Seven Words for Pastors – #4 “Words” – John 6:68

 

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

“Come, all you who are thirsty,

come to the waters;

and you who have no money,

come buy and eat!

Come buy wine and milk

without money and without cost.

Why spend money on what is not bread,

and your labor on what does not satisfy?

Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,

and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.”

Isaiah 55:1,2

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     The fifth word comes after a long section on Jesus as the bread giver and Jesus as the bread of life.

     It begins with the great crowd who had followed Jesus out to the wilderness.  We worry if our people have to walk from the far end of the parking lot, but these people left home and traveled to the wilderness to see Jesus on the far side of the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus gave a test to the disciples.  “How shall we feed this crowd?”  They had no money.  The best they could do was a boy’s lunch.  That was so small that to share it was insignificant.  That is, until Jesus changed the arithmetic.

He had the people sit down in groups and he blessed the lunch and began to divide it.  God multiplied the loaves and the fish so the people had more than enough.

This sign was clear.  If Caesar can offer bread and circuses, this man can make bread out of nothing?  So they rose up to make him King by force.

This is very impressive ministry.  Jesus drew the crowd by his teaching, and he fed the crowd, tending to their felt needs.  They saw his power and wanted to make him King over their lives.  Surely this is the point where John will write, “and they lived happily ever after.”

Instead, Jesus withdrew to the wilderness.

Later after the crowd found Jesus again, now on the other side of the lake, they came to him.  Here began a dialogue between Jesus and the people.

“What must we do?” they asked. Jesus said to believe him.

“What sign will you do to make us believe in you?”  As if the feeding was not enough sign.  Moses gave manna day after day in the wilderness, could Jesus give daily bread to them?

    Jesus answered that he was the true bread was that which gives them life.

They asked for the bread, and Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.  He who comes to me will never go hungry and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.  But….you still do not believe.”

The crowd began to murmur about this man whom they knew from childhood.  He grew up right around this place.  How could he say he is the bread of heaven?

Jesus made it harder for them, he said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…..This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world.”

They were stunned at these words, and he made them harder to accept.  “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you….”

The disciples even began to waver.  “Who can accept this teaching?” they said to themselves.

Then many of this numbered crowd left.  He turned to the Twelve and said, “Do you want to leave too?”

Simon Peter answered, and this is our fourth word:

“Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

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    I can only imagine what Jesus would have heard from the consultants, the denominational officials, the financial officers and the workshop leaders if this were a contemporary story:

“All these “seekers” had overcome obstacles that should have kept them away.  We really will have to address the issues of accessibility  and publicity as well.  But they had come a great distance.  And it was a good idea to feed them.  People feel comfortable eating, and it shows concern for them.  You met them at their felt-need.

But why were you so negative?  Why did you say things that were so hard to understand?  Why did you offend their sensibilities?  Why did you drive them away?  We will have to work on your communication skills in the future.

You had them in the palm of your hand.  Do you know how rare it is to have the people united around anything?  But you threw away this opportunity.  I suppose it is not to late to repair the damage……”

The only thing I can imagine that Jesus would say to these men is what he said to the Twelve:

    “Do you want to leave too?”

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    All this conversation had to do with bread.  America has led the way in ruining bread.  It really started with bleached white flour.  Before WWI white flour was gotten by screening out the part of the ground wheat that was not wanted – all that dark gritty stuff in whole wheat flour.  In order to be able to transport and store flour in large quantities for long periods of time, white flour was also bleached.  This bleached flower was fine and could be stored safely for months.

The trouble is that wheat, as God created it and man developed it by his cultivation, was a pretty complete food.  Within the grain was starch, oil fiber  vitamins and minerals.  The process of sifting out the white from the whole wheat leaves the fiber and the oils out.  The process of bleaching what is left removes all the remaining vitamins and minerals.  The result is a form of starch and little more.

This flour after the war was put on the commercial market and the result was Wonder Bread.  Now what is wonder bread?  It is made of bleached white flour.  We all learned in the school lunch room that a kid can squish a slice of wonder bread down to a very small ball of dough.  In order that this bread can be nutritious, the vitamins and minerals that were removed in the process of making the flour were added back in.  Thus we have a bread with vitamins and minerals that build bodies in twelve ways.

What God gave us we changed, stripped of it’s original value, made it more convenient and profitable and added back in some of what was lost.

