an Americana (that’s the “Easter Egger” that lays the green eggs) and one Buff Orpington.

Since then, our “girls” have become young ladies. And, they’ve gone free range. Since they remind the kids of fancy women shopping together in a fancy department store, they’ve given the ladies mature names—Matilda Mae (Tilly), Missy, Hazel, Stella, Mabel and Sable (the Red Stars), Gertrude (Trudy) and then Pepper, whom we suspect to be a rooster.

If we’d seen ourselves a year ago!

Woodland and Wendy have made good. It was a search process to remember. And, “Chickens” was the right answer.

 

The Joy of the Father: Luke 15.1-24

Who’s with Jesus?

This summer at Woodland we’re considering the parables of Jesus. With each spiritual lesson couched in a story from common life, there were (and are) those who “get” (understand, recognize, respond to) Jesus. And, there were those who miss Him.

Parables are like jokes. There’s the set-up, the punch line, and the smack-down. The irony of the art form (and Jesus was the best of artists) consists in getting the hearer leaning one way, and then —BOOM!—taking him down.

In Luke 15, Jesus responds to a group of Pharisees who reacted to Jesus when he “ate with,” (or, hosted) sinners. Three parables result, two and one-half of which carry the same point.

In The Lost Sheep (:1-7) A seeking shepherd restores his flock. There’s tight structure here. The little prose poem begins and ends with a flock of 100. Likewise, there’s parallel ideas of a lost sheep and a repentant sinner. At the center of the construction there’s the joy of the shepherd: Rejoice with me!

Similarly, in The Lost Coin (:8-10) a woman searches for a lost coin. Once again, the rhyming of ideas (so typical of Eastern and Hebrew thought) produces an idea at the center: Rejoice with me!

Both short parables push Jesus’ pharisaical hearers. They’re asked to compare themselves first to an (assumedly) ceremonially unclean shepherd and then a (culturally, in the day) socially-subordinate woman. There’s a cluster of themes: lostness … repentance … restoration … completion … the burden of restoration shown in the seeking. Both parables are virtually identical—except that the coin is lost, not in the wilderness, but in “the house,” a potentially significant detail.

In both parables, we must ask, Who’s the hero? Certainly not those lost, or having no need of being found, but the one doing the seeking. Hang on to that idea …

At last we arrive at the parable of the two(?) lost sons, commonly known as The Prodigal Son (:11-24). The very well-known story unfolds in five scenes:

The death wish (:11-13). Here, the younger of the two sons asks for his cut of his inheritance. New Testament commentator, Kenneth Bailey, long-time resident of the Middle East and author of Poet & Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes (1983, Eerdmans), reports that in hundreds of interviews with Middle Eastern noblemen the overwhelming response to the question, “What would you do if your son were to make such a request?” was “I’d beat him!” The son wishes for nothing short of his father’s death. Notice, the older son, standing to benefit by up to two-thirds of the estate, merely sticks out his hand.

The downward spiral (:14-16). The son goes to a distant land and divests his father’s wealth. Tempted as we are to see the son’s sins as only moral, the main idea here is that he was simply a spend-thrift, seeking to win friends and influence people with his father’s estate. Rather than seeing him going off with a rock band and a Volkswagen bus, we ought to see him seeking to establish himself among sinners apart from his father. But, “when he had spent everything,” famine strikes. The son attaches himself to a well-to-do resident of the land, who (politely) attempts to get rid of him by giving him the undesirable task of feeding pigs—repulsive for a Jewish boy.

The transition: coming to self (:17-19). “When he came to himself …” (ESV), the son makes up a speech. He’ll move back to his village and work as an independent contractor. Maybe, he can live in town. He won’t have to face his older brother, and he can start paying his father back. The absence of the proper word for servant (doulos) is conspicuous. He’ll be a misthos (hired man). And, as such, he’ll be his “own man”. Important to the story is that repentance does not necessarily take place here. He’s not necessarily sorry, he’s hungry.

The grace of the Father (:17-19). We see the son approach the village and ought to imagine children throwing sticks and stones and mud. This one has squandered the estate among Gentiles. In a Palestinian ritual known as kashasha (so, Bailey), the son has been cut off from his people. But then, “while he was till far off,” his father bares his legs like a schoolboy, and runs!

The joy of the Father (:22-24). At their meeting, the son attempts his prepared speech, but is interrupted. Attempts to kiss the hands of his father are pre-empted by his father’s embrace, and the kiss of Shalom. ” … bring the fattened calf and kill it,” his father orders,”And let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate” (:24).

