Please persuade me

Version 2I’m a preacher. Something of a frustrated one currently. Most Easter Sundays see me preaching. And if you only ever hear me on this day, you might think I’m a one trick pony. The topic is always the same. Resurrection. Jesus coming back from the dead. The empty tomb. Appearances to the women. Dealing with doubting Thomas. The hope of eternal life. Why death is not all there is. Being prepared for your future beyond your future.

If you get along to church on an Easter Sunday morning, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you are going to get. And if you are the preacher at that church, there’s a pretty good chance you know what you should give. It will be about Jesus. The one who died is no longer dead. There is real hope for humanity. We can know our creator. We can receive his forgiveness. We can be adopted into his family. We can trust him in life and in death. Life can be better—not freedom from suffering, but genuine hope in our suffering. Life can have meaning—not simply protons, neutrons, electrons—life with God, shaped and transformed by God.

Easter is familiar. Like birthdays and Christmas are familiar. It comes around every year. We know what to expect, and we know what to give. It’s comfortable.

So, let me plead with you, preacher. Don’t just preach another sermon tomorrow. Don’t give me extraneous facts. Don’t show me how well you know your Bible. Don’t parrot out the same message you wrote for another gathering a decade ago. Don’t read your manuscript like any other lecture. Don’t make it about you—make it about Jesus. And make it about me, and how much you want me to know Jesus. Persuade me. Implore me. Urge me. Don’t give me reason to ignore you, to tune out, to scan my Facebook. Call on me to take this with deathly seriousness. Prove to me how much this matters to you. Show me how much you care—about me and your message.

Don’t you dare simply go through the motions. Preacher, if you’re not persuaded, then pull out now. Tomorrow you will have people turn up to listen to you. Please don’t let them down. Persuade them. Show some passion.

Stop now and pray. Ask God to speak through you. Pray that you will be captivated by the love of Christ. Call on God to fill you with the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Humble yourself and seek God’s help for your privileged task of declaring that Jesus is alive today.

When I turn up to church to hear what you have to say, please persuade me. Make me so glad I came.

Be like the Apostle Paul…

As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women.
(Acts 17:2-4)

Fact or fantasy

You head to the local library looking for a book to read over the long weekend. Something with drama, mystery, intrigue, torture, murder. You want to read about some allegations of grave robbery, insider plots, religious corruption, political power plays. And you’re keen to spice it up with some angels and demons, astrology, ghostly appearances, the spiritual underworld, ancient signs, the dead coming to life, and claims to divinity. “Where will I find something?” you ask.

matthewThe librarian brings you a book. It’s a little bit dusty. Doesn”t get borrowed too often. You look at the cover and it says Holy Bible. She opens it for you and points to The Gospel of Matthew. Where did she get it from? Is this Fact or Fantasy? Is it found in Fiction or Non-fiction? Is it History or Legend? Biography or Novel? Was it next to Harry Potter and The Twilight series, or was it down with The Works of Josephus and Suetonius?

What do you think?

Reading these requirements sounds like we’re dealing with fiction and fantasy, not history and reality. This is the kind of stuff you find in airport novels, B grade movies, low rating TV dramas. It’s not the kind of book you take seriously. Or is it?

I can tell you most people don’t. Even in many churches. The last 100 years or more has seen embarrassed churchy people talking these things down. Bishops denying that Jesus was born to a virgin. Theologians writing books claiming that Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead. It’s just his idea that lives on and that’s what we mean by resurrection. Many will say, it doesn’t matter one way or the other. The ideas are nice, they’re moral, they’re a good story, they’re nice for children. And hey, we get a few public holidays, so don’t worry about it!

Let me be open with you. Unless this is non-fiction, historical, factual, and continues to have relevance, then I’ve backed a complete loser. I’ve invested all my hopes, plans, priorities, aspirations, on this being truth. When I discovered that I had a terminal illness, the weight of these issues became enormous. I experienced doubts, fears, and confusion. I had big questions. Real questions, not just theoretical or ideological questions. They were intense, existential, of utmost significance. I engaged in investigation and reinvestigation. I had bet my life on this. Is it true?

