Sunday, June 28, 2015

Send Them Away

“When it was already quite late, His disciples came to Him and said, ‘This place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them [the large crowd] away so that they may go into the surrounding villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ “

The disciples said, “Send them away.”

Jesus said, “You give them something to eat!”

The disciples said, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?”

Jesus said, “How many loaves do you have?”

In the above passage (Mark 6:33 – 44) we are told that when Jesus saw the large crowd that He had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.

The feeding of the five thousand is first and foremost a declaration that the Creator of the Universe, Yahweh who fed His people in the wilderness in Exodus, has come down from the heavens and down from Mount Sinai and is walking among mankind. Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Mystery though it is – it is.

But then we find out just what this Messiah and Son is like – and we find that while He may look like us outwardly, yet inwardly He is in so many ways not like us – He shows us the distinctions so that we may learn to be like Him. He looks like us outwardly so that we may look like Him inwardly.

Jesus has compassion on the people – on the mass of people. His compassion does not just express itself by His teaching them many things, but also by His concern over their physical welfare (see also Mark 8:1-3). Perhaps Jesus has been waiting to see what the disciples would do, to see whether they would express concern for the people. It becomes quite late and the place is desolate. Perhaps the disciples’ stomachs are growling. They are thinking, “We have five loaves and two fish, we can’t eat in front of all these people, they need to leave, Jesus needs to send them away.”

“Jesus teaching people is all well and good, but now we have to get down to practical matters and they need to go fend for themselves – we have enough for ourselves but not for them.”

Jesus asks the disciples to look at what they have and not at what they don’t have. He asks them to put the welfare of others before themselves. As the disciples began distributing the food perhaps they were thinking, “What will be leftover for us to eat?” The disciples did not understand that the Creator of the Universe was the one blessing the food and breaking the loaves.

Jesus has compassion on the people because they are like sheep without a shepherd. He does not look at them as unworthy of His care and attention. He does not view them as outside the bounds of His love, as beyond teaching, as unqualified to be given food.

How is it that we in America, and in the professing church in America, often search for reasons not to feed people? We compare others with ourselves and if we feel that they are not putting forth the same effort as we are to better themselves then we think that they ought not to be fed. If they have problems in life that we don’t have (or that we appear to others not to have) then we think that they need not be fed. We want others to meet certain qualifications before we will feed them; and we often insist on qualifications before we will teach them – the primary qualification for teaching is that they come into our comfort zones as opposed to us leaving our comfort zones.

Jesus did not screen the individuals in the large crowd to ensure that their motives were pure for being there. He did not have them complete a questionnaire to eliminate derelicts, unemployed, substance abusers, or those with unstable personal lives. Jesus had compassion on them because they were as sheep without a shepherd. Sheep require care and protection. People who are messed up require care and protection – not rejection, not hunger.

We think in economic terms and economics is (whether we admit it or not) the arbiter of our minds – it is the arbiter of decision-making in the professing church. The dollar replaces the Cross in our thinking and people are seen in economic terms – “Is this person economically worthy for me, for us, to spend money on? Will we receive a return on our investment if we feed this person, if we clothe this person, if we house this person?” This is the voice of the American dollar.

The voice of the Cross says, “Jesus loves this person; he is created in the image of God; Jesus died for this person – no matter this person’s attitude or actions – how can I touch this person who is as a sheep without a shepherd.”

The voice of the dollar says, “Send them away.”

The voice of the Cross says, “Come unto me all you who are weary and with burdens and I will give you rest.”

The voice of the world says, “Let them buy food.”

The voice of the church should say, “Let’s give them what we have.”

Can we discern a difference between the voice of the world and the voice of the church? Sadly there are times when the voice of the world is more compassionate than the voice of the church – it was the disciples who said, “Send them away.”

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Letter to a Sister – The Church, Page 1

Dear Sister,

You asked me about financial “giving” and church, you asked, “Is this what churches do?” You said, “I haven’t been around many churches so I don’t know.”

I’ve been thinking about your question for a few days, I’ve been thinking about my own pilgrimage, and I’ve been thinking about the Bible and church history.

I want to begin by saying, “Read the New Testament book of Acts and then read the rest of the New Testament – make it a priority.” The book of Acts is about God living and breathing in His people. The letters of Paul, Peter, John, James, and Jude were all either written to churches or were written to individuals who were in churches. Even the book of Revelation was written to churches. So we can learn about church, what it should be and shouldn’t be, its highs and lows, as we read and ponder the New Testament.

Now I can hear you saying to me, “But I’m so busy.” Well, I can’t think of anything more important than knowing Jesus better and better as each day unfolds and in learning what it means to live in relationship with His people – and that means investing ourselves in the Scriptures. Nothing I can tell you can take the place of knowing the Bible yourself and in knowing it as you explore it in fellowship with others who desire to know Jesus.

