Supernatural Ministry in the UMC

This article ran this week on the WCA website. I’m reposting it here in its entirety for those who may not travel in UMC circles with the prayer that the Holy Spirit might spark a theological revival rooted in the supernatural in our day.

Thomas Jefferson once took a penknife and cut most of the miracle stories out of the Bible, leaving only the teachings of Jesus. He included the tomb but cut out the resurrection. What was left, mostly the teachings of Jesus, Jefferson entitled, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.”

What Jefferson did to the Bible with a penknife, many contemporary Christians unwittingly do with their lives. Especially in the U.S., much of Christian culture has managed to surgically remove the supernatural from the experience of Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve fallen out of the habit of talking publicly and passionately about how to transform lives. We will talk about decline in church attendance, the cultural shift away from Christendom and the declining morals of our society, but we have neither the vocabulary nor the comfort for talking about the spiritual realm. And yet, according to Jesus himself, the work of God’s people is to expose the Kingdom through the supernatural work of casting out demons, curing disease, healing sickness and seeing people transformed by truth.

In fact, this is the prescription offered by Jesus himself when he sent his followers out on their first evangelistic mission. We find the charge in the first verses of Luke 9: “One day Jesus called together his twelve disciples and gave them power and authority to cast out all demons and to heal all diseases. Then he sent them out to tell everyone about the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2, NIV).

I am fascinated by the contrast between what I read in these verses and what I see in the current western culture. What he sends these followers to do carries the power of real transformation. This supernatural sending exposes the Kingdom of God in a way much contemporary ministry does not. In this season of change in our denomination’s life, how can we recover this charge? What does it look like for Wesleyans? I suspect it begins with a commitment to a Kingdom-down worldview.

In an earlier Outlook article, Walter Fenton referenced a post by Dr. Wes Allen, Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology. In his diagnosis of our current UM conflict, Dr. Allen offers an insight about the starting points of those on either end of the theological spectrum. “Traditionalists emphasize the vertical relationship characterized in the command to love God with our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. In traditional evangelical vocabulary, this is often expressed in terms of the importance placed on individuals having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ… Progressives (and to a great extent, moderates)… start with the horizontal relationship. In this view, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves is seen as the primary (perhaps even synonymous) expression of loving God with our whole being…”

“There is much overlap,” Allen says, “between these two positions (obviously conservatives care about social ethics and progressives care about individual morality). But with the different emphases, the depth and width of the chasm between these vertical and horizontal starting points has become so significant that at times the different UM camps seem to be practicing two different religions or Christianities…”

I agree with this diagnosis. The root of our current impasse is in what leads. Is Christianity primarily a belief system emphasizing social justice, or is it primarily an encounter with the One, True God that emphasizes — even insists on — ongoing supernatural transformation? I am convinced that authentic Christianity is a Kingdom-down proposition. If we want to see the Kingdom come, it will happen as we openly, boldly acknowledge that Jesus was and is not just a great cultural stabilizer but also a supernatural God whose resurrection leads those who follow him directly into the supernatural realm. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself — and on the resurrection side of this story, that includes the Holy Spirit — and then to go out as he sends to drive out death and expose the Kingdom of God.

This is our call. Friends, we are not sent out with an eyedropper full of Holy Spirit so we can run a friendly non-profit. If we are going to give the world a better definition of “church,” then we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit so we can live out a bold charge to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. I believe the Lord longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power. I’m advocating for a renewed Methodism that is a partnership with a supernatural God who does supernatural things. Surely Jesus means for Methodists to have the Holy Spirit, too!

After all, miracles are the cornerstone of the Christian faith. Without miracles, we lose the divinity of Jesus. Without the virgin birth, Jesus is just another kid born to an unwed mother. He begins to look more like Buddha or Mohammed and less like a God in the flesh. Without miracles, we lose hope. If Jesus didn’t supernaturally conquer death, we have no assurance of an afterlife nor any reason to assume that the cross has power to cancel sin.

Without miracles, we lose touch with the essential character of God. Through the epic miracles of Scripture (the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous catch of fish, the woman whose oil lasted through a famine, the drowning of a legion of demons), we are drawn into the realm of God’s Kingdom and influence. Miracles are a foretaste of coming attractions, when every tribe and tongue is standing before the throne, crying out, “Salvation belongs to our God!”

This, I believe, is exactly what Jesus means to do when he sends his followers out with power and authority to cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. He is calling them to look for signs of the anti-Kingdom, directing them, “Wherever you see them — demons, disease, sickness — take the authority invested in you to cast out darkness and proclaim the victory of the Kingdom of God.”