We Americans have led the way in doing the very same thing to the Bread of Life.  We have taken Christ, and the Scriptures and found ways to make them more manageable.  We have found how to store them in larger quantities and to gather them in larger amounts.  To do this we have had to remove some things.  We have removed the offensive and the uncomfortable.  The stuff that is dark and gritty.  Then because what we have left is so lacking in God-given nutritional value, we add back in artificially produced vitamins.

We have produced large churches where people can not possibly know each other by name or face, and so we create artificial fellowship groups, care groups, community groups and discipleship groups to put back in what was taken out.

We have turned these large churches increasingly into audiences.  And so we have to develop measurement tools to find the gifts and personality profiles of those we try to recruit into leadership.

We have taken out the Old Testament for the most part, along with the hard sayings of Paul and Jesus on judgment and holiness.  We have extracted from the books God had written little booklets of 6 to 8 lessons, principles, or sermons which give us crumbs off the loaf.

    Jesus would say to us as well, “do you want to leave too?,” except that we have already mostly left.

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       Jesus knew the crowd for what it was.  After his popularity began, it is written, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men.  He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in man.”  2:24,25

That is why he departed when they wanted to make him king.  That is why his answers were difficult.  He did not want easy mis-believers.  He wanted those who would come to him because in him they could find the words of life.

The problem for pastors is this.  We do not want to offend people by our own style or words or methods.  Yet we can not avoid the offense that is caused by the Word of God itself.  How do we discern the difference between our offense and the offense of the Gospel?

Elsewhere Jesus had confrontations with the Pharisees and the Sadducees.

The Pharisees were rigorous rule-makers.  They liked to make rules in addition to the rules of scripture.  If God said not to work on the Sabbath, they developed and defended hundreds of other rules to interpret God’s word.  But Jesus said, to them, “You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”  And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions.”  Mark 7:8,9.

In  another place he said, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

Those who want to make the burden of receiving Christ light, and who want to make the taste of the Gospel sweet, have warned us against laws and commands.  However, Jesus did not say that there were no commands or laws to present to the people.  He said that the Laws of God should not be added to.  What God has given should not be made burdensome.  He said, “My burden is light.”  Even so, there is a burden.  His issued commands: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

We should not be against the demands of discipleship, but only against those we have made ourselves.

The Sadducees had no time for Scripture.  They were upper class power brokers.  The High Priests came from their ranks.  The religious rules and squabbles of the common rabble were not for them.

Some of them came to Jesus with a sophomoric question, about marriage in Heaven.  He told them off: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the Power of God.”  Mt 22:29

We in the church who want to be power brokers, and who long to be seen as professionals who deal only in excellence, are constantly tempted to diminish the Scriptures.  Quoting the Bible has less punch with the powerful people and the beautiful people than quoting a song or a scholar.

The only tools we have are ourselves, yielded as instruments of righteousness, the Word of God and prayer.

If the word is sharp, we shouldn’t try to dull it down or it won’t be able to do it’s work.  If the word is tender, we should not be callous toward those who need to hear it.

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John 6 – Dialogue in 7 Parts

breadJohn 6:22-72 contains a “discourse” to use the common description  that is more like a dialogue or even a press conference.  The questioners change from the crowd, to the opponents, to the disciples to finally Jesus.  They are tied to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000, which is the only miracle of Jesus contained in all 4 gospels.  The people start by looking for free bread and perhaps a new leader.  By this dialogue form of question and answer, Jesus moves the topic to the big question: What are you going to do with me?

Here is how I break out the text, based in this case on the NIV – 84.  The crucial questions are underlined and the gist of the answers are highlighted.  Peter’s final response is the climax of the dialogue and the point of the passage.

John 6:22-72

1. Seeking

22 The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23 Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

 25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”

26 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”

2. Working

28 Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

29 Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

3. Believing

30 So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?31 Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”

32 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

34 “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40 For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”

4. Doubting

41 At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”42 They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?

43 “Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God. ’Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. 48 I am the bread of life49 Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

5.  Offending

52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

53 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

6.  Grumbling

60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. 64 Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65 He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

7.  Deciding

67 You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve.

68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

70 Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!” 71 (He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)

 

Believing & Receiving in John’s Gospel

tapestry

Another thread, a very prominent one, is the idea of Believing.    It appears first in John 1:12 and then appears repeatedly through the book.