I hadn’t just staked my future on this being real. I’d been living my life on the basis that it is. I’d been teaching that this book explains life. I’d been calling others to take it seriously. I’d been an advocate, an ambassador, a preacher of these things. Was I a fraud? Inadvertently even? Am I mistaken? Some say it doesn’t matter. I say it does!

In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, one of the first Christian preachers had this to say about the substance of the events described in the gospels:

14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

This is not just the idea of Christ living on, keeping his memory alive, but his physical bodily resurrection. Real death followed by real coming back to life. If it didn’t happen then there’s no point me trusting that it did or trying to persuade people that it still matters.

15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead.

If these things are simply one big misunderstanding then the early Christians were guilty of perjuring themselves. They were liars, perpetuating myths about Jesus, brainwashing people with ridiculous notions. And therefore I’m guilty of doing much the same thing. Gullible, deluded, or just plain deceptive.

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

When it comes to death – and let me tell you this is something that I take very seriously – I believe what happens afterwards really matters. If there is a God, and he takes me seriously, and I’m asked to give an account for how I’ve treated Him, then my only hope is in Christ dealing with my sins in his body on the cross. No point claiming I’ve been good. I haven’t. No point backing my religious behaviour. It’s pathetic. My hope is only in Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection. If this didn’t happen, then I don’t have a leg to stand on before God.

18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.

There’s no hope for countless people who’ve already gone to their grave believing in Jesus. And what about those who’ve done so at gun point, who’ve been burned alive, crucified upside down, or thrown to lions? When all they had to do was change their minds! Recant! All they had to say was “No, I don’t really believe it!” They could have lived.

19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

What a waste! Why would you spend your life living for a fiction, trying to persuade others. It’s really pretty sad! In fact, we may as well take these words seriously…

32 If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

That’s right. No point wasting my life on God, Jesus, hoping for resurrection, and a life beyond the grave. May as well simply focus on and enjoy what I’ve got now, because that’s all there is, and it’s not going to last that long.

What do I believe? I believe in the death of Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I believe in the ongoing significance of these events. I believe that my sin against God has been dealt with and that I have real hope for all eternity. As it says in 1 Corinthians 15:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

I believe the evidence needs to be considered carefully. Weighed up seriously. These events make sense of promises written centuries before. They tie in so well with the words of the Bible that predicted them happening. When these words were first written, it was less that a generation after the events described. There were people alive who claimed to be eye-witnesses to the resurrected Jesus. You could question and cross examine them.

Cephas (Peter) had spent so long with Jesus, he was hardly likely to be mistaken. The twelve weren’t expecting him to appear. They were cowering in a room, in fear of their lives, after Jesus was killed. Five hundred people claimed to have seen Jesus on one occasion. You can’t explain this as mass hallucinations. And you could have asked some of them about who and what they saw. James, the brother of Jesus, would have been hard to convince. Not to mention Thomas, who wouldn’t believe without physical evidence. And Paul (or Saul as he used to be known) was so persuaded of the resurrection that he went from imprisoning Christians to joining them in prison. I understand a few lawyers would love this quality of evidence.

And then there’s the circumstantial evidence. How do you explain the missing body? The empty tomb? The wrong tomb? Surely, they’d just go to the next one. The authorities stole the body? All they had to do to stop the early Christians was produce it. The disciples stole the body and pulled off a conspiracy? Likely! A pathetic bunch of eleven cowards overthrowing imperial guards and then perpetuating lies that they go on to die for? Surely, at least one would have cracked to save himself!

There are many more pieces to the puzzle. Lot’s more circumstances to consider carefully. They keep pointing me to the conclusion that the accounts of Jesus are non-fiction, factual, historical records of real events. And these events are worth staking your life on.

This Easter, please consider.

Hey barista

This post is for my two baristas this morning…

photo[1]Thank you for your coffee, and the second one! I’d contemplated making myself a coffee this morning, but my machine was off, I only had a few beans, and I didn’t have time. So discovering you guys as I walked to work was a bonus!