And here, so we contend—at their joyful meeting—repentance takes place! The son can’t be anything but a son. And, the father hosts the son and the whole village (Think of Jesus’ immediate context and his accusers.)

The parable, at this point, leaves us hanging. (There’s still a smack-down in store.) Amidst the thematic cluster of lostness, repentance, restoration, home and celebration, we have yet to answer the question, Who ought the hero to have been? Who should have done the seeking? 

Even so, there’s much to be harvested at this point. From the younger son, we learn: we may always come to God, but we must come to Him on His terms, not ours. And, if we would come, we will only be sons, not hired men. 

From the Father, we learn the lesson that stands at the center the trilogy of parables in Luke 15 (so far): God’s terms for reconciliation include grace that pre-empts our efforts to establish ourselves in His favor. 

Both lessons cut against our pre-conceived notion of our character and God’s. “We’re able to engineer our relationship with God” …  “We’re our own men” …  “We’ll come back when we’re ready,” we might think with the son. But, as we learn from the Father, God’s grace, know to us in Jesus and His cross-work, pre-empts our plans. God rejoices in the work of His first Son that brings about reconciliation with His other sons.

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2.13, ESV) … Rejoice with me!

 

Circle up with a small group and ask and answer these questions from Luke 15: 

How do the three parables of Luke 15, when read together,  help you understand the main point of each? 

 

How is this reading of The Prodigal Son different from others you’ve heard? What do you see now that you’ve missed in the past? 

 

How are you yet like the younger son? 

 

What about the response of the Father in the parable surprises you the most? 

 

What’s missing now? Where do you think Jesus is going with the second half of the third parable? 

 

Growing up, together …

And, just like that, our Northwoods winter turned to mud, and then to spring, and now to … summer!

There’s projects afoot. Raised-bed garden and hoop house, for me. Beds and beds of perennials to plant, for Amanda. Acres to mow with our old push-mower, for Katja and Jack. And then, the work in the forest that must wait for another season.

My favorite projects remain the fanciful ones deep in the timber. There’s the log cabin the boys began constructing from fallen spruces—logs cut two meters in length with my old German Meterstik (measuring stick) and my handsaw. (The boys say they’re waiting for me to buy a chainsaw before finishing the project … )

There’s Jack’s live trap—a thing of beauty, of hope and of imagination. He’s threaded a snare he learned to tie from watching internet videos. And, he’s driven a stick into the ground and spiked it with a hunk of cheese. This he’s wired to a separate tension lever, just waiting to be tripped. The mechanics of the machine are abundantly clear to a ten-year-old. The animal will position itself squarely in the middle of the snare, seize the bait, and then be flung with overwhelming force against the tree, at the base of which it will lie, stunned, till Jack finds it in the morning. What he will do with the critter, Jack doesn’t know. But, his childlike wonderment places all within the realm of probability.

Then, there’s the zip line (pictured above). Each of our older three (Gigi excluded) takes a turn in the big maple we call Friendship. A bike helmet must be strapped on in recognition of the danger of the maneuver. Then, with the other two children pulling vigorously at an ordinary rope, the thrill-seeking subject launches from the tree and ecstatically zips across the side yard. At least, in theory … The reality is what actually happened when Jack flung himself from Friendship and, obedient to some physical law, dropped like a stone where he met dirt and tree roots. Why so? The physics of it all!

And why must it be necessary to grow up, when everything seems possible in childhood?

Far-fetched as this transition might seem, Ephesians 4.15 does spring to my mind:  speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (ESV).

We’ve recently finished our series on healthy church partnership at Woodland. Now, it’s time to gather up all our sessions on membership, generosity, shameless service, and so forth, and simply love one another, … until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (4.13). That’s growing up together in our local church.

The Regier kids will grow up and (alas!) lose interest in their imaginative, timbered world. And we, as grownups, must, along with the children, grow up too. Material-world mechanics that govern live traps and zip lines won’t be ignored forever. But, neither will the “royal law” of love (James 2.8). The first, we leave behind regrettably (at least, that’s my sentiment as parent to my kids). The second, we all run toward joyfully, since our love for one another in maturity is nothing short of preparation for Christ.

And, that’s the reality we can grow up to.

 

 

Shameless Service: John 13.1-17

Some years ago I was warming the bench in a church basketball league. (This should indicate something of my skill.) After watching one of our better players shoot and miss, shoot and miss, shoot and miss, my teammate next to me finally said, “You know he’s a shooter, because he’s shameless.”