Also, there are a variety of images or metaphors for belief that fall under ways to “receive”  Christ: Believe, Receive, Drink, Eat, Let in, Come to Christ, Come to Light and so forth.  These, it seems to me, are best read in the light of each other.

Here is a worksheet I will be using in the adult class.  Feel free to take it and follow the threads.

Worksheet – 4.BelievingReceiving

Clearly John presents a biography of Jesus which calls for the response of faith.  The result of faith is to receive eternal life.  Eternal life is not merely a future event (i.e. “going to heaven”) but also a present experience.   The result of not receiving him by faith is to remain under condemnation.

John 20:30-31 NIV – 84

30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

7 Words for Pastors – #3 “Sinners”

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

III.  Sinners   John 4:16

 Here are two Chicago stories.

A group of us joined with others to make a bus load of men to go the  Chicago Promise Keepers.  There we would be challenged, as we well knew, to practice racial reconciliation.  As we were traveling through Chicago to our hotel on the lake front, the bus driver took a short cut through the South Side.  We traveled along 58th Street, in a pretty rough part of town.  All along the trip to this point the men in the bus had been talking and laughing.  But as we traveled along 58th Street the bus became silent as we looked out at the boarded up stores, the graffiti, the empty lots and the peculiar people standing about on the street corners.  I could feel the tension in the bus.  Many had never traveled though a place like 58th Street.  Many were silently praying, “Lord, please don’t let this bus break down.”  As soon as we got close to the lake and the neighborhood changed again, the talk and the joking resumed.

 Years before on the South Side of Chicago my urban seminary class took a tour of one of the high rise public housing buildings.  We were led in this by a powerful black woman preacher named Hattie. She took us into a few apartments of people she knew.  I remember one scene in particular.  Hattie saw a man she recognized on the street.  His looked told all that he was an alcoholic and his staggering gait told us that he had been drinking.  She hailed him by name, and when he came close, she said, “John, when are you going to quit ruining your life and come back to the Lord?” And she prayed for him right on the spot.

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 The Third word is John 4:16

“Jesus told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’”

 We know the text well.  Jesus did not bypass the bad neighborhood of Samaria as most of the Judeans did if they had reason to travel to Galilee.  Just as we bypass 58th Street by taking the outer loop around Chicago, they could take the outer loop on the other side of the Jordan.

We know that we need to quit hiding from sinners in the church.  Samaritans were from the Judean standpoint polluted people.  Their race was polluted by intermarriage with gentiles.  Their faith was polluted by the addition of false beliefs and practices from their splintered-off religion.

We have heard that we should go where the sinners are.  But when a bus takes us unawares through 58th Street, we are nervous.  Those people are polluted by drugs, gambling, city politics, crime, and who knows what else.

That is why we take the bypass around the city.

There are those who defend the city and it’s people.  These are the liberals or those hard to categorize evangelicals who are called by God to S. 58th Street.  (“And thank God we are not”, we say to ourselves.)

But here is the word.  How did Jesus meet sinners?  We have seen that he confronted and made uncomfortable Nicodemus, the seeker.  Will he affirm and comfort the sinner?

It looks that way at first.  Jesus chose this route through Samaria on purpose.  He anticipated this appointment.  At the well, alone with the woman, He asked for water.  He told her about “living water” and she was interested in it.  She asked for it.

What did Jesus do?  He made her uncomfortable!  He said, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

Like his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus’ style was both complicated and confrontational.   It was complicated in that it was an allegory about water, and it got into the theology of worship.  It was also complicated because Jesus turned quickly from his simple truth to her complicated life.

Jesus confronted the woman with the question about her husband.  He knew the full story.  Why did he get into this?  Didn’t he know that we should offer the living water without conditions?  Why would he say something that might drive her away just when he had her interest?

Jesus is like Hattie, or Hattie is like Jesus.  Both go comfortably to the places where sinners walk about openly.  South Chicago was not fearful to Hattie.  Samaria was not fearful to Jesus.  Both engaged in personal evangelism.  Both showed a warm heart and personal concern.  Both confronted.

We follow trends.  Once preachers went to the city at the Soup Kitchens and preached the gospel to the hungry, the dirty and the down and out.  Listen first, they instructed, and eat second.

That is old style evangelism.

Now Christian workers go among the people and offer understanding and sympathetic outrage.  They offer a helping hand and a bag of groceries.  At the holiday season they bring toys for the children.

This is the new evangelism.