Sorry I didn’t have any money. I’d left my wallet in the jeans I was wearing yesterday. It was nice of you to offer to barter, but I didn’t really have anything I could part with. And then you were so generous – offering me lunch! Bananas, plums, rolls! I couldn’t take anything because I’d already picked up the lunch my wife left on the bench.

You seemed surprised when I told you I was a pastor. Maybe you don’t meet too many! And then suggesting I could offer you a blessing in exchange for a coffee! But your next suggestion was a cracker…

How about free entry to heaven?!!

Not sure how powerful you think I am or what influence I have, but as I said, I can’t give you that. BUT it is available! Truly! There are free tickets on offer. Paid for already. It’s what Easter is all about. Good Friday, the day Jesus died, is the day the entry fee to heaven was paid. For you. For me. For all who will trust Jesus. So if you’re serious about getting in, then I’d recommend you take a good look at Jesus. Best place to look is in the Bible. I’d suggest reading the Gospel of Mark.

I know you were surprised when I came back with the money. You probably get lots of people pretending to be pastors who have left their wallets at home, asking for free coffees! And you were probably even more surprised when I told you that I wanted to give you a blessing too. Those two books called A Fresh Start that I gave you were written by a good mate of mine. It’s a pretty clear explanation of what being a Christian is all about. The book explains how entry to heaven is possible and why it’s free. Please check it out. And I hope you like the Chuppa Chups too. I’m not allowed to eat sugar any more.

Not sure if you’ll get to read this, but I hope you will.

Great coffee too, by the way. I’ll be back for another! Have a great day.

The pride of planting churches

A message to my tribe…

Church growth used to be all the rage in Christian circles a few years back. All the focus was on how to make your church bigger and bigger. If you really wanted to be successful,  you aspired to have a mega church one day!

Now it’s church planting. Church planters are the rock stars of the ministry world. Sure, anyone can maintain a church, some can even get a church to grow, but if you really want to get recognised, then you plant a new one.

Ministers used to get together and compare the size of their churches. We’d come away feeling smug or depressed, depending how we ranked against others. Now the accolades come from planting churches. How many churches has your church planted? Oh, you haven’t? When do you plan to? What, seriously, you’ve really planted 10 churches? Wow!

We used to get stroppy because the church down the street grew massive while we struggled. They’re all going there because of the music, the teaching, the youth program, the coffee machine. Now we get annoyed at anyone who wants to plant a new church in our backyard. Why do we need a new church here? Why don’t they go somewhere they’re really needed?

The truth is, I love church. And not half as much as God does. But all this stuff about church planting, or church growth, can be a massive worry. It can show up how pride-filled and pathetic we are. So much of it has to do with me… my ministry, my reputation, my church, my denomination, my ambitions.

What about what God is doing? Where does God fit in? What does God value? What does God expect from us? I wonder what God thinks of our petty politics, our jealousy, our pride? Truth is, I do know, and I’m embarrassed to say that it doesn’t always paint me or others in a good light.

Easter is a good time to focus again on what matters most. As the Apostle Paul wrote:

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers… (1 Corinthians 15:1-6, my emphasis.)

It’s not about what we do. It’s about what God has done in Jesus Christ. A death on a cross. Resurrection appearances and an empty tomb. Forgiveness of sins. Salvation by grace alone. Hope for eternity.

It’s possible to plant churches, it’s possible to grow churches, without anything eternally significant happening. Sometimes, it’s simply people moving locations, joining new clubs, shuffling the deck, making our lives more convenient, starting your own adventure.

Worrying about a new church being planted nearby can be a strong indicator that we’ve lost the plot. We’re more concerned with our show than we are with people getting to know Jesus. Surely, we must rejoice at every person who hears the good news and responds! What matters is their rescue, not who’s in our ship.

Don’t we long for people to hear and respond to the message of the first Easter? Discovering real life through Jesus? And when that happens we have God to thank. How fantastic when that happens in our own backyard! How awesome when it happens in neighbouring suburbs or far off places! And how exciting when these people are gathered into churches – whether they’re new church plants, growing mega churches, or something else altogether!