Serving one another in the church is like that. It’s what we do, despite failure, difficulty and confusion. It’s a mark of healthy, local church partnership. We just keep going after it.

But, apart from Christ, it’s not natural, and it’s not what we do!

In John 13 Jesus shares a Passover-like meal with his disciples, the night before His death. This is the meal (also recorded in Mark 14 and Luke 22) where Jesus institutes the Lord’s Table. Jesus is the Passover lamb, and so will not share the usual feast with His disciples. Instead, He’s bringing the old order to a close. In John 13, Jesus shows His disciples His love, the way to remain in fellowship with Him during His absence, and how we’re all to serve one another until He returns.

Jesus … laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet … (:3-5).

We must be washed by Jesus (:1-11). This is the requirement for knowing Him and serving one another in His absence.

Especially here, there’s always a snake in the grass. Jesus’ shameless service takes place in the face of an enemy. Since the garden when Satan entered into the snake to deceive our first parents, Jesus’ enemy has always opposed the work of redemption. Now, Satan has poisoned the mind of Judas (:3) and will eventually enter him, as he did the serpent (:27). Jesus will send Judas from the room, this before teaching His true followers (chapters 14-17). But first, Jesus washes Judas along with the others.

Jesus’ washing is also necessary. In the culture of the day there ought to have been a servant to wash the guests’ feet. Perhaps the disciples had missed this detail while they were organizing the meal and shouldering their way up to the head of the table (Luke 22.24-30). It had to be awkward. Who is the least who will do the job? Finally, the host becomes the servant, as He’d always made Himself. But Jesus also radicalizes this washing. If I do not wash you, you have no share with me (:9). Jesus is talking about regeneration, the new birth by faith (chapter 3). It’s true of Peter and the others, but not of Judas (:11). This one-time washing will be necessary to know Jesus after His departure. Likewise, those who have been cleaned by Jesus will need to make confession of their sins to maintain fellowship with Jesus (:10; 1 John 1:7-8).

Finally, Jesus’ washing is simply shameless. John makes a point of noting that Jesus … laid aside his outer garments (:4). Jesus’ cloak might have been impressive, woven of one cloth, as we know from the cross scene. Luke 8 also informs us that Jesus had wealthy patrons. Then, He was a rabbi and might have worn the tassels befitting His office. All this went to the ground, replaced by a towel. Christ served shamelessly.

In response, we His disciples must wash each other (:12-17). If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

As in Jesus’ washing of us, our service to one another will be shameless, necessary, and in the face of an enemy. Often, the enemy presents himself in the same kind of confusion we see in the Upper Room. We don’t know what to say … it’s awkward … we hope against hope that somebody else will take up the towel … it’s messy … we’re clearly not gifted for that sort of thing. Once more, there’s a snake in the grass.

And yet, serving one another shamelessly is to be our mode of operation till Jesus returns. So, we send the text when we’d rather stay unentangled. We pick up the prepared chicken from Sam’s and turn up on our friend’s doorstep to say, “I’m so sorry for your pain. I love you, and here’s something to keep you going a bit.”

We take up the towel, because it’s what we do, despite failure, difficulty and confusion. We keep going at it. We serve … shamelessly.

 

Circle up with someone you’re accountable to and think through the following questions:

What are the enemies to shameless Christian service with which you’re most familiar? 

 

What would be a contemporary equivalent to foot washing? 

 

Why might it be significant that Jesus washed Judas’ feet? 

 

What are the benefits to be “being washed by Jesus” and to “washing one another’s feet”?

 

 

Is there anybody who’s “feet” you need to wash? 

 

Leading and Following: 1 Peter 5.1-7

Who comes to mind when you think of a great leader? Could it be a uniter, like Abraham Lincoln? A model of compassion, like Mother Teresa? Or, a motivator and teacher, like our own (here in Wisconsin!) Vince Lombardi?

The Apostle Peter’s letter 1 Peter is about experiencing God’s grace in the midst of suffering. Prominent themes include rejoicing, But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed (4.13); judgment, For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God (4.17); and, humility, Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good (4.19). The letter, likely written in 63/64 AD and to churches founded by associates of the Apostle Paul in northern Asia Minor (Turkey today), was penned by Peter amidst Nero’s persecution. Nero’s purge of the early Christians had, very probably, taken Paul’s life. Who will lead the churches now? Peter wrote to address the consternation and fear of these churches.

