The Prepared Place

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Right before I spent a summer in Russia in 2009, I read a scripture from Hebrews 11:13-16, that speaks of the promises of God, being a wanderer on the earth and seeking a homeland better than a country, a desire which is satisfied in the city of God. Since that summer, my definition of home has become fluid, if not murky and inconclusive. I can relate to the longing described in those few verses in Hebrews. Like those motivated by faith, I know that this “home” Scripture speaks of is not a place I can return to, otherwise I’d go back to it, and while I am not quite sure what it is; I know it is something better than a place I go to sleep at night.

Jesus says in John 14:2-3, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Jesus goes on to tell his disciples, that the only way to get there is through Him. Jesus himself takes his people home. This home, however, is not a big spacious mansion for you to live in alone or with the family members you liked the most here on earth.

While Revelation 21 does give us some indication of the craftsmanship of the city of God, the purpose of this home is not isolated or exclusive to those we have the most in common with. In fact, the city of God invites us to quite the opposite. To Jesus, home is the gathering of all His people together including those who we may scarcely relate to outside of a mutual love for Jesus. He invites the IRS and the prostitutes (Matthew 21:31). If you relate all too well to those individuals, he invites the poor and immobile (Luke 14:21), he even invites the wealthy next generation leader (Matthew 19:20-24). Jesus prepares the place, extends the invitation, and is the avenue to Heaven through faith in his death and resurrection, demonstrated by our fully surrendered life.

It’s odd that Jesus says He prepares this place so that “where He is, we would be also.” If that is the case: why leave, Jesus? He leaves because what we have here and now is not the full extent of His or our home. He leaves us here with His Holy Spirit to prepare us for our home by making us holy while inviting others to a reconciled relationship with God. He wants us to become a hospitable people, learning to love the lowly and our enemies with the awareness that they were created to share in our home. If home is where the heart is, and where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also, then the human heart is most at home when our treasure is in Christ.

-James Passaro

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The resurrected king is resurrecting me?

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Lately on Sundays, we as a church have been singing Resurrecting by Elevation Worship during morning worship. I really like this song, and ever since I first heard it my thoughts have taken a new (and personally unexpected) direction.

Repeated in the song are the following lyrics:

By Your spirit I will rise/ From the ashes of defeat/
The resurrected king/ Is resurrecting me/

In Your name I come alive/ To declare your victory/
The resurrected king/ Is resurrecting me

What does it mean to say that the “resurrected King is resurrecting me”? The “resurrected King” part is easy for me to grasp. I believe Jesus lived, was crucified, died, and rose again.  I’ve known this since I was little. Death could not hold Christ. He died to save humanity, overcame death, and will return at some point in the future.

The new and unexpected turn for me is the idea that Jesus, this resurrected King, is resurrecting me.  The time implied by ‘resurrecting’ is now. The lyric isn’t “the resurrected king will resurrect me.” Jesus is doing it now. How can this be? I’m not dead, right?  How can I be being resurrected? This is the thought that I keep coming back to: I’m not dead, right? How could I be dead?  And if I’m not dead how could God be resurrecting me?  But something about the song keeps nagging me.  I can’t shake it. I can’t dismiss it as just a catchy tune or a fun song.  I think there’s something more, so at the risk of over-theologizing and proof-texting, let’s take a quick look!

In order for God to be resurrecting me, I would need to be dead or dying. So the first question is: Is it possible for me to be dead and alive? Short answer, no. I can’t be both dead and breathing.  But, I can be ‘dying’, and if we expand our definition of ‘death’ beyond physical death, we can be ‘dead’ [in some way] and breathing. (Sidenote: I never thought I would be surmising how I could be both ‘dead’ and alive…)

If we take Romans 3:23 (“…all have sinned…”) and 6:23 (“For the wages of sin is death…”) then we should expect our death (that is, if we remain in our sin). (Redemption and life everlasting are ours in Christ, but that’s topic for another day).  When do we get paid for our sins? The time is unspecified but if we get paid/are getting paid now then we are ‘dying’, and when we are paid in full ‘death’ will be our paycheck. It’s the long walk that all humanity shares. We in our sin are dying. But Jesus himself also says we should daily take up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23). This is also the language of death, of Christ’s own death, that we would take up our crosses and die daily. So, it seems that we are dying twofold: We are dying because we sin, and we are dying because we emulate Christ.  But this can’t refer to physical death.  We can’t physically die every day and comeback to life every morning. So what does it mean? How do these pieces fit together?

I think that Colossians 3 is helpful here.  In Colossians 3:3, Paul writes “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Let it sink in: You. Have. Died.  He goes onto explain beginning in v5 what this means—We are told to put to death our lust, our immorality, our anger, our impurity, our obscenities, etc, etc. In short, because we have died and our life is with God we are to put away that which is unholy. Our ‘deadness’ is a deadness to unholiness, to impurity, to sin.

