Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What the heck is the Feast of Ascension?

What if I told you that there was a Christian holiday as big as Christmas, as big as Easter, but that most Christians don't even know about? That's the case with the Feast of the Ascension in our day.

For years I have been a follower of Jesus, but it was not until the last five years that I had ever heard of the Feast of the Ascension.  (Note:  "Feast" is a holy celebration, in contrast to "fasts" like the ones during Lent and Advent.)  But for generations, this holiday has been celebrated as one of the seven principle feasts of the Church, that is, one of the top seven most important days. 

This holiday celebrates the fact that after Jesus died, was buried, and rose again, he then ascended to heaven.  The historical account of this appears in Acts 1.  Ascension is always celebrated 40 days after Easter (see Acts 1:3), and therefore always falls on a Thursday.  But why is this so important? Why is this as big as Easter or Christmas? 

While we can't discuss every reason why the Ascension is important in this short blog post, I'll attempt to list three.  I hope these will motivate you and me to worship with our brothers and sisters around the world this Thursday.  I hope they will help us have a sense of awe about these truths, humbling our lack of vision.  I hope that they will increase our trust and hope in Jesus, as He ministers to us even to this day.  

1. Jesus is majestic:  Many want to think of Jesus as a mere man, but the Ascension of Jesus shows us that is NOT the case.  When we speak of Jesus "ascending into heaven" and "being seated at the righthand of the Father," two things are going on (at least): One, Jesus is returning to the glory that He had before the world began (See John 17:5).  Jesus is regaining the divine glory that is his, that He laid aside, in some way, when He walking around among us.  Secondly, Jesus is seen in his Ascension as taking the place of authority that He now has.  Jesus has authority over all the earth and heaven (Matt 28:18; John 17:2).  Him being seated at the Father's "right hand" is a symbol of him being in a place of great authority.  This is what we mean when we say that "Jesus is Lord."  He is the King, the Authority, the Power, under which all other authorities will eventually submit to (Isa 45:23; Rom 14:11).  Consider the power of the most powerful nations in the world, how they could literally nuke the planet into oblivion, how, if their leaders chose, they could end the lives of your and your family in an instant.  Now consider: their power and authority are just a "drop in the bucket" compared to Jesus.  (Isa 40:15).  Should we not ask such a powerful Friend for help when we are in need? 

2. A man sits on the throne of God:  This would be heresy if it weren't Bible truth!  And indeed, it is a scandalous claim for anyone who understands anything about God.  But most of us have infantile, babbling, moron-sized thoughts about God, and the scandal and the glory of this truth is lost on us.  (We are products of our day!) The Bible speaks of Jesus being God and man, and Christians have always understood this to mean that Jesus is "completely God and completely man." How this works is a mystery, but with God all things are possible.  While some people today want to make Jesus out to be merely a man, some (including many many Christians) forget Jesus's humanity!  To us, he is some spiritual, far-off Being.   But that is not the case.  Not since the Incarnation that first Christmas!  Since it is true that Jesus is both God and man, and that He sits on the throne as Lord of all (Rev 22:1), then it is correct to say that a man sits on God's throne.  This incredible truth is important to point out for several reasons.  First, it humbles our minds by stretching them beyond their capacities to understand.  This should cause us to worship!  Second, it shows that God is faithful to his promises to David (See Psalm 2 for an example), namely that God would give to one of David's sons an eternal throne.  Jesus fulfills this by gaining the eternal throne of God as a man.  What is amazing is that mankind's birthright is to rule the earth in God's way (Gen 1:26-28), but when that purpose was no longer possible because of man's sin, God in his grace, took mankind and elevated us to an even greater birthright through Jesus Christ!  Do you feel poor?  Do you feel like you don't have much?  Because Jesus, the man, sits on God's throne, and because you are in his Kingdom, you are rich in ways that are hard to imagine!  You're a citizen of the richest "country" in history! 