In this critical juncture, Peter talks about leading and following. He exhorts elders first, then followers, as “a fellow elder,” as a “witness of the sufferings of Christ” and as a “partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (5.1). How strange. He might have mentioned that he had observed Jesus in His glory at the transfiguration. Or, he could have brought up the bit about his being given the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt 16.19) that indicated leadership in the early church. Instead, Peter speaks language of co-leadership with the rising generation of Christ-followers, and the language of witnessing Jesus in His humiliation, and the language of future glory.

And what about Peter’s witness to Christ’s sufferings? Was Peter a good witness? Hardly … He denied Christ three times and ran away, remember? Oh, but then Peter was restored. “Tend my sheep” (John 21, three times). It’s this picture of the humbled, restored, refined-by-suffering, and zealous for future grace servant that becomes Peter’s picture of the ideal church leader.

Peter’s instruction to appointed leaders being refined by trouble is to pastor God’s people (:1-4). These elders are to be those who lead the church through this time of humiliation between Christ’s two comings. They’re to serve “freely,” not as those who have gotten their arms twisted, so that they serve grudgingly. They’re to serve “eagerly,” not as those looking out for their own interests. And, they’re to model Christ, not domineering over those in their charge. Those who serve well receive the “unfading crown of glory” (5.4) at the appearing of the chief Shepherd, Jesus Himself.

Such an appeal cuts against much “wisdom” of our day. Often, we default to what we know best. As churches grow, we tend to replicate the corporate character many of us know from the work week: pastor as CEO, elders as a board of directors, associates as middle-managing project managers, membership as shareholders, unbelieving community members as customers. Such a business model is not in keeping with Peter’s exhortation. Instead, elders are pastors who shepherd the church through humility now, but toward the future glory of the Great Shepherd. Our profit and bottom-line are different. We’re to speak and think the currency of humility.

What about followers? Peter’s instruction to those following appointed leaders being refined by trouble is to follow with humility (:5a). Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. 

Why would those “younger” need a special word? Children can learn, through discipline, that they’re to respect and obey their mothers. And, cheeky disrespect from children should be met, probably, by a strong response from their fathers. This is because their fathers see a different side of things. Their fathers know, among other things, just how hard the child’s mother is working. The fathers appreciate—better than the child will ever imagine, until he is a parent himself—all the unique tensions of parenting through which his wife, the child’s mother, must navigate.

So it is in the church. Peter found occasion to address younger people, because they often don’t appreciate the tensions of leading people in the unique community that will be each church. Problems must be “pastored” through. While a board room (or the Oval Office today) might be a place to say, “You’re fired!”, this won’t be how the local church is run. Decisions will be made, but often “success” will be found only by coming out united on the other side. Progress like this will be made slowly, and with humility.

Peter ends his exhortations with a general word. Cloth yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (5.5). Peter’s instruction to everyone is to humble themselves before God till Christ lifts them up. Followers are not told when they will be lifted up. In this life? Maybe. In the life to come? Certainly. Important is that such a “lifting up” will come about through imitation of humbled, refined-by-suffering leaders who themselves have learned to imitate Christ.

So, who is your picture of a great leader now?

 

Find someone you can talk to about leading and following from 1 Peter 5.1-7. Discuss the following questions.

What character qualities does Peter state are most important in a church leader? 

Why should church leaders receive special honor? (1 Tim 5.17-19 and Heb 13.7 also address this question.)

What are some ways that you can protect the reputation of those in leadership in your church? 

How is the local church unlike a a business or any other kind of organization? 

 

 

 

 

 

Membership: Hebrews 10.19-25

The whole idea of membership is in trouble. For one thing, we aren’t “joiners” like we used to be in the days of our grandparents. Compare our grandparents with the Millennial generation—who soon will be just about everybody—and the younger group comes off looking just about post-institutional.

Then, we have the added burden of competing with lots of negative images. Ask around to find out what people really think about local church membership and you’ll likely get descriptions of an inner ring of especially holy people … an exclusive club with privileges … a business with a bottom line, competing for limited resources … or, a group of people who gather to take care of the business operations of the church. Hardly anything to aspire to.

What is local church membership, anyway? 

The biblical doctrine of church membership is an especially interesting one, in that we don’t have a passage or verse that says, “This is what membership is, and here’s how to do it in the 21st century.” It is, rather, like the doctrine of the Trinity—not found in chapter and verse, but found through the Scriptures in numerous pictures of God interacting as a unity and in His “Three-ness”. Take away this doctrine, and the whole system comes apart.