With all due respect to President Jefferson, this is what it means to be a Christian, and I hope this is what it looks like when Wesleyans embrace supernatural ministry. It is to declare the one, true God and his supernatural revelation through Jesus Christ, as we are sent out with power and authority to fulfill this bold charge: Cast out demons, cure disease, proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick.

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The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century here, a logic that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

Liberalism also minimizes (or squelches) any evangelistic urgency. This shows up in our current UMC conversations as American UM Christians debate the importance of an African connection. Some would say that unless he is Christ for the whole world, he is Christ for none of it. Others would say that African theology is as “local” as African culture.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant. The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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Cheap Kings, Fake Lords and the Crucifixion

We were made for God. In our unfallen state, it is a perfect fit. Somewhere early on in the history of the world, however, we decided we’d rather be our own masters. We rebelled against, pushed against, rejected the plans of (design of) the God who loves us, and began making our own gods.

Humanity has had this propensity nearly as long as we’ve existed. By the time the Ten Commandments were delivered, idol worship was enough of a problem to deserve a prime spot in the list. Commandment #1: You shall have no other gods before me. You don’t have to say things like that to people who never choose other gods. By its presence and prominence, we can assume this was an issue, has always been an issue, is still an issue. Our preference given our fallen tendencies is to choose gods of our own making. Tim Keller writes some terrific stuff about this (look up Counterfeit Gods).

The very act of the crucifixion says so much about this conflicted relationship we have with God, how far God will go to prove his love and Lordship, and how far humans will go to avoid surrendering to that love and Lordship. We have a spiritual problem that we chronically attempt to fix with a physical solution. We think, “If I can just be my own master, then I can find my own fix.”

The great irony is that we put God on a cross but keep our sins to ourself. And yet, the cross is such a beautiful invitation to believe that God on the cross is God for us (Keller says until we believe that, we won’t have courage to deal with our idols). It is an invitation, as Oswald Chambers has said, to press into the crucified flesh of Jesus everything that breeds death with the assurance that Jesus will carry those things we give him in a way that doesn’t breed shame or loss but freedom and life.

Write this question down and deal with it: What things in my life need to be pressed into the death of Jesus? What parts of me have more in common with death than life? What inferior gods and nagging demons, what things that need to die, am I dragging around when the best thing I could do for myself is press them into the crucifixion? Because “this Jesus whom we crucified” has power even while he is on the cross and this Jesus whom we crucified offers to take our place at the point of death. Because you see, while sin-carrying is death for us, it is victory in the flesh of Jesus.

Hear this: Christ alone has power over the things that breed death in us.

Resurrection invites us to stand up again (the Greek word literally means “to stand up again”). The principle of resurrection says that if I will press the things that breed death into the flesh of the crucified Jesus then when he is resurrected, when he stands up again, I can stand up again, too. I can be resurrected, too, even if I’ve found myself in a valley again, spiritually poor again, stuck again, idolizing again, going around that same tired mountain again, living that insanity of doing the same things again and again … looking for a physical fix for a spiritual problem. Even if I am there again, the crucifixion invites me to press my tired, dead “again” into the cross of Jesus, so I can stand up again inside the resurrection of Jesus.

Earlier this year, I broke through into another spiritual place. Before it happened, sensing a breakthrough but not there yet was a painful place to be. I hoped I was right. I trusted God. But man, that pressure when you’re right up against that moment of spiritual breakthrough can be pretty intense. You may have felt it before yourself, even if you didn’t know what to call it.

On a Monday morning, I got my breakthrough. I was on my knees, actually, and I heard the Lord ask me to stand up again, just like resurrection. I heard the Lord inviting me to place a part of myself under his care. I heard him invite me into healing. He showed me how I’d been protecting that broken piece of me, trying to accommodate it while I lived my life. And I could see how trying to run my life on two tracks at once, just how impossible that is. I needed to hand some broken part of me over to Jesus and let him be Lord. Such freedom!

In that moment, Jesus had just invited me to press into his crucified flesh something that was breeding death, with the assurance that Jesus will carry the things we give him in a way that doesn’t breed shame or loss, but freedom and life.

My friend, you now have that same power to stand up again even if you’ve been knocked down. You now have the power to tell your idols, all those cheap kings and fake lords, to submit to the one Power who wants to bring you from death to life and can bring you from death to life. Because Jesus is Lord, you now have the power God has to break through barriers and begin again.