Jesus’ evangelism was to go to sinners, to love sinners, to speak to sinners by name, and to confront sinners with the truth.  He confronted the women with the truth of the living water, and with the truth of her own life.

It seems that for John, seekers like Nicodemus and sinners like the Woman at the well need the same approach.

It is seen again in John 8, where Jesus first rescued the woman caught in adultery from her accusers, and then he said to her, “…neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  There was grace to forgive and grace to confront the sin that bound her to a degrading life.

Guigo II – Checking it Out

guigo

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In pursing my reading on “Spiritual Reading” or “Lectio Divina“, the name Guigo II came up repeatedly.  He is identified as the first to have discussed spiritual reading as a four stage process of reading, meditating, praying and contemplation.

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This study had raised several questions for me:

  • Was this an anti-intellectual project or did the reading include study?
  • What is the difference between meditation and contemplation?
  • What sort of prayer are we talking about?

I traveled to the University of Wisconsin Library and found “The Ladder of Monks and Twelve Meditations” by Guigo II, translations and introductions by Edmond Colledge and James Walsh, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, 1981.  This is an English  translation of the original “Scala claustralium” and “Meditationes.”

“Ladder” is a short piece, about 20 pages,  written as a letter.   Guigo II became the ninth  prior of the mother house of the Grande Chartreuse in 1173 or 1174.  This  house is in the Benedictine tradition, which itself stretches back to the 6th Century.  He speaks of the four steps as a latter reaching from earth to heaven.    On the first read through I have some observations.

  • This is a means to a mystical experience  that is not automatic, but the desired result of the exercises   The person who follows this seeks to have “contemplation” in the sense of a mystical vision of Christ.
  • Thus meditation differs from contemplation in that the first is a mental reflection on the text, while the second is a spiritual experience.
  • It seems that to Guigo II this is part of a process of gaining eternal life. It is not merely part of his spiritual exercises; it is part of his salvation. [This is not totally clear in my reading.]
  • As far as anti-intellectualism, it seems first of all that in the 12th Century, there was not a lot of access to books, yet there was an emphasis on reading.  It may be better to say this is something above rational inquiry, not necessarily to replace it.  However, consider this quote, “Otherwise it is of no use for the reader to search in earthly books; there is little sweetness in the study of the literal sense, unless there be a commentary which is found in the heart, to reveal the inward sense.” [p. 76]  Like many in the middle ages, the real meaning of Scripture is sought beyond the grammar of the written page.

So the question for me is how is this useful to me as a protestant?  I have noticed that most protestant users of Lectio Divina live in the first three steps, and/or define the fourth step  in a different way.  that is to say, we see value in reading, meditation and prayer.  The end seems to be different, a more godly life as opposed to a mystic experience.

If I wrote a book on this, it would probably take the shape of a cycle.  Having received the new life in Christ (as an event not a process),  spiritual reading is a way to grow that faith and to extend the effect of salvation to all areas of life (this is a process, not a single event.)

Even so there are some interesting passages, particularly where he talks about how the stages are both sequential and inter-related. This quote defines the stages as Guigo uses them.

“Reading is the careful study of the Scriptures, concentrating all one’s powers on it.  Mediation is the busy application of the mind to seek with the help of one’s own reason for knowledge of hidden truth. Prayer is the heart’s devoted turning to God to drive away evil and obtain what is good.  Contemplation is when the mind is in some sort lifted up to God and held above itself, so that it tastes the joys of everlasting sweetness.”  [p.68]

My next project is to read the Rule of St. Benedict, written in 520 a.d. This is seen as the source of this particular stream of thought.

“7 Words for Pastors” – Second Word: Seekers

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

II. SEEKERS    John 3:3

 In reading John for the purpose of preaching it to others, it preached to me over and over.  John has many things to say about being a pastor.  It has become my favorite church growth book.

There is much said about “seekers”.  John 3 tells us about Nicodemus, a “seeker” if there ever was one.

The problem with “seekers” is that they are different from us.  They do not belong to the tribe we call “church goers”.  There is a cultural divide between the church-goer tribe and the seeker tribe.  Our language and our customs are far apart from theirs.  What they expect to see on a stage is not like what we want to see on a platform.  What they expect to hear from a motivational speaker is not what we hear from a pastor.  How they talk around the water cooler or at the soccer game is not how we talk in church.