So it is with the Bible’s teaching on church membership. It comes to us in pictures of groups of God’s people in particular places committing to meet together under the Lordship of Christ. In Acts 2, we see local church life—teaching, fellowshipping, breaking bread and praying. In Philippians 3, there’s the picture of heavenly citizenship: “… our citizenship is in heaven, and we await a Savior from there.” First Timothy 5 gives us a picture of family: Treat “… older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity”. First Peter 5 describes the roll of appointed pastor-elders who lead particular groups of people. Matthew 18 describes the work of the local church in disciplining—excluding from membership a professing brother who doesn’t properly represent Jesus: “… whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”.

My recent favorite, among these pictures, is Hebrews 10.19-25. We often hear this passage preached to embolden us to come to God shamelessly and with confidence, as individuals. Less often, we hear it preached to describe what local church life should look like.

Hebrews 10.19-25 describes two things that are true: We have confidence to go to God (:19-20), and we have someone to take us to God (:21). All of this is set against the Day of Atonement we read about in Leviticus 16. The priest of the Old Testament would make himself ready for God’s presence through washings and sacrifices. He’d carry the blood of sacrifices through the curtain separating God from everyone else. And, he’d enter God’s presence with fear and trembling, lest his sacrifice be found wanting.

Ah, but here’s the good news! We go to God through the very body and blood of Jesus. And, He’s perfect! And, while the priest would tremble to enter God’s house, we’re ushered into God’s house by the Son Himself, who transforms us (to mix the image) into the very house of God: “… Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (3.6, ESV).

In light of this confidence, we have some things we need to do with other believers in our local fellowships. Notice how, in verses 22-25, the commands grow more specific, more relational, more corporate, and more local. These are local church responses describing what membership looks like.

We’re to draw near to God (:22). We do this in full assurance of faith, consciences cleaned, bodies set aside for God’s purposes. The image here is, likely, that of baptism. It reminds us that our churches should be places where we come without shame. Whatever pathway God has taken to bring us to Himself, we’re clean. “Past is prologue,” as Shakespeare wrote. The church is not a place for shaming. Draw near to God …

We hang on to the Gospel (:23). The local church is the place where we preach the Gospel to each other. It’s not the place where we perfect ourselves, but the place where we hang on to Jesus. And, not only is the Gospel powerful, but it includes all of life. Marriage in trouble? Struggle raising kids? Tempted to sin? Run toward the church where the Gospel is preached. Hang on to the Gospel …

We’re to motivate each other (:24). “Stir one another up” (ESV). We get our word “paroxysm” from the word behind this expression. Think: hydrogen peroxide, bubbling away. We’re to have a godly agenda for each other. Motivate each other …

We’re to meet regularly (:25), ” … not neglecting to meet together as some are in the habit of doing.” While the original readership was having trouble breaking from the synagogue, our modern equivalent is the family who can’t decide on Saturday night whether they’ll come to God with others the next morning. Healthy church partners make the gathering of God’s people a commitment. Meet regularly …

And, we’re to encourage each other till Christ comes (:25). The word “encourage” will be variously translated as urge, exhort, implore, summon, or comfort. Push each other toward the prize, till Christ returns. The local church is the home field of the Christian life. It’s where we remind each other of our victory through Christ and come to God … together.

Healthy church members commit to come to God with others in the local church.  

 

Find someone to talk to and work through the following questions of local church membership.

What is your picture of church membership? Negative? … Positive? … Necessary? Necessary, but for what? 

If the thought of joining a local church is negative for you, what objections do you have? 

Have you ever thought of Hebrews 10.19-25 as describing the life that we have in Christ together? How does this passage help you think about church membership? 

Have you ever heard a sermon on the need to join a church in membership? How has considering this passage in Hebrews changed your thoughts about what joining a church might look like for you? 

 

 

 

Baptism: Romans 6.3-4

This week at Woodland we return to our study of healthy church partners (members, that is). Since the last two weeks were all about making much of Jesus as we celebrated our participation in His death, burial and resurrection, this Sunday’s mark of the healthy church member is an appropriate follow-up to Easter.

We’ve been experiencing storms in the Northwoods. With each gusty mix of wind and rain I’ve lost another half-dozen spruce trees. In our old life, that would have been tragic. Now, we have hundred, maybe thousands, to spare. So, no real damage. An unearthed tree is a thing of wonder. There’s the trunk and branches we’ve always seen. But then, there’s the sub-terrainian tangle of roots and earthen matter formerly concealed. That  much of the tree has always been below the surface is a great discovery after a storm.