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How to live like Jesus is Lord

So much of what we teach is all the don’t’s of Christianity. You know, “Don’t drink, don’t chew, don’t dance with the girls who do.” But Jesus didn’t come for the don’t’s. Christ isn’t just a fast from sin; he is a feast of truth and grace.

The Messiah has come and his coming is like the coming of a bridegroom to a wedding feast. This longing we have for something more is a longing for a wedding feast, for new wine, for a new beginning. It is a longing for what we’re made for. It is a longing for truth … for life.

The story is true, my friends! Jesus is worthy! The cross is glorious! The good news is worth believing! The Kingdom to come is an absolute assurance and the resurrection is proof. Are you living as if all this is true? Are you living as if Jesus really is Lord?

How to live like Jesus is Lord:

Let the dead things die. Toss the old habits that are not working for you any more. Toss the old, dead rituals. Some of us are still waiting for 1953 to roll around again so we can get back to a more comfortable religion. Some of us actually crave dead religion. We want to be okay with sitting in a church building once a week and calling that Christian. But folks, Jesus is doing a new thing! He is moving in power all over the world right now. He is revealing himself to non-believers, and creating miracles in spiritually dry places. It is time to join him. It is time to toss the things you keep wanting to come back that are never coming back, both in your spiritual life and in the rest of your life. Let the things that have no life for you die so you can begin to live like Jesus is Lord.

Learn to feast. Psalm 22 and 23 are some of my favorite places in scripture. These two psalms contain the essence of the Good News of the New Testament. Psalm 22 contains the seven last words of Jesus on the cross. This is the scene of Jesus taking on our sin and dying our death. This is Good Friday.

Then Psalm 23 takes us through Saturday, that dark time between the crucifixion and the resurrection. It walks us through the valley of shadows, the valley of death. But it points us toward a rise on the other side of that valley where there is a table set by God himself: “You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.” This is about how to walk through trouble with a feast mentality. This is a song of death and resurrection.

I remember reading this line one evening years ago. It happened while I was sitting in the chapel of our church. Every Wednesday we offered communion there. I was the pastor who served communion for those services. Steve usually came and I specifically remember one week when he came to take communion. It had been a hard week for him. He is a teacher, and it seemed like that week he was struggling more than usual with classroom discipline. Like that semester he had every demon in Morgan County taking history from him. It was a rough time.

So as he walked up to the altar, I was reading this very line from Psalm 23 about God preparing our table in the presence of our enemies. I looked up from that line to see my husband kneeling at the altar, his hands out to receive the elements, all his enemies weighing heavily on him — the students, the work, the tests to be graded. I thought to myself, “Here it is, being lived out right in front of me!” God had invited Steve to a feast. In the face of so many enemies, he was invited by the Lord of the Universe to come to the table, to get his cup refilled, to receive God’s goodness and mercy, and to remember that even with so many demons hanging on, God was with him. God was on his side. God is on his side, and on yours and mine.

This is the feast being set before us. It is a feast of truth and grace. And this is what it means to get a feast mentality: It is to set your face toward that table while you’re still in the valley and trust that the story is true even when life is hard.

Get a resurrection mindset. Resurrection is the center of the good news about Jesus Christ. And now, with that power firmly established in the Kingdom of God and with Jesus as our bridge God is able to confidently say to all humanity, “It is finished! He has done it! You now have the power I have to break through barriers and begin again.” And that message is not exclusively for Easter. That message is for us. This is our story now. Because the resurrection is true, we now have access to this same infinite power that is stronger than even death itself. When we talk about “begin again” religion, which is what Jesus preached, we’re talking about the kind of life that goes through death. We’re talking about transformation. We now have the power to bring everything out into the light and then put everything that isn’t eternal to death … so we can really live.

This is the good news! Those who are in Jesus never die. This is what it means to be “in Christ.” It is to proclaim with Peter: “I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” And to believe that by claiming that, I am tethering myself to a power greater than sin, greater than death, greater than darkness.

A resurrection mindset can change the world, and can certainly change your world. I’m praying for you as you enter this season beyond Easter Sunday, that you will embrace the resurrection of Jesus Christ as your permission to live wholeheartedly into the life he has designed just for you.

Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Hallelujah!

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The Danger of Distraction (and how to find your holy “yes”)

I wonder if there has ever been a climate so ripe for distraction. So much information coming at us from every possible lit-up screen. We are distracted by social media, by our phones, by unwelcome relationships, by our phones, by intruding thoughts and lusts and wants and needs, by our phones … we are distracted.

