Monthly Archives: October 2012

Baptism = Identity

This week we’re continuing are discussion on the key moments of Jesus’ life and how they teach us to live the Jesus-life. The second event we’ll discuss is his baptism. For those of you playing at home you can find the story in Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; and John 1:31-34.

First, I think it’s important to clarify what baptism is. There are a lot of arguments in the church world about who should get baptized and the proper way to baptise people. I’m not going to get into that argument here. It’s not really relevant for this conversation. In first century Palestine, there were a lot of baptisms. They all seem to have two things in common.

(1) They were all ritual cleansings. When an individual was baptized they were admitting that they were impure in some way and needed to be cleansed of the impurity. The baptism actually or symbolically cleansed them from the impurity. (There is some debate among scholars regarding to what degree people considered the baptism actually cleansing or symbolically representing cleansing that had happened. I won’t bet into it here. What all agree on is that the cleansing originated in God.)

(2) Baptism involved identification with a group of people. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell of people joining the community of Qumran being baptized. The immediate context of Jesus’ baptism is the ministry of John the Baptist. You can read his story in if you look just before the passages about Jesus’ baptism listed above. I’ll summarize it here. John’s message was repent because God’s Messiah is on the way. Repent means to turn away from or give up something. Among first century Jews, this something was always sin. Those who repented were baptized to show this repentance and identify with the people who were ready to accept the Messiah that John would show them. It’s important to note here that the religious elite did not repent and receive John’s baptism. The reason seems to be that they did not accept that they needed to repent of anything because they followed their religious rules.

Into this context steps Jesus and he asks to be baptized by John. It begs the question, why? It can’t have been for cleansing. Jesus was pure. He never sinned. He is the only one to ever live a life without sin.

No, it wasn’t about cleansing. It was about identification. By being baptized, Jesus was identifying himself with the people who need to repent. Jesus was joining the “I know I’m a sinner and need to repent” group, even though that was not true about him.

The incarnation taught us that Jesus came to be with us because he loves us. Jesus’ baptism shows us he didn’t just come to live among us. He identified with us.

An example of the difference between living among and identifying with can be seen in the story of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission. In the late 19th century many western missionaries traveled to China to share the story of Jesus. Most maintained their western culture and lifestyle while in China. They wore western clothes and ate western food. They lived among the Chinese people but did not identify with them. Hudson Taylor broke ranks. He identified with the Chinese people. He wore Chinese clothes. He ate Chinese food. He did everything he could to become Chinese. Who do you think the Chinese people trusted more? Who do you think was able to share more about Jesus?

How should this inform the life of a Christ-follower?

It’s not enough to live around and associate with people who don’t know Jesus. We have to identify with them. We have to become like them to the extent we can while continuing to honor the example and teachings of Jesus. We need to become part of the town we live in. We need to become part of our neighborhoods. We need to celebrate when they celebrate. We need to cry when they cry. We should be so embedded in, so connected to our communities that we’re missed when we’re not there.

Here are a couple of things that we do to identify with our community. We try to never turn down an invitation. If someone invites us to something we make every effort to attend. We are very involved with our daughter’s school. We care what’s going on there and are always available to help out. We invite people over to our house a lot. We host parties and have people over for dinner or to watch the game. We’re doing these things to identify with our neighborhood. We’re new to Ann Arbor and are working hard to become locals.

What ideas do you have for identifying with your community?

Incarnation: A Fancy Word for Living in the Neighborhood

This week we’re going to start a new series. In our Open Letter we said we’re about Jesus. In our Introduction Video I said we were about “living the Jesus life.” That begs the question, “What does it mean to be ‘about Jesus’ and ‘live the Jesus life’?” The best way to answer that, I think, is to look at Jesus and his life. In this series we’ll take a look at the 12 most significant moments in Jesus’ life and how they should inform the life of a Christ-follower.

Jesus is Born
The first has to be his birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both have great birth narratives. My favorite, however, is the one found in the Gospel of John (probably not surprising since my dissertation is on John’s writings). Here’s how John tells the story of Jesus birth:

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it. …

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son (John 1:1-5, 10-14).

Jesus has existed eternally as the second part of the Trinity. He is God. Always has been. Always will be. At a point in history, about 2015 years ago, Jesus was born into this world as a human baby. The theological term for this is the Incarnation.

How should this inform the life of a Christ-follower?
The incarnation leads us to talk about living incarnationally. Jesus chose to enter into the lives and stories of people. He chose this for one reason, to reveal God. He chose to live among us as one of us to express God’s love to us.

Living the Jesus life, being about Jesus, means living incarnationally. An outside observer of Christians in America may be led to believe that the goal of Christianity is to get people to spend as much time as possible in a church building and get them to invite others to do the same.

Now let me clearly state, there is nothing wrong with attending church services. Nor is there anything wrong with attending activities that take place in a church building. I just don’t think that should be the goal of individual Christ-followers or churches.

The incarnation teaches us that we should live among the people that Jesus created and loves and express God’s love to them. If our only friends are other Christ-followers, if all of our activities revolve around a building where religious services are held, if our only goal for others is to get them to got to the same building, we’re missing the lesson of the incarnation. We need to get out among people that Jesus loves at work, at PTO meetings, at social gatherings, in bars and coffee houses and express God’s love. Just like Jesus did.

Where do you think the best place to express God’s love to people who don’t know him would be?