This week we’re thinking about baptism and the church partner: the healthy church partner makes the invisible work of God visible through baptism. In our understanding at Woodland, baptism functions, along with the Lord’s Table, as an ordinance. Together, they make visible the invisible work of God in the one who has trusted Jesus by faith. The spirit of the thing is that, soon after trusting Christ, the new believer makes a living picture of the Gospel through baptism, then reaffirms her participation with Christ at the Table throughout her life. It’s like a wedding that signifies the beginning of a marriage, but then an anniversary that reaffirms the ongoing permanence of the marriage as long as the marriage covenant lasts. Both ordinances serve to reveal the work of God that—like unseen roots connecting a great tree to the earth—connect the believer to God, through participation with Christ.

No passages makes this more clear than Romans 6.1-11. While the passage comes on the heals of Paul’s manifesto of justification by faith (3.21-5.21) and serves to demonstrate how the mastery of Christ leaves the believer forever changed in his self-estimation, it’s Paul’s picture of water baptism (verses 3-4) that illustrates all God has done in Christ.

Through faith (pictured by baptism) we participate in Christ’s death (verse 3). Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? There’s grammatical subtleties in these verses. Prepositions in the accusative case indicate movement: “into Christ” … “into his death”. Such movement indicates that, through faith, we’ve moved into the reign, the realm, the sphere where Christ is our representative. Then, there’s the “suv” prefixes attached to many of the verbs, which even a casual glance at the passage in the Greek New Testament makes obvious. The preposition means, simply, “with,” but, attached to each of the verbs, broadcasts our (with)burial, (with)uniting, (with) crucifixion and (with) living with Christ. All this brought about by faith.

While the thought of our participation in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection thousands of years before our birth might cause us to tilt our heads a bit in puzzlement, we’re not completely unfamiliar with the idea representation. We send representatives to our nations capitol to serve us in government. And, while we might find ourselves in the minority in voting and at odds with the final decisions of our lawmakers, it’s beyond dispute that we’re vicariously present in the halls of congress.

So it was at the cross. Credo-baptism (that is, “believers’ baptism”) serves especially to make a visible picture of our representation by Christ. We’re lowered into the water as Christ was lowered into the stormy waters of God’s wrath. (Think: Genesis 6-7, or Peter’s picture of Noah above the waters of wrath, 1 Peter 3.21). Ah, but here is the good news! Instead, of tasting God’s wrath, we don’t remain in God’s judgment …

Through faith we participate in Christ’ resurrection (:4). We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. Here again, in rising from the waters, baptism pictures our forgiveness for sins, in Christ (Col 2.11-13). And, as we rise, the cleansing, renewing work of the Spirit likewise is made visible (Titus 3.5).

The remainder of our passage serves to show that through faith we participate in Christ’s life (:5-11). We don’t have to sin anymore (:6). Just as a person who has died is finished doing things in the body that now lies in the casket, so we are done doing things in that old person who has died with Christ. Baptism, then, pictures the destruction of sin in the life of the believer. Likewise, we don’t have to go down to death anymore. The death Jesus died, he died once for all (1 Pet 3.18). Now, our inner-persons rest eternally with Christ.

All of this results in a new self-estimate (:11). Following Christ, not sin, is our new way of life, pictured in baptism.

A few implications follow form the powerful, multi-faceted picture of baptism. First, Baptism is really about Christ’s work, not us. And, while we might take joy in a new believer’s “decision” for Christ, that faith response is in response to something Jesus has done. It’s easy to see why the church, since ancient times, has celebrated its baptisms on Easter Sunday, together with its observance of the Lord’s work.

Second, the symbolism of water baptism reminds us that we don’t live the Christian life apart from Jesus. Jesus himself was baptized in preparation for his identification with us. It was at this identification with sinners that the three Persons of the Godhead met to rejoice. The Spirit descended as a dove and the Father applauded the Son: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 3.17; Mk 1.11).

The healthy church partner, then, makes the invisible work of God visible by taking baptism seriously. 

Find a friend and answer a few questions about this mark of the healthy church partner:

How has our brief look at Romans 6.1-11 (verses 3-4 especially) changed your thinking about the significant of baptism? 

What questions do you have, perhaps coming form your own religious upbringing or family background, about baptism? 

Why is it important to remember that baptism is a picture of God’s work and not the means of salvation itself? 

What thoughts do you have about the way we should speak to our children about baptism? 

 

The Christ We Serve: Matthew 28.1-10; 16-20

Have you ever had a completely inadequate mental picture of something?