Listening to a message by Steven Furtick (Elevation Church), I learned something about that word — distraction. In medieval times, there was a barbaric torture tactic called “drawing and quartering.” Each of a person’s four limbs were tied to four ropes, and each of those ropes was tied to four horses, who were then commanded to run in four different directions. It was a horrible practice.

Do you know what the French called it? Distraction.

When I saw that image and heard that term, I thought, “That’s it!” By making us rush to catch up, by keeping us in mental chaos, by luring us away from life-giving habits like what Methodists call the means of grace, by making us say yes to things we ought never say yes to, distractions rob us of rest and keep us from being formed into the likeness of Christ. No wonder one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-discipline. It is discipline that pulls the distracted parts of us back together.

We want to believe that the means of grace — or what you may know as spiritual disciplines — are for people who have too much time on their hands. Nothing could be further from the truth. Disciplines are precisely for people who have too much on their plate.

Listen: Who needs discipline when you’ve got nothing but time? Disciplines are not for people who have too much time; they for people who have too many distractions.

Let me say that again: Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions.

Disciplines bring the pulled-apart, conflicting parts of us back together again. They help us to live inside our limits so we don’t end up without enough energy to take a shower much less spend time resting in the Lord. They help us become mindful of our day-to-day decisions and how they feed into our spiritual goals. They encourage us to create life-giving habits.

Which of these disciplines sounds completely foreign to you? Which ones might be a source of life and restoration for you? (

  • Bible reading
  • prayer
  • meditation
  • worship
  • community life (including accountability)

These are classic disciplines that shape our thoughts and set the tone of our day. They give us courage to say “no” more often so we can say a holy “yes” to things that feed our life in Christ. After all, God calls us to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, right? The means of grace are ways we can examine ourselves to see if we’re on that track. We know our lives are being shaped into the likeness of Christ when our conversation begins to be transformed by love and our reactions are filtered through the Holy Spirit. We know it is happening when our calendars aren’t so far beyond our limits that we can’t rest in the comfort that God’s got it.

Disciplines make busy people slow down enough to let their souls sink into Jesus. That’s where the real spiritual work is done — in the secret place, where deep calls to deep. Disciplines don’t promise to make our lives easier, but I can attest to this: they result in a kind of rest that pulls all the distracted, chaotic, directionless pieces of our lives together.

  • What are you sure of, and what doubts are creating spiritual anxiety?
  • What is pulling at you, and what distractions are keeping you from spiritual formation?
  • What does your calendar say about your life … and about how much you trust God?
  • How willing are you to make changes to your life not just for the sake of your own spiritual formation, but for the sake of others?

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The curse of the gap

Dr. Kitty Harris of Texas Tech University teaches that in order to mature emotionally and feel “normal,” people need these basic needs met:

  • Physical safety – I need to know I’m safe.
  • Emotional security – I need to know I’m heard.
  • Identity – I need to know who I am.
  • Competence – I need to know I’m capable.
  • Belonging – I need to know I have a place.
  • Mission – I need to know I have a purpose.

All these things are found in the Garden of Eden. Place. Purpose. People. All there.

We, of course, live east of Eden (way east), on the fallen side of things. That means any of us looking at the above list will discover gaps or barriers between our “real” and our “ideal.”

Something is missing. I struggle to feel safe. Or I struggle to feel like I’m heard. I don’t really know who I am. I don’t feel competent. I never quite feel like I belong. I don’t know my purpose. These are all fallen feelings. And that gap between where we are and where God made us to be – the gap between real and ideal – can create all kinds of pain and frustration.

That gap led to the original sin. The enemy of our souls got Eve to notice the gap that exists between imperfect people and a perfect God. Then, once she was focused on the gap rather than God, he said, “Isn’t that gap … painful?” And while it hadn’t been in the moment prior, it became so the moment she began to focus on it.

That’s the curse of the gap. The more we look at it, the bigger it seems. We become more and more aware of this nagging sense that something is missing. We develop a compulsion to focus on that feeling. To make the feeling go away, or to “feel normal” as Kitty Harris would say, we work too much, become needy in our relationships, get addicted to things that ease the pain (which then create more pain) or do other compulsive things we hope will “fix” it. None of these things will span that gap but that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Well-meaning Christians tell us “Jesus fixes the gap.” And in one sense, yes, he does. In the most basic sense of providing a path back to God, Jesus is our bridge. But slogans like “Just give me Jesus” don’t change our circumstances, don’t take the pain away, don’t erase our compulsions. Jesus doesn’t magically fix gaps. Reducing the power and presence of Jesus to a bumper sticker makes most of us feel less normal, more shamed.