Nicodemus was a prominent man, a member of the ruling council that had retained some jurisdiction even under Roman rule.  He was a Pharisee, which meant he was well-educated in the tradition of the scriptures and their detailed application to life.  He was just the kind of man who was not likely to be found in Jesus’ inner circle.

Jesus’ inner circle was mostly working class. With the exceptions of Judas and Matthew, they worked with their hands, and came from a very provincial backwater to the north.  How would Jesus speak to such a man as Nicodemus?

 First, Nicodemus must have been watching and listening from a distance.  He was very aware of Jesus’ work and his reputation.  He had concluded that Jesus was some kind of prophet.

It is interesting that Jesus went out to speak to the people, but he did not go out to find Nicodemus.  He could have found the right words and images from Nicodemus’ world and approached him in the kind of forum or debate that was common to such men.  Instead we see Jesus who usually spoke a much more common language.  He spoke about the things of the common man and woman.  He used sheep, seeds, yeast, birds, flowers, coins and families to illustrate his talks.  He used crooked judges and crooked servants as well.  It was all quite commonplace to a man like Nicodemus.

Even so Nicodemus saw and heard this strange talk and recognized it as being from God.  “Rabbi,” he said, “we know you are a teacher who has come from God.”

I wonder if we should work, as we are told we should, to make ourselves sound familiar to the people in our target audience. I wonder if they might not ignore us because what we say is like what they hear all the time.

The thing that needs to be heard is what causes them to say, “Yes, this teaching must be from God.”

Second, Jesus’ answer to Nicodemus question was challenging, confusing and blunt.

Nicodemus really did not ask a question.  He stated that Jesus must be from God.  Jesus replied to what Nicodemus wanted to ask.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the Kingdom of God unless he is born again.”  John 3:3 (This is the second word for pastors.)

The answer was a challenge.  No one, even a sophisticated man of the world, can see God’s Kingdom as he is.  If he can’t see it, he certainly can not enter it.  He must be born again.

Jesus gave the altar call before he preached the message.  He did evangelism before he did the “necessary” pre-evangelism and before he had studied his audience.

Maybe when we try to make people comfortable, and try to establish trust, and develop a relationship, and then deliver the truth we are being less direct and honest than Jesus.  The message is more important than the messenger.

The answer was confusing.  This breaks all the rules of seeker sensitivity.  Our answers to seekers are supposed to be readily understood.  We should use familiar terms.  We should use their words.  Jesus broke these rules.

Jesus took about 17 verses to explain to Nicodemus this one verse.  He had to explain how a man can be born again. He had to explain the difference between physical life and spiritual re-birth.  Even his explanations were confusing as he got into the theology of the Holy Spirit and the theology of the Cross.  He used images such as wind, serpents, and light. Each of which needed its own explanation.

Jesus’ answer was blunt.  He started by telling Nicodemus that he was in need of a life-change that he called being born again.  He continued by saying, “You are Israel’s teacher and you do not understand these things?  I tell you the truth….but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”

Nicodemus had to know that he was being accused of stupidity.  Jesus did not mean that Nicodemus was lacking in grey cells, but that he was not using them.  He was not using them because he lacked something.

“I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

We say that if we use good methodology we can attract people to the Gospel.  This is the church-of-the-world view, and over the centuries only the methodology has changed.   The disciples wanted miracles and crowds, but Jesus chose preaching in Mark 1.  He refused a temple in Matthew 17.  The Pagans had ceremonies and temples with priests and fancy word-formulas – so the church developed all of those and out-paganized the pagans.  Gutenberg’s Press and the Mimeo machine as well as TV, Radio, Movies, Videos, the Telephone and the Internet have all been hailed as the tool to break through to the people.  Sociology tells us about group size and dynamics.  Psychology tells us how to make people feel better.  Business tells us how to get some money and then to organize to get more.  Management consultants tell us how to dismantle old institutions and rebuild the old raw material into new ones.

Jesus said that no one in the world can even see the Kingdom of God.   If you can’t even see it, how can you enter it?

Jesus spoke of the Spirit, because the Holy Spirit has to give life to the words and He has to move invisibly in human hearts.  Jesus spoke of the Cross, because we have to come to the Cross to enter the Kingdom.  He spoke of the truth, because our only tool is the telling of the truth.  The truth which is testified to by the Spirit and by the evidence of God’s blessing on our ministry.

That is Jesus’ formula for reaching “seekers.”