In my formative years my father believed with all his heart that he was from the Pacific Northwest. During these years he would take us on long family vacations across the western United States. On one of these trips I was told we would visit Tuscan, Arizona. And, somehow, I got it in my child mind that Tuscan, Arizona was a person—likely a mature woman with a tall, bouffant hairdo who lived in a dark, air-conditioned house with lots of colored glass and things children couldn’t touch. So, there we were, thundering across the desert on our way to see “Mrs. Arizona”.

Inadequate mental pictures are not consequential when a child. But, when we come to Christ, our picture of the kind of person he is today, right now, is very consequential. And, there’s danger in coming up with the wrong image. Ask your man on the street to describe his mental picture of the risen Christ, and you might get a description of anything from a Renaissance Christ surrounded with chubby, naked angels to a “buddy” Jesus who might hang with you, but who can’t do much to change your life, to a picture of Christ on the cross, though he isn’t anymore.

What is your mental picture of the Christ you serve?

When we turn to Matthew’s account of the resurrection, Jesus’ followers must get their minds around the Christ they’ll now serve. The Christ we now serve is powerful (:1-7). 

In the setting to the account Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary”, the wife of Clopas and likely Jesus’ aunt, go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body. Before they arrive (the grammar suggests) there’s an earthquake. Since the New Testament records such quakes at Jesus’ death and at his future return, something enormous has taken place. They arrive to find an angel: … his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow (:3). The unbelieving guards seize up at the display of power: … for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men (:4). The angel instructs the women on how to respond to the power: … Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified … Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead … he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him (:5-7).

Jesus will demonstrate his power by doing what he promised (26.32). His plans will go forward, unabated. And, for all the display of power in Matthew’s account, Jesus has not yet appeared in the story! How awesome will be the power when he enters the account, we believe.

Does our mental picture of the Christ we serve include his power? And indeed, he is powerful, we must conclude. He’s powerful when we’re permitted to suffer hardship … he’s powerful. He’s powerful when we lack the will for obedience … he’s powerful. He’s powerful when we need strength to persevere … he’s powerful. And yet, there’s danger in seeing Jesus as only powerful.

The Christ we serve is also compassionate (:8-10). The women obey the angel and meet Jesus in the act of their obedience. Greetings! Jesus says (literally, “rejoice”). And, unlike the angel, Jesus permits the women to worship him. And, if it weren’t for his power, we wouldn’t recognize his compassion. Then Jesus repeats the command of the angel, Don’t be afraid … go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me (:10). The disciples had all abandoned him, but Jesus speaks of them with compassion. Still, if they want to see him, they’ll likewise have to exercise belief.

And we ask, does our mental picture of the Christ we serve include his compassion? And, he is compassionate. He’s compassionate when we feel crushed by our sins, and so come to him for the thousandth time in confession … he’s compassionate. He’s compassionate when we pray for a lost or rebellious family member … he’s compassionate. He’s compassionate when we are disappointed in life, and we simply want to be with him … he’s compassionate. And yet, there’s more to the Christ we serve than his compassion.

The Christ we serve is present with his church (:16-20). The disciples do obey, and they meet Jesus in Galilee. Some doubt, perhaps more from hesitation than from unbelief. Who wouldn’t? Their new understanding of the risen Christ had to be refined and completed. Jesus instructs them: All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me (:18). He tells them what to do: Go therefore and make disciples … (:19) He tells them how to do it: … baptizing them … teaching them (:19b-20). And then, perhaps the greatest news of all! He tells them that he will be present with his church, And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age (:20b).

Notice how Matthew ends his account, not by focusing on the disciples’ task, but by focusing on Jesus’ attributes. And notice how Matthew forms a link back to the beginning of his gospel. Way back in 1:23, Matthew introduced Jesus, Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us). 

Does your mental picture of the Christ you serve include his presence with the church? The Christ we serve is present with his church. He’s present when we come together on Sunday mornings to open his Word … he’s present. He’s present when one in our churches is hurting immensely … he’s present. He’s present when we surround someone who has fallen into sin and needs to be restored … he’s present.

The Christ we serve is powerful, compassion and present with his church. 

We all start out with an inadequate picture of Christ. At first, we don’t know him at all. The solution for us is to recognize that we’ve missed the mark and run from him all our lives. Then, we understand that Jesus came for us, and those like us, to take our rebellion on himself and die, conquering sin and death. And then, we trust him by faith, transferring the dependence of our lives from ourselves to him. Only then do we begin to have an accurate picture of the Christ we serve.