Jesus does not offer instant pain relief, gratification or escape from bad circumstances. He does offer another way of seeing the world. Jesus introduces grace into the conversation about gaps and he challenges us to learn the difference between mercy and sacrifice. He offers holiness as a pathway to “normal” as God has designed it. He calls us away from our self-centered focus on the gap so we’re able again to focus on the power and provision of a mighty, loving, good God.

In other words, Jesus doesn’t make the ideal happen, but he makes the real safe again.

Hallelujah.

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Sow extravagantly.

I’m thinking about the very familiar story in Luke, chapter eight, of the sower who goes out and sows his seed. He tosses it everywhere — on rock-infested ground, into weedy nooks, onto fertile soil, onto a well-worn path. The farmer just keeps tossing. I like picturing him as a happyMDG : Seed : Plowing a field and sowing seeds in Ethiopia man, tossing away, humming something happy, watching the clouds as he tosses without the first concern for the seeds that fall in unproductive places. He doesn’t weigh the seed or test the soil. He doesn’t prognosticate about the probabilities. He just tosses seed and smiles.

Make no mistake: this guy is a farmer, not some crazy man who has no idea what he’s doing. He knows the condition of a piece of ground when he sees it. He knows when the ground is hard. He knows the chances of something rooting in most of that soil are slim to none. But still, he just keeps tossing.

Hearing Jesus tell this story, I’m reminded of the time a woman crashed a dinner when Jesus was eating at the home of a leper (yet another thing to love about him). This woman who’d experienced great healing walked right into this person’s house and began to pour very expensive oil over Jesus’ head. This was once-in-a-lifetime oil. Precious and expensive. Far beyond her capacity to afford.

Someone said, “She ought not be wasting that expensive perfume like this. We could be feeding poor people with that money,” to which Jesus replied, “The poor are not going anywhere. If we cash in this oil and use the money to feed poor people today, they will be hungry again tomorrow. Some things just are. The trick here is in understanding the moment. What this woman is doing right now — in this moment — is beautiful. It points toward Heaven. Meals last hours; this kind of adoration is eternal. From here out wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will be talked about in memory of her.”

He was right, of course. We’re remembering her even now.

Her story and the farmer’s both point to the same truth: resources are rarely the issue. In fact, our problem may be that we are not generous enough with our resources. In our quest for efficiency, we become stingy. We over-emphasize efficiency. We want the most bang for our buck, but it turns out that the Kingdom is not about efficiency. It is about effectiveness.

Extravagance.

Let me say that again: The Kingdom is more concerned with effectiveness than efficiency.

I suspect that far too often in this work of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, resources are not the critical issue limiting our effectiveness. Faithfulness is the issue. What confines and confounds us is the limit of our own imagination. We don’t tend to honor extravagance, even when it is a holy extravagance.

I am not at all a fan of the prosperity gospel, but I do believe that we in the West don’t trust enough in God’s provision. God seems to have the ability to shift resources into the path of Kingdom work when people who are following Jesus step out in faith.

If you’ve been called to be a sower, you need to be tossing seed everywhere. Don’t hold back.

Sow extravagantly.

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Cast out demons and cure disease (or, what it means to be the Church)

We are the tabernacle of God.

The Bible tells me that when I take Christ into my life, I have the same resources available to me that the Israelites had and the Acts community had. Like them, I have the power of God. I don’t do this on my own steam. When I am filled with the Holy Spirit I receive power (Acts 1:8) —  the same power the Israelites had who fought with enemies twice their size and won, who found food enough to feed hundreds of thousands of people, who received miracle after miracle of God’s provision.

I have those same resources.

We who follow Jesus have the same resources as the followers of Jesus in Luke and Acts, who healed sick people and cured diseases and cast out demons and preached good news to the poor.

So why don’t we act like it? Why don’t I?

When the disciples came back from their first mission trip — having been sent out by Jesus to cure disease, cast out demons and proclaim the Kingdom — they complained to Jesus about a guy they’d seen who was also casting out demons. They wanted Jesus to tell this guy to stop; after all, he wasn’t one of them. You can feel the sense of competition in their comments. They also complained about some religious leaders and had the audacity to suggest that Jesus rain fire down on a few heads.

That’s when Jesus decided maybe it was time to recast the vision.