I confess that I wish I could read the book of Acts with your eyes, with eyes that have never read it before. I’d love to experience it for the first time, I’d love to experience it as an older person, I’d love to experience it having had no church experience. In short, I’d love to experience it before an external template was overlaid on my reading by extra-Biblical experience.

On the other hand, I’m thankful that Acts and the Letters have been my home during my pilgrimage – I don’t necessarily understand them, other than that Jesus is ever their focus. I suppose it’s like living in our home, I have a basic understanding of plumbing and electrical and structural principles, but I’m no plumber or electrician – I don’t understand everything about my home. The important thing about my home is that in it I share life with my wife; the important thing about the Bible is that in it Jesus shares His life with me. There are many things about the Bible I don’t understand, but I do understand that Jesus is there.    

But back to the church. A question that has been asked by more than one person is, “If we removed everything the Bible says about prayer and the Holy Spirit would it make any difference in the way we “do” church?” In other words, have we become so self-reliant, and so reliant on the world’s way of doing things, that we no longer depend on God’s leading and God’s provision? Do we really need God anymore in the church, other than as a figurehead? As you read the New Testament you might consider the contrasts between the early Christians and what we see today in North America and in the kind of Christianity which we export to other countries. Focus on the principles, focus on the relationships; focus on the Trinity, what do you see? 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Reflections on Witnessing – III

Who are we bringing to Jesus?

In John Chapter One we read:

“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

“Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples, and looking at Jesus he said, ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ The two disciples heard him speak and they followed Jesus.”

“One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his own brother Simon…and he brought him to Jesus.”

“The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me’…Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him…come and see.’ “

John the Baptist points to Jesus and two of John’s disciples follow Jesus. One of those men, Andrew, finds his brother Simon Peter and brings him to Jesus.

Jesus finds Philip and tells Philip to follow Him, and Philip finds Nathanael and brings him to Jesus.

John the Baptist is pointing to Jesus, Andrew is pointing to Jesus, Philip is pointing to Jesus. Note that for Andrew and Philip following Jesus means bringing along others to follow Jesus. Andrew finds his brother and brings him; Philip finds his friend and brings him.

The Gospel is about Jesus, the Bible is about Jesus; Jesus Christ is the central focus of the Bible and the Gospel message, so much so that Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” So much so that Paul writes, “He is before all things, and through Him all things consist (are held together).” So much so that John begins his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made.”

Our measure of witnessing to others about Jesus Christ is often the measure of our view of Jesus Christ; and it is often the measure of our relationship with Jesus Christ.

If Jesus Christ is a figurehead of a religion or philosophy, then while it might be nice for others to be aware of Him, it is not imperative; in this case Jesus stands alongside other philosophers and leaders of other movements, whether they are philosophical, religious, political, or social. Considering the way much of Christianity remakes Jesus in its own image, He is treated much like Colonial Sanders of KFC is treated – his image is modified to suit the tastes of consumers.

A man married to a woman whom he does not love is unlikely to talk about her in glowing terms to others. A woman married to a man with whom she has a poor relationship is unlikely to extol his virtues to others. On the other hand, a spouse deeply in love with his or her spouse is highly likely to speak of her or him to others for marriage is central to that person’s life. When Jesus is central to our lives, when He is our Alpha and Omega, then we are more likely to do as John the Baptist, Andrew, and Philip did – to point to Him, to follow Him, and to bring others to Him.

Witnessing should be a natural outflow of our relationship with Jesus Christ and if it is not we should ask ourselves “why?”

Keep in mind that we are talking about pointing people to Jesus; not pointing people to agendas, not pointing people to spiritual experiences, not pointing people to personal fulfillment, not pointing people to political or social programs or issues, not pointing people to doctrinal “distinctives” that may exist in our religious tradition. No matter how important we may think many of the foregoing are, and they may indeed be important, none of them compare with Jesus Christ – and it is Jesus and Jesus alone that we are to tell others about. Once people come to know Jesus then we can engage in discipleship – but even there we must insist that discipleship be about Jesus, about being transformed into His image and not our image nor the image of our tradition nor the image of our agenda…nor the image of anything or anyone else.

Is anyone following me or my tradition or my doctrinal distinctives? Then let me be like John the Baptist and point him to Jesus. Do I have a brother or sister or other family member who does not know Jesus? Then let me be like Andrew and find him and bring him to Jesus. Do I have a friend or acquaintance who does not know Jesus? Then let me be like Philip and find him and bring him to meet Jesus. I cannot be said to be following Jesus like Andrew or Philip if I am not bringing others to Jesus and to Jesus alone.