3. Jesus is interceding for all who follow Him:  Paul talks about Jesus's interceding for us in Romans 8:34.  This means, in part, that Jesus is praying for us to the Father.  It seems that this picture is of Jesus using his authority for the betterment of his people.  He takes all the power (#1) and authority (#2) that he has and applies that towards the good of his people.  This truth of Jesus interceding speaks to his disposition towards us who are his followers.  Yes, he could be majestic and aloof.  He could be God's King, the new Adam, and not care about us.  But the fact is that He is our Advocate (1 John 2:2), on our side.  Every Christian has friends in high places.  And we can throw all our concerns on him because he is concerned for us.  (1 Peter 5:7)  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Questions about spiritual growth

Our mission at Good Shepherd is to be a church in the Anglican tradition that is committed to inviting others to following Jesus, to growing as disciples of Jesus, and to serve wherever God sends us (or wherever he has put us!).  In the midst of all the activity of our lives and in the midst of all we do as a church, we can easily lose sight of this mission. And before I go on with this article, it may be worth it for you (and me as I write!) to stop and think: "Am I living this mission out? Am I inviting others to follow Jesus? Am I growing as a disciple of Jesus myself?  Am I serving where God has put me?"  Over the next few weeks in these "From Fr. Tom" segments, I am going to address these three aspects of our mission and how we might be able to live into them more fully.  

To start, I want to ask about "growing as a disciple of Jesus and helping others grow."  All of us need to grow as disciples of Jesus, learn to be love more and be more faithful to Jesus.  Everyone who is truly a Christian knows of areas where they need to grow because the Holy Spirit in them is convicting them of their sin.  But every one of us also has "blind spots," areas where we definitely need to grow but that we do not see.  

So, a few questions: 

1. Best as you can tell, what areas (only pick 2 or 3) do you need to grow in as a follower of Jesus? 
2. Who are you depending on to help you with your blind spots?  Does anyone have permission from you to let you know about those?
3. Finally, would you be willing to email or call or meet with me to talk about these?  As your pastor, I would absolutely love to know what areas you'd like to grow in and who is helping you with your blind spots.  I'd like to know this because I am praying for your growth, and I want to know how to pray.  And I'd like to know this so I can help you grow.  

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why is it a big deal when the Bishop comes to town?

Whenever a guest visits a church, we are called to love and greet that person regardless of who they are.  We are commanded and strongly urged to do this by God's Word in several places:   "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Heb 13:2). Elsewhere, Jesus himself tells us that when we welcome a stranger, we are welcoming him.  (Matt 25:35, 40)  And on the flip side, we are warned against showing favoritism, that is, greeting certain types of people more warmly than others:  "My brothers,show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, "You sit here in a good place," while you say to the poor man, "You stand over there," or, "Sit down at my feet," have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:1–5)

So, we must welcome every guest, regardless of whether we like them or not, whether they are like us or not.  We love everyone who comes into our doors, whether they are "big hitters" in the community or not.  Every man, woman or child who comes to our church is made in the image of God and therefore has value and worth greater than we can imagine.  

When the bishop visits our church, however, he is not a guest.  Indeed, he is not really visiting our church.  He is visiting his church.  (Truth be told, he is visiting Jesus's church, and Jesus has given him care of that church.)  The bishop is our pastor, and the local priest is his "deputized" representative.  (See Titus 1:5 and the letters to Timothy for biblical examples of bishops).  It's not unlike when parents leave for the weekend and put the oldest sibling in charge.  When the parents come back, the oldest kid goes back to being a kid.  When the parents return, they're not guests because it is their house.  Everyone celebrates their return, and the right order of things is set.  So, when our bishop comes, he loves us and cares for us, making sure we're all growing in the faith once delivered to the Church.  In the ancient church, bishops were around more often and this was not a big hurdle for anyone's understanding.  In our day though, when we have fewer bishops and when our bishops preside over larger geographical areas, we tend to forget whenever the bishop comes, it is sort of a homecoming.  And this is a reason to celebrate! 

Another reason why we make a big deal of the bishop's visit is because of what he symbolizes in his office.  Bishops are the "successors of the Apostles" and as such, they are a "sign of the church's unity in Christ."  (quotes from the ACNA Constitution and Galley's The Ceremonies of the Eucharist, p 200).  The Scriptures talk about the apostles being the foundation of the Church (Eph 2:20).  It is from the apostles that the whole Church has spread, and it is the apostle's teaching that all true Churches seek to teach and follow.  If bishops follow the doctrine of the apostle's, they are living symbols of this common foundation that all Churches share.  Thus when our bishop preaches the Word and celebrates Holy Communion in the service, we are reminded that is this same Word that all of Jesus's Churches teach and live, and it is this same Table that all of Jesus's Churches gather around.  We are reminded by the bishop's presence that we are just one small part of the world-wide, eternal Church.  THIS is a great and profound thing! And we celebrate that when the bishop comes!  