One of my favorite ironies is the name of our church.  Bethany Evangelical Free Church.  I like to say that we became seeker sensitive in 1926 when we changed it from the Norwegian (Betania Ev. Fri Kirke) to the English.  If any community would be resistant to a church with “evangelical” in the title, it would be central Madison.  This neighborhood voted for Ralph Nader for president, recycles religiously, rides bicycles to work, mocks Republican suburbanites, and detests “Evangelicals” as closed minded bumpkins.  To be an evangelical pastor is to walk around with a scarlet “E” around my neck.

My best conversations come when people ask me what Evangelical means.  I tell them that it means we are committed to the authority of Scripture.

I gave that answer recently at a school outing, later the questioner asked me a much deeper question about the scriptures.  This “agnostic” had been reading the scripture and had a question that no one could answer.  “How could God have laws supporting slavery in the chapters after the giving of the 10 Commandments?”

God was opening her eyes, and the term “evangelical” was the doorway to our conversation.

“7 Words for Pastors” – Intro and First Word

oldest fragment of John

oldest fragment of John

Over a decade ago I wrote a series of essays based on my study of John.  I observed that there were a number of passages that spoke to me as a pastor, which was a bit of a surprise in John.  I will be posting these, one at a time, as we work through John a second time, about 12 years later.

I.  Ministries. 

To this John replied, ‘A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.’                                                       John 3:27

You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.   Exodus 20:17

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Be content with what you have, because God has said,

‘Never will I leave you;

   Never will I forsake you.’

Hebrews 13:5

What a great ministry!  John the Baptist had come out of the wilderness with a powerful message.  He was the last of the Prophets who came to the people of God with the repeated message to return.  Return to God.  Return to the Word of God.  Return to faith and obedience, and leave behind all your disobedience.

What was amazing was that the people did return.  They went away from their materially rich lives to declare their poverty before God out in the wilderness.  This man John thundered beside the Jordan, and the nation shook.  They came to him and he baptized them for the forgiveness of their sins.

Baptism would have been an insult in normal times.  It would have meant that they were no better than the gentiles, those unclean worshipers of man-made idols and myths.  These were not normal times.  John’s voice rang out and struck a chord in the hearts of the people.  They agreed with the prophet and repented by the hundreds.

No one had every seen a ministry like this.  Not since Jonah preached to Nineveh had such a response been seen.

After John baptized Jesus, things began to change.  Jesus, the long-awaited One, had come and had begun his own ministry.  His ministry was destined, as John well know, to be greater than his own.

One day some of John’s disciples came to him.  They spoke with a note of alarm in their voices.

Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan — the one you testified about— well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”

 This is where we receive our first word for pastors.  It confronts the biggest challenge to pastors in our number-conscious and ego-driven age.  It confronts us on the question of covetousness.  It rebukes us with words that cut to the heart of our ministry envy.

To this John replied, “A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.  You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but am sent ahead of him.’  The bride belongs to the bridegroom.  The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice.  That joy is mine, and it is now complete.  He must become greater; I must become less.”

 John’s Disciples were very upset.  That other One, the One John had recognized, that One that came onto the scene after John had boldly prepared the people, that One and his disciples were now baptizing.  They were taking John’s ministry from him.  What, they thought, was John going to do about it.

John’s answer was contentment.  His contentment was in the knowledge that he had done with vigor and with integrity the work he had been given.  He even had a measure of glory.  He and his ministry would soon fade away, but the Promised One had come.

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 I don’t know of any verse that we show our disagreement with more than John 3:27.

I receive in the mail almost every day cards, letters, tapes and catalogues that promise the secret of successful ministry.  There is a close race going on between the credit card offers that arrive at my home and the ministry consultant offers that arrive at the church.  Most recently the ministry consultants have been winning.

We have come to the conclusion that the key to success is out there somewhere.  We scan the business world for organizational and motivational models.  We keep our eyes on the Internet so that we don’t miss the rapid changes sweeping by on ever faster microprocessors. We watch the entertainment world to see what fashions and what songs will draw the people.  We listen to the psychologists and sociologists who tell us what is wrong with people.  We even believe when the almost always incorrect futurists project from the known to the unknown with confidence.

We believe, if we can be judged by our actions, that consultants and mailings are more important to the work of the kingdom than prayer and preaching.  We believe that if we do not keep up with the world, we will be swept away by the tidal wave of change.

 But John gives us this other word.  “A man can only receive what is given him from heaven.”