As we die to our unholiness, to our fleshly tendencies, it is here, I believe, where we find resurrection. God has made the way of life for us. If we are dying in our sin, so much more are we alive in Christ who saves and redeems us.  God makes known to us the path of life (Psalm 16:11; see also John 6:48).  And as we take up our cross daily, and in our death cast off our impurity, we are made anew—resurrected—daily. We are resurrected to a fullness of joy, to peace, to patience, to love, to kindness, to mercy and grace. We are everyday resurrected into the loving arms of our Savior.  God’s mercies are new every morning.

To me, saying ‘the resurrected King is resurrecting me’ is to say that Jesus makes the way of life for us every single day. It acknowledges that we are sinners in need of salvation from sin and death. It acknowledges that we who believe in Jesus Christ are called to cast off our impurity and strive every day to live holy lives. It cries out that God loves us and every day tirelessly pursues a relationship with us. It is a testament that our God is bigger than death and ‘deadness’—that we are not beyond redemption. (And it foreshadows a time not yet when we are resurrected from our physical deaths into eternal relationship with God.) We are every day experiencing God’s love because we die and live in Jesus Christ.

My thoughts are still budding on this, but I’ll keep thinking on it! I hope you will, too!

-Daniel Debelak

Guest Spot: John Piper’s, “The Fierce Fruit of Self-Control”

 

sneakersIn keeping with our current sermon series on discipline, The Disciplined Disciplebelow is a link to a post by John Piper about fiercely going after self-control. We encourage you to give it a read and dwell on it prayerfully! You can find the link below.  We’d also love to hear your thoughts on this article and others.  Comment below!

We will be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week.

“Self-control is saying no to sinful desires, even when it hurts…”

“Fundamental to the Christian view of self-control is that it is a gift. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit…”

The Fierce Fruit of Self-Control – John Piper

 

 

Years of Mercy

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I saw a sign driving recently that read, “Year of Mercy.” It stopped me because of the association I have with the word mercy. I love the implications of the mercy as a loyal love. Pope Francis declared last Easter that 2016 would be a year of mercy. Quoting theologian Cardinal Kasper, he said that mercy itself “is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just. We need to understand properly this mercy of God, this merciful Father who is so patient.”

Mercy implies a love that continues to be given even when the receiver of that love does not deserve it. For mercy to even exist, it assumes that the one receiving love has either not been loyal or has little to give in return. We would not need mercy if it were not for our disloyalty and insufficiency. While grace is the reason we thrive, mercy is why God allows us to even live.

Mercy keeps our heart beating and lungs breathing when both should have stopped the first time we disobeyed God. Yet the fascinating thing about mercy is after experiencing the mercy of God toward us, He expects us to show mercy to others. Scripture tells us that the expression of mercy is the demonstration of the Christian’s victory in Christ over the judgment we deserve. James 2:13 reads, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” This verse provides us with a choice and it should be a relatively easy one. When one chooses not to show mercy, judgment is not withheld. Yet mercy triumphs over judgment. It is confident in its superiority over judgment so much so that it always assumes mercy is the right choice.

However, if we are being honest with ourselves there are instances that even in the light of the mercy we have received it is hard to extend mercy to those who have hurt us or disappointed us. This, I believe, is why God gave us the OT book of Hosea. God tells Hosea to marry a prostitute and to have children, the first of which they named Lo-ruhama which means “she has not received mercy” (Hos 1:6). God gives the child that name to demonstrate how the unfaithfulness of Israel is warrant for God to withhold mercy. Yet, God who is rich in love ultimately desires to show mercy to His people and relent in His judgment. His priority is always mercy over judgment. But God does not give what His people refuse to receive and likewise give. Following this model, may 2016 and the years to come be times in which we receive and give mercy with open arms.

-James Passaro

A Taste of God’s Goodness

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The table is set. My plate is piled full—juicy meats, creamy sides, tender bright veggies. The warm, heavenly aroma wafts up to my nose. I sigh happily. It’s time to eat. I take the first bite. It’s tender, juicy, savory, salty, delicious. I slip away into a happy reverie… and then my father’s voice snaps me back to reality, “Did you pray, yet?” I’m caught—deer in headlights. I manage to squeak out a muffled “Nawhp” between chews. My dad smiles, “Don’t forget to pray.”

If it wasn’t my dad, it was my mom (and sometimes my younger brother), always reminding me to give thanks before I chow down. Food to me is comforting, relaxing, satisfying, and always makes me feel at home. I love it. I love to eat. I love food. So much so, that I forget to think about where it comes from or what it means or that not everyone has enough of it.   So, I decided to put my fork down, take a step back, and think about food in relation to my faith. This is what I’ve come up with so far.

Food is a sign of God’s grace, provision, and love.

From the very beginning, God showed love for humanity by providing us with food to nurture our physical beings. In the Garden of Eden, humanity was supplied by God with every “seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it” (Gen 1:29). Later, after humanity’s fall and in the face of grievous sin, God continued to provide. Having rescued humanity through Noah, in this ‘remade’ creation, we were given all creatures as food in addition to what God had already provided (Gen 9:3). Further, having been redeemed from the shackles of slavery in Egypt, God provided manna and quail for an entire nation of ingrates and complainers (Ex 16). In 1 Kings 17, God sent ravens to feed the prophet Elijah, and in the Gospels Jesus miraculously fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fish (Lk :10-17). Time and time again, God provides for the people, for us. This provision, this grace, this love, culminates in Jesus’ self-declaration that he is the Bread of Life (John 6:35). With this declaration comes a promise—an enduring promise that continues to this day—that we who believe in Jesus need not go hungry. Through the greatness of his love, our bodies and our spirits can always be made full.