We find it in a line that isn’t actually there. Or at least it isn’t part of the earliest manuscripts. Somewhere along the way, some scribe felt the need to add a line between Luke 9:55 and Luke 9:56. Scholars give it about an average chance of being an actual word from Jesus and since it doesn’t show up in the earliest manuscripts, you won’t find it in most Bibles, but if your Bible has study notes, they probably mention this line.

As I said, it comes at a point in the story when the disciples are being sort of arrogant about the people who are not in their circle. Most Bibles say, “Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

That’s the official version.

But some manuscripts insert another sentence so that the passage reads, “But Jesus turned and rebuked them and he said, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.’ Then he and his disciples went to another village.”

What a powerful commentary! Even if Jesus didn’t say it here, he said it often, that we don’t follow Jesus not because we don’t know who to follow but because we don’t know who we are. As believers, we do not know what we’re made of. We’ve bought some lie that the spirit of Jesus is a spirit of rules and condemnation and guilt, so maybe that’s why we don’t embrace the Spirit. But it turns out — and this is good news! — the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives but to save them.

This is great news! The spirit of Jesus is a spirit of redemption!

This means that if you have received that glorious release from shame and guilt, then it becomes yours to give to the next person. You have that spirit. If you’ve been healed, then you are healed to become a healer. If you’ve been set free by knowing the truth, then you are free to share it. If that place inside of you that’s been dead for years is being brought to life again or if that relationship that was left for dead is being restored then you have received this as a gift. And the Word says, what we have freely received, we freely give.

We don’t even have a clue what kind of spirit we have, what kind of power we have to go out and change the culture, change the community, change people, change the world — to give what we’ve been given so that by the authority of Christ and under the power of the Holy Spirit the very spirit of Christ overflows from us.

We have forgotten that this good news is not ours.

This is ours to share.

 

(The image used at the head of this blog is the artwork of He Qi)

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Assume nothing.

When my daughter was seven or eight years old, I asked, “Claire Marie, why do you believe in Jesus?” She said, “Because you and daddy do.” I said, “Do you think that one day you’ll believe in Jesus all by yourself?” She said, “Maybe. When I’m forty.”

I thought that was profound.*

How many forty, fifty, sixty year olds are sitting in our churches, still waiting to have a faith of their own, who don’t even know what they don’t know?

I visited once with an elderly man dealing with depression. He was living in an assisted living home and so the folks there called and asked if I’d come visit. They told me when I got there that he wasn’t really excited about the visit, that he was a self-professing atheist. And actually, he was depressed because he thought he might die any day and he didn’t know what to think about that.

I went into his room and began to listen. He had questions, he said. He took me all the way to the beginning of time and to the end of the universe. He talked physics and biology. He was quite an intelligent man and very sharp at 91 years old. An hour into his rant, he ended up in Genesis with some obscure question about the creation story that he felt disproved everything. He wanted to know what I thought about that but by then I was out of politeness and patience.  “You don’t really want to know the answer to that question,” I said. “I suppose I could give you an adequate answer, but it won’t solve anything for you. You are 91 years old. You are going to die sooner than later. What is it you really want to know?”

And at that, this old man who claimed to be an atheist, who was angry and depressed, who had answers for everything except his own life, who had very few days left on this earth, said to me, “What do I want to know? What do I want know?” With tears in his eyes, he answered his own question. “I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart.”

Isn’t that what everyone wants to know? In all my years, I have never met anyone who didn’t want to know how to get Jesus into their heart. Maybe they don’t have the vocabulary or worldview to express it just that way, but beneath it all, that’s their hunger.

I want to know how to get Jesus into my heart. 

I want to know how to find joy and rest. I want an answer for my stress level and anxious spirit. I want the Jesus who answers the questions that keep me up at night. I want a better answer than the lies I’ve been living since childhood.

I know someone whose life has been dramatically altered by a childhood experience. She told me that more and more she’s realizing just how many of the decisions of her life have been filtered through that memory of a man whose sickness intersected with her life. Surely that guy was not following the Jesus? Maybe some of us have attached to ideas about Jesus that aren’t what Jesus himself said or believed or taught.

As preachers, the warning is well considered: assume nothing of those in your care. They may not have been given a fair account of the gospel.

As seekers of something better than what you have, this advice is sincerely offered: don’t assume the version of Jesus to which you’ve been exposed is the one Jesus himself would choose for you. Seek him for yourself.

 

*For the record, my daughter claimed her own faith far earlier than forty. Now in her twenties, she is an amazing woman of God whose faith inspires me.

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