This Easter we’ll gather. “Christ is risen!” someone will say. And then, we’ll respond, “He’s powerful. He’s compassionate. He’s present with his church. And, he is risen indeed!”

 

Forsaken: Mark 15.34

Some years ago, when returning to the States from some ministry training, Amanda and I shared an airplane aisle with a young, Indonesian software engineer named Bashir. Sharp, clean-cut, intelligent, Bashir turned out to be a devout Muslim and a ready apologist for Islam. Our own description of our work prompted lively discussion about God. We had a wonderful time! But, at each mention of the Christian Gospel, we’d smack an invisible wall: “God cannot sacrifice His majesty to become a man,” Bashir would repeat, endlessly. And so we reached our cordial impasse. We exchanged some emails later, but that was pretty much much that.

Looking back in reflection, I applaud Bashir for his conviction that God is bound by His own nature. But, unlike Bashir, my Christian understanding of God’s Person(s) allows me to approach God through Christ as One who is relational, personal, knowable; not distant, wholly other, or entirely transcendent.

Tonight at Woodland, we meet for Good Friday. We’ll meet to prepare for Sunday and will enrich our understanding of the death of Christ. In meeting, we’ll consider that transaction that took place between the Father and the Son at the cross that reflects the dynamic relationship between the Persons of the Godhead as—for one enormous, eternally weighted moment—the Father forsook the Son in our behalf. We’ll consider Mark 15.34, one of Christ’s Seven Last Words from the cross. My, God, my God, why have you forsaken me? 

This Word has troubled many. Jesus appears confused, and it’s understandable how liberal scholars have pointed to Jesus’ questioning as showing that Jesus, in His humanity, lost control, that He was a victim. We don’t believe this. And, let’s consider why by looking at the Word in its parts.

My God, my God … We’re given Jesus’ address to the Father by way of translation from the original, Eloi, Eloi. Here we remember that the New Testament comes to us through the Greek language, the cultural language of the eastern Roman Empire. But, Jesus and His Palestinian Jewish contemporaries spoke Aramaic, and sometimes the original soaks through. The Eloi of this verse finds its Hebrew equivalent in the Hebrew term Elohim, the term referring to God in His power and majesty.

Catch the backdrop here. Jesus is dying in the world his Father created by him, through him, for him. All this takes place against the backdrop of the eternal relationship of the Father and the Son. Jesus has prayed (John 17.24), Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, be with me where I am, so that they may see my glory which you have given me before the foundation of the world. 

It’s not that the cross is unexpected by Jesus. It’s that the cross is, so to speak, profoundly wrong!

My God, my God, Why … Here, we note that Jesus, far from actually asking a question, is actually quoting Psalm 22.1. That psalm takes the form of a lament. And, like a Shakespearean sonnet that has a certain rhythm and rhyme scheme, the Hebrew lament has a required shape that includes: a cry for help, a formal complaint, a confession of trust, a formal petition, a motivational element, a curse on enemies and concluding praise.

When Jesus quotes the cry for help from Psalm 22, he is referencing the psalm in its entirety. The psalm ends, amidst other declarations of triumph: … before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn that he has done it. 

In this Word from the cross, Jesus is identifying with those He came to save. This is not, in very fact, a question but a declaration of triumph!

And yet, there is real anguish at the cross. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Even more than unsurpassed physical anguish, there is unparalleled spiritual anguish as the wrath of the Father falls on the Son bringing about separation.

The forsakenness language describes this separation. Now, we find ourselves in the language of the Day of Atonement, originating in Leviticus 16. On that high day of Israel’s sacrificial year, the high priest entered the most holy place. He entered the presence of God to open the holy place, to bring cleansing and to provide final purification for any sins yet uncovered by sacrifice. As part of the sacrifice a “scapegoat” would be banished to carry the sins of the people outside the camp. To be “forsaken” is to be as the scapegoat who carried the sins of the people outside the camp. He made him who had no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Corinthians 5.21). This is Jesus’ work for us. As the goat identified with the people of Israel in their sin, so Jesus identifies with us at the cross. Forsaken!

What do we make of this? We see in this Last Word from the cross that Jesus laments his rejection by the Father in order to identify with those he had come to save.

It’s all horrific! And, by any account but God’s, wrong! But it’s the sacrifice God, in the Person of Jesus, could and did make for us … Praise Him! And, when we consider this Word of Christ, we come to God as One who is not unloving, distant, weak or small. We prepare ourselves for Sunday by enriching our understanding of the death of Christ when we will say, “He is risen! … He is risen, indeed!”