Certainly this means that we can only receive the gold and silver and stone that we build into the ministry from God’s resources and God’s methods.

Certainly this means that most of what comes in through the mail slot and on the computer screen will be burned with all the straw and stubble of past efforts at ministry-glorification.

Certainly we must shut up out ears and run for our lives from this Vanity Fair of Man-Made Ministry.

John’s prophetic message was to return.

We need to turn our eyes away from our own need for success in the world.  Maybe it would be good not to count the average attendance – or if it must be counted, let others less vulnerable than the pastor keep the numbers.

We need to turn our eyes away from the other shepherds.  If another servant is gathering more sheep or baptizing more sinners or building newer sheep pens, it is of no importance to my calling.

We need to return our eyes to where they belong.  We need to return our eyes to the Good Shepherd, and follow wherever he leads.

Wherever he leads….and be content.

 “Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;

  You have made my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

  Surely I have a delightful inheritance.”

Psalm 16:5,6

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My boundary lines have fallen in unexpected places.    As we approached graduation from seminary, my wife and I received a call from a small church in the borough of Queens in New York City.  We held them off because we had not had a chance to talk to district superintendents of our association.  That proved to be like many of my fishing trips: There no bites, not even a nibble!

So we went. Our first placement was a church of about 50, if we exaggerate only slightly.  They were first and a few second generation German immigrants in a strongly ethnic German and Italian neighborhood populated by avidly nominal church adherents.  The preceding pastor had left the church “bleeding and on the floor,” as the elder we met quickly informed us.  The church building sat across three city lots and had no parking except a driveway.  I watched one day as the other elder placed my name on the church sign under the English, but above the German message.  I started as pastor of half of a small church.

We served, mainly in healing the bleeding church, and perhaps in cracking the door open to the community, for nine years.  We had no numbers to show, except that the median age went down after all the funerals that came in the first year or two.

We would have happily stayed for another nine, except that the church needed a new leader.  Having been healers, they were not ready of us to be leaders.

We set out our resume. Like infant spiders riding the winds to their new home, we ended up in Madison, Wisconsin.

I remember arguing the point with the Lord.  Madison is a small city in a small state. It was not the urban ministry we had in mind.  As if to answer me, on a flight out to finalize details of the call, the plane that left LaGuardia airport, for some reason, circled the whole of New York City. The plane flew over each of the five boroughs, and went right over our neighborhood.  I remember thinking, “good-by to adventure.”  The plane also circled Madison before landing; It was a very much smaller circle.

Was this a demotion?  Had we proved ourselves to be minor-leaguers?  It was our calling, we were certain, and we received it.  This ministry has proved to be a very adventurous place.  We live where post-modernism is not a lecture subject, but a firmly held assumption by our secular neighbors.  We live where about a third of our neighbors are gay or lesbian – the first neighbors to welcome us was such a couple and their children. We live by one of the notorious inner-city pockets of at-risk families and crime.  Madison is home to the state government and a world class university of decidedly liberal values.  The church is in the city, but not a typical urban church; It is what it is.

It fits us, though we often lose our sense of humor.  It is for us a “pleasant place”, to use the Psalmist’s phrase, though we still aren’t reconciled to retirement here.

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“A man can receive only what is given him from heaven.”

Churches struggle with their call.  In Queens the elder joked about our “dynamic stability”.  With each older member who died, or with each family that left for the suburbs, we received a new member.  It was one for one, no matter what we did.  We said, “Oh, if we could only grow to 100, then we could have a really vital ministry.”

In Madison, in a church of 100, the church wondered if it was viable because we were “only” 100.  My first task was to teach and repeat that we do not find our calling by comparison or by copying other churches, but to receive our calling from the Lord.  I still repeat that lesson often because it is counteracted almost weekly by some author, consultant, denominational official or when we notice who gets media coverage and who does not.

It is like wealth.  We are “wealthy” if we have more than most other people.  Each culture has it’s own measurement.  But the scriptures tell us to be content with just food and clothing.  In the same way, we have a “successful” church if we are bigger than most, or if we have more pastors or better music or a better preacher than others.

But if John can only receive what is given him from Heaven, can we as churches measure our “wealth” or “success” by any other measure than that we can only receive what is given us from Heaven.  If God grants numbers because we are sent to a ripened field will we take the credit?  If we have few numbers because we are sent to a place with unyielding soil, will we reject the gift of God?