How Far is Heaven?

In this, the last post based on questions from Facebook, we’ll address the question, “Is there a heaven?” I did a little research on this question before writing this post, because I’ve never really thought about this particular question. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I looked in seven different theology books and five of my old philosophy textbooks and none of them directly address the existence of heaven. While it seems that not too many people think about whether or not heaven exists, a lot of people certainly consider hell. While I find it incredibly interesting that hell is more of a topic of speculation than heaven, that’s a different blog post. I’ll stick with heaven for this one.

At it’s root, the question appears to be focused on the evidence, or lack thereof, for heaven. This is very difficult for me because, in truth, I don’t have any hard evidence. I can’t point to heaven and say, “There it is!” I don’t have a well thought out and syllogism explain in unassailable logic how heaven must exits. It seems that Bono was right when he said in the song Walk On, heaven is a place that “has to be believed to be seen.” So instead of giving you something that I don’t have, I’ll tell you why I believe there is a heaven.

For me the issue boils down to one simple reality. I believe Jesus. Not only do I believe in Jesus. I believe Jesus. Jesus said there is a heaven, and I believe him. Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving them to prepare a place for them. In Christian theology, we refer to that place as heaven. To one of the men crucified next to him he said that he would see him that day in paradise. I believe that the paradise he was referring to is heaven.

There are many other references to heaven in the Bible. There are other places where Jesus specifically addresses what will happen to us after we die. So, I have a question for you. Do you believe Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus was truthful in the things he said regarding what happens after this life? If Jesus was truthful then there is a heaven.

It Happens

This week we’re getting back to answering questions from people on Facebook. I’m going to attempt to answer a question that I’ve kind of been avoiding. There were a lot of versions of the question but the basic idea is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I haven’t been avoiding it because I don’t feel like I know how to answer it. I’ve been avoiding it because no answer is satisfying when you or someone you love is experiencing those “bad things.” In spite of my trepidation, let’s dive in.

When things seem to be difficult and it feels like we’re running around in circles, a friend of mine is fond of saying, “How did we get to this swamp in the first place?” To answer that we have to go back to the very beginning. Not only the beginning of this blog series posted on August 16th, but the beginning of everything.

In the post from August 16th, I talked extensively about how through human choice evil (or sin) entered into our experience. When the first humans sinned, evil entered and affected every part of God’s good creation. So because we choose evil, evil affects our existence. In short, bad things happen to good people because there is evil in the world.

Now, there are a couple of major objections that could be raised to that last paragraph. First, I included everyone in that statement “we choose evil.” I don’t know you. How can I say that you choose evil? That’s a very fair question. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re like. I come to that conclusion through a couple fundamental beliefs to which I hold. (1) I’m a theist. I believe there is a God that created everything. As the creator of everything, he defines the nature of things; including defining what is good and what is evil. (2) I believe that there are two primary ways in which that God communicates with us; the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that all people have inherited a sin nature from our first parents. We, therefore, all sin. A definition of sin is choosing evil, as God defines evil. Now if you do not agree with me on one or both of those points, then you will not agree with my explanation. That’s cool. I’m not presenting myself as an expert on the topic. I’m offering my biblically, theologically, philosophically, and experientially informed opinion. I would love to read yours. Please feel free to share it in the comments below and we can talk about it together.

On to objection number two: If God is really good, as we Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he prevent evil things from happening to good people? I believe there are two reasons. First, if God were to prevent all evil from happening to good people he would have to limit the freedom of choice. He would have to prevent evil people from making evil choices. He would also have to prevent good people from making choices that appear good but have potentially evil consequences. The freedom to choose is important to God. With that said, there is a doctrine known as prevenient grace. There is a lot of nuance in that concept. For our purposes here, prevenient grace means that God does prevent people from being as evil as they can be. If it weren’t for God’s grace, things would be much worse than they are. Even so, there is a line that God won’t cross. He will not totally supersede our freedom to choose. Second, the question “Why doesn’t God prevent evil from happening to good people?” begs the question, “Who is good?” Jesus said that only God is good. If that is true, then anything that does not line up with the character of God is evil. In which case, anyone who has ever willfully done something that violates Gods character is not good. That makes it very difficult to identify a good person. If anyone has lied, cheated, or willfully hurt someone physically or emotionally, they are ontologically not good. If that definition is true, then I’ve never met a good person. In that sense, it could be argued that bad things don’t happen to good people.

Let me be clear about something, I don’t believe that everyone deserves the bad things they experience. Jesus was very clear about that when his disciples asked him on that question. You can read the story for yourself in the Gospel of John chapters 9 – 10. Some people truly deserve the bad things they have to endure. Many people experience evil they don’t deserve.

For many, this post might seem incredibly depressing. Why in the world would anyone believe this or follow a God like this? Here’s why I do. I have experienced some bad things in my life that, in my opinion, can only be explained by the existence of evil in the world. Yet, I have experienced many more good things in my life that can only be explained by the existence of an entity that is powerful and good and loves me. I call this entity God. As I read the Bible, the description of God I find describes remarkably well the God that I’ve experienced. The Bible also says that in spite of all the bad things in the world, this good God who loves me will ultimately conquer sin and evil and those that love him will live with him for eternity. This gives me hope that this life means something and there is value in enduring the evil that will come today because there is a better tomorrow.

What about you? How would you respond to my friends’ questions? Why do bad things happen to good people?