Remember, it’s not my church, your church, our church, or their church. It’s God’s church. It’s the church of Jesus Christ.

To God be the glory, great things He has done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
Who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
And opened the life gate that all may go in.
(F.J. Crosby 1875)

Good Friday and the curse of cancer

Cancer has been front and centre this last week. Relay for Life on the weekend, with cancer survivors and carers, and the memory of loved ones now gone. Surgery today for our niece to remove any traces of melanoma. A funeral this morning for my friend’s mum, who lost her brief battle with lung cancer. Not long before there was Tony Grieg, and then Peter Harvey, and there have been so many others. Mums and dads, grandparents, cousins, uncles, children, bosses, neighbours, colleagues, passing acquaintances. Cancer is a cancer on our world. It invades our lives. It breaks our hearts.

Next Friday is Good Friday. A strange day, when we remember a man dying. In fact, I remember two men dying on this day. On Good Friday 2007 – it was the 6th April – I lost a good friend. He was only 29 years of age. He’d only been married for two years. We’d go to the gym together. He was my neighbour. He stood in the rain and helped us bury our family pet. He’d encourage me with stories – all true. He was my brother in Christ. Cancer took hold of my friend and it didn’t let go. I’d conducted his wedding and, soon after, I conducted his funeral.

It’s not right that a parent should have to view the death of their child.
It’s not right that a wife should lose a husband after only 2 years of marriage.
It’s not right that a man shouldn’t live to see his 30th birthday.

It’s not right. God knows it’s not right. I wondered, after my friend’s passing, if we’d be able to look on Good Friday as good ever again. How could it be good when every Easter we’d be reminded of the death of our friend, or husband, or son?

crossWe need to reflect on the death of the other man. He’s the reason we call it Good Friday. Jesus, who wasn’t much older than my friend. Jesus, who never married. Jesus, whose mother looked on in anguish at his death. Not a good Friday for Jesus. Nailed on a wooden cross. Between two criminals. Publicly ridiculed. Despised and rejected. Forsaken by his followers. Crying out, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The worst of Fridays. The brutal execution of an innocent man. A genuinely good man. A just and merciful, compassionate and courageous man. But even more, this man Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, and the Saviour. He was Immanuel, God with us. The death of Jesus was no accident. God wasn’t ambushed by the might of the Jews or Romans. There was a plan, a costly plan, a purpose to the death of Jesus. Something that would turn the worst of Fridays into the best day ever.

God had promised this day, centuries before, through the prophet Isaiah:

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
on him, on him. (Isaiah 53:2-6 The Message)

On that first Good Friday, Jesus took our sin upon himself and he bore the punishment. He paid the price. He won our forgiveness, our freedom, our life with God. As Jesus hung on that cross, it should’ve been me… and you. Jesus, the Righteous One, took the judgment we deserve. He endured it, himself, so that we don’t have to.

It’s because of that first Good Friday, that we can look on the day my friend died as a very good day. My friend knew the forgiveness of sins that comes through Jesus. He trusted Jesus, not only in his life, but unto death. He knew the significance of Good Friday and the sure hope of Resurrection Sunday. As I saw the lifeless body of my friend in the hospital on Good Friday, I recognised that he was no longer there. He’d already departed. He was now with his Saviour. Death no longer had hold on him. Cancer did not have the final word. That word belonged to Jesus.

Merry Christmas

20121223-180522.jpgHere’s the Times Square Christmas message from the American Atheists. And I agree! The only problem is they put the captions with the wrong pictures.

The crucifixion of Jesus is no myth. It’s well attested in biblical and non-biblical historical sources. The baby born at Christmas grew up and gave his life to bring us good news of great joy – that bad people can receive God’s amazing gift of forgiveness. That’s the truly merry news of Christmas.

On the other hand, the Santa story grows more powerful every year. Maybe once upon a time there was a Saint Nick. I don’t know? But I do know that today there are millions. No shopping mall can be without one. And they all perpetuate the same myth – be good and you get presents. Trouble is we’re not. But why spoil a good myth for the sake of truth and real joy at Christmas?