Food is an expression of worship.

What then are we to do in response to this great love that God has shown to us? It is our responsibility to respond with thanksgiving, gratitude, and humility in the face of so great a grace. In the Old Testament period, food is frequently found in ritual sacrifice and offerings. Leviticus contains chapter after chapter of instruction on what animals and grains to offer and how to offer them and covers just about every type of situation you can imagine. Offerings of peace? Check. Guilt offerings: Check. Sin offerings? Check. Can’t afford a sheep? We have a special bird or a grain for that. You name it, God has instructions for it.

We are even instructed to perpetually remember God’s deliverance of the people from slavery in Egypt with the Passover feast. God instructs us to eat as an expression of worship. In Communion, this same Passover feast becomes the model the contemporary church recalls to remember what Jesus did for us on the cross. The Bread of Life given for us is broken that we might have life (See Lk 22:19). We celebrate this as we worship in Communion. The food that God provides for the well being of the people becomes the lifeblood of the community worshipping the God who provides. All we have comes from God and to God should return.

Food reconciles us to one another and builds community.

Fellowship is among the greatest gifts we are given. I can think of no easier way to get to know someone or connect more deeply with someone than sharing a meal. Even something as simple as a few minutes and a cup of coffee goes a long way. There is something unique about sharing food. It’s a universal language. When you open up your home (or your wallet) to someone, take time to be with them, and share your life (and your food) with them, it brings you together. In Acts, the budding New Testament church went from house to house eating together and praising God (Acts 2:46-47). In the Gospels, Jesus shares meals with disciples and strangers alike. He even goes so far as to eat with outcasts and sinners, inviting them into community with him (Mk 2:15). There is something special about eating and sharing with one another. When we do so, it strengthens the existing bonds in our community and also gives us an opportunity to invite new people into fellowship. Who’d turn down a free meal?!

As we recognize what God has given us, and how we are cared for, we have the opportunity and responsibility to respond worshipfully. We are to recognize, remember, and glorify God for what we have. And we have a responsibility to share that with our fellows, with outcasts, with the broken, the hurting, and those in need. As God provides for us, we in turn should share that provision with others.

I still forget to pray before I eat. I’m working on it. But my hope is that I will never forget how good my God is. I hope that when I am warm and stuffed after a good meal, or when I have overindulged at a holiday, that I will not forget how much my God cares for me. All I have comes from God. It is my responsibility to remember this, to appreciate God’s goodness, to come together with my sisters and brothers in fellowship, to care for those who are in need, and to show God’s goodness to all.

-Daniel Debelak

Good old days?

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Ecclesiastes 7:10 “Don’t long for the good old days.  This is foolish.”

In my daily Bible reading, this passage jumped at me from the blue-tinted screen of my computer.  As a young lead pastor I am often seen as the steam roller of all “good old days” in the church.  I often forego a tie, use a new Bible translation (NLT), and rarely open a hymnal.  My decisions have been misunderstood as contentious or careless as I have changed forms and objects that have served beautifully in bringing people closer to God.  Much of the change I bring lacks a reverence to these existing church structures that I cannot deny.

I want to be clear: I love what God has done in our church and the faithfulness of those who have served over the years.  Everything we build today stands on the shoulders of those who have come before us. My great-grandmother attended small church meetings in the city of Trenton that would become the church I serve at today. By God’s grace, our youth ministry believed in and told a scrawny 14 year old that God saw value in him and wanted a relationship. These paved the way for the many opportunities I have had to serve God in this community.   I have performed the funerals of many saints who have loved me in word and in deed.  I am grateful for every prayer and every sacrifice made.

I am so grateful for what God has done that I refuse to let it remain in the past.  I believe God when he says in Isaiah “For I am about to do something new.  See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?” (Isaiah 43:19 ) The God that reigned over our good old days is alive and well today.  He is moving ahead of us and pointing toward his next great work in the local and global Church.  But, we won’t be able to see what he is doing today when we are too busy looking behind at what he has done.  There are generations living now who need to know that there is healing from brokenness in Jesus Christ.  There are global issues today that need the transformative voice of the Gospel.  Where can the church move and be effective in the near future?

I serve a revitalization church.  Our heart is to connect our legacy with our future through the values, rather than the methods, that make Christian community work.  Carey Nieuwhof calls this “confusing the mission and the method”.  For the church, our mission is always sacred, our method never is.  Our mission is to know God and to make him known (John 17:3).  How we accomplish this can have as many expressions as people on earth, but we have one mission.  This mission not only unites us as a community, but also draws us together with all those who have come before us.  We have all been saved by grace and are working to make this same grace known to others.

When our mission becomes the most important, it makes all of our methods, past successes, and current preferences shrink in comparison to the scope of the mission and the size of our God.  I do lack reverence for past methods.  I don’t serve them.  I serve our Savior and the mission to make him known.

-Pastor Brian