So, whenever our bishop visits, remember what we celebrate.  We are acknowledging and celebrating the order and authority and shepherding that Jesus's has given his Church, and we are remember and rejoicing in the unity that Jesus gives his whole Church.  The bishop is a sign that Jesus cares for his Church, for you and for me and all our brothers and sisters.  

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Do You Believe Bad Good-News?

The Christians relationship with God is founded on the gospel.  Gospel literally means "good news."  Our relationship with Jesus (and our very being!) is contingent on this good news.  How well we embrace this good news determines, in large part, how mature we are as believers.  Without this good news, our lives as Christians come apart at the seams.  One major part of the ministry of any church is helping members know and believe this good news so that they can know God more deeply and therefore have life that is truly life.  

Here's the problem:  most of us don't really believe the gospel... at least not fully.  Many many times we become suckers for substitute fake gospels, bad versions of the good-news.  Keep in mind, I am not talking about some people "out there."  I'm talking about you, the guy or gal reading this right now.  And I'm talking about me, the guy writing this article.

The first step, as best as I can tell, in dealing with these false gospels is to identify them, asking God to show us.  How do we do this?  Read on.  

In their book How People Change by Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp, identify seven common Christian substitutes for Jesus.  These are things, though they are not necessarily bad in themselves, but can easily become a substitute for the gospel.  Which of these do you tend towards?  Which one do you thin you're falling into right now?

1. Formalism is the outward observance of religious practice, without a changed heart and without a changed day-to-day life.  "Formalism is blind to the seriousness of my spiritual condition and my constant need for God's grace to rescue me...  [A formalist] sees church participation simply as one healthy aspect of a good life.  He has no noticeable hunger for God's help in any other area.  For him, the gospel is reduced to participation in meetings and ministries of the church."  

2. Legalism is similar to formalism, but with this added twist: a legalist thinks that various religious observances are the basis of his or her relationship with God.  You would think the legalist would have a harsher view of God, but the reality is that the legalist's god is only harsh toward the sins they don't struggle to commit.  The legalist substitutes the real Jesus for a Jesus who agrees with them all the time.  The legalist substitutes the real gospel, for a gospel where we remain completely in control.  The legalist forgets about sin and grace.  

3.Mysticism is the seeking of an experience with God.  Again, just like rules and just like forms, experiences with God aren't bad things, but when the experience becomes more important than God Himself, we've fallen into an idolatrous mysticism.  The idolatrous mystic "reduces the gospel to dynamic emotional and spiritual experiences."  Jesus gets replaced with the god of desire.  This is akin to lust.   In lust, a man seeks a woman to satisfy his desires, but, as C.S. Lewis points out, he is not really seeking a woman.  The woman is only the "apparatus" through which he pursues his desires.  Similarly, idolatrous mysticism uses God to get good feelings.  

4. Activism is defines being a Christian by activity, especially service and working for community change.  But the problem is that we don't serve a cause but a King, a Person.  And the real gospel tells us that the greatest problems we know (sin) is inside us.  "Whenever you believe that the evil outside you is greater than the evil inside you, a heartfelt pursuit of Christ will be replaced by a zealous fighting of the 'evil' around you."  Activism reduces the gospel to Christian causes.  

5. Biblicism replaces "communion, dependency, and worship of Christ" with a "drive to master the content of Scripture and systematic theology."  Biblicism seeks to make the good news about memorizing and mastering a set of knowledge, rather than a changed heart and deepened love for God and neighbor.  

6. "Psychology-ism" reduces the gospel to healing emotional hurts, rather than bringing forgiveness and repentance from sins.  Again, healing from emotional hurts is a good thing, but when it becomes the ultimate thing, we have substituted the gospel.  The real gospel sees our main problem as moral and relational, psychology-ism sees our main problem as unmet needs.  "But whenever you view the sin of another against you as a greater problem than your own sin, you will tend to seek Christ as your therapist more than you seek him as your Savior."  

7. "Social-ism" is when we make fellowship, acceptance, respect and position within the Church the reason for being a part of the Church.  This fake gospel says that when we have fulfilling relationships in the church, close friendships, we are getting what Jesus has offered us in the gospel.  Again, it is not that fulfilling relationships are a good thing that we often find in the Church, but there is always the danger of confusing the Church with the Savior.  This is because so much of what we experience as communion with Jesus comes in the context of the life of Church.  But as important as that is, we also have person and individual closeness and communion with Jesus.  Jesus forgives our own sins.   We individually respond to him with thanksgiving and love.  

Tom Bost

Senior Pastor/Rector
Church of the Good Shepherd