The Fellowship of the Gospel

When Jesus’ returns from his odyssey in the wilderness experiencing, for perhaps the first time, the temptation to sin, he begins public ministry. The Four Gospels place varying levels of emphasis on this initial phase of his ministry. We can see that it consisted of both preaching and miraculous actions (i.e. healing diseases and exorcising demons). In this context, Jesus calls his first disciples.

There are a lot of ways to approach this action. Jesus’ calling of his disciples is significant in many multifaceted ways. Today, I want to focus on the simple fact hat he did it.

Jesus called disciples to be with him and to learn from him. There are a lot of reasons why he did this. He wanted a community of people with whom to build relationships. He wanted people who would tell his story after he was gone. He was training the ones who would eventually be the leaders in his church. You can probably come up with your own more extensive list. At the end of the day, however, one thing we know for sure is that he called people to follow him. As a matter of fact, this is one of the few facts that has never been in dispute about Jesus. It’s virtually undeniable that he called people to follow him.

Jesus formed his own fellowship ala J.R.R. Tolkien (If you don’t get that reference, please go watch the first Lord of the Rings movie Fellowship of the Ring. Although you’d be much better served reading the book.). Jesus formed a community that would experience and express God’s love with him.

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

Jesus chose to live in community. Jesus chose to have imperfect, sinful, foolish, inexperienced, inefficient, ineffective people around him. Jesus built a community with which to experience and express God’s love. Every Christ-follower should do the same. Living the Jesus life means building community.

Not everyone will be a missionary or a pastor. Not everyone will plant a church or lead a gathering of Christ-followers. But, all Christ-followers should work to build community in whatever context they find themselves. People living incarnationally, living missionally, will build Jesus-centered communities.

What are some ways you build community in your context?

Jesus in Cloud City

After Jesus was baptized he went into the “wilderness” to be “tempted.” This is kind of a strange story to me. Throughout the Bible we’re admonished to avoid temptation. A few pages later in the story Jesus is going to tell us to pray that God will keep us from temptation and evil. Yet, Jesus is intentionally walking alone into a place where he will be tempted.

It’s like a scene from a movie. The hero, Jesus, has just been introduced as the hero and the one who will defeat evil. Usually at this point in the story the hero knows just enough to be dangerous. And the hero, prematurely, heads into battle virtually assured a sound thrashing. It’s Luke Skywalker heading to Cloud City to face Darth Vader before he’s ready. In the movies the hero is always defeated. Fortunately for us this isn’t a movie.

Jesus isn’t defeated. Satan does his best to tempt Jesus. But Jesus wins. I’m confident I would have failed the test. I would have failed the first temptation. Jesus didn’t. Jesus never sinned.

So what? Who cares? Why is this important? Looking at the story 2000 years later, with two millennia of church history and theology behind us, it’s no surprise that the God-man didn’t sin. He’s Jesus. Of course he didn’t sin. He’s the guy that really did walk on water.

It’s important because he experienced what we experience. There is no temptation that you or I have ever experienced that Jesus didn’t experience. Every temptation I face Jesus has experienced it. Every temptation you face Jesus has experienced it. Don’t believe me? Take a break and read 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Hebrews 4:15. Jesus faced it all. He faced more and worse than you and I ever will because he faced it all.

Most of the books I’ve read and lessons I’ve heard emphasize Jesus’ success in facing temptation. They focus on Jesus’ magnificence and his divine strength. Or, the focus on his strategy in facing temptation as a model for us. Both of these things are incredibly important, but there’s something even more important.

He was tempted.

Jesus was really tempted.

The temptations weren’t imaginary. They weren’t merely annoying hoops to jump through so that he could get on to the important work of dying and resurrecting. Jesus faced temptation. He knows what it’s like to be tempted. When I’m tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like. When your tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like.

By being baptized, Jesus identified with us. By being tempted, Jesus learned to empathize with us.

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

Empathy is underrated. Empathy is important. Empathy is what moves us from merely identifying with the people around us to loving the people around us. Empathy is a necessary component to loving our neighbor as ourselves, particularly when our neighbor is different from us. Empathy is necessary to express God’s love.

Oftentimes, Christ-followers forget how important it is to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus. We have a penchant for looking down on people that don’t conform to our social/moral standards, whether they’re really Jesus’ standards or not.

We forget that sin is sin is sin. The drug addicted homeless person pan-handling downtown or the power-addicted CEO that ignores that pan-handler everyday as they walk to their office is no worse than you. The fact is, we all have sinned. We’re all tempted. We all need Jesus.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted. Jesus empathizes with us when we’re tempted. Jesus empathizes with them when they’re tempted. Jesus models for us that we need to empathize with people different from us. It’s vital to expressing God’s love.

What barriers do you think people face when it comes to empathizing with others.

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?

In the Name of Love

We’re continuing our blog series answering questions that people have asked us. This week we’re taking a break from the theological to answer a more practical question. Why do we call ourselves Agape Ann Arbor? This is probably the easiest question to answer of them all.

The vision of Agape Ann Arbor is to be a community experiencing and expressing God’s love. The foundation of this vision comes from something that Jesus said to his followers the night before he was executed. He said that he was giving them a new command, a new way of life, they were to love each other in the same way that he loved them. Then he said that the world would know they were his followers by their love for one another. In other words, people looking at this new community built around the example and teachings of Jesus would know who they were by the way the experience and express God’s love. The one distinguishing characteristic of Jesus-followers is not what they do on Sunday, who they vote for, what music they listen to, or what books they read. The distinguishing characteristic of Jesus-followers is how they love.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh or critical here but if you call yourself a Jesus-follower and you’re not known for how you love people, you are not following Jesus.

So, back to the name. You didn’t think I forgot did you. That wasn’t some wild ranting rabbit trail. It’s all connected.

Agape, pronounced ah-GAH-pay, is a Greek word that means unconditional love. For the ancient Greeks, agape was the highest possible form of love. The New Testament authors used the word agape to describe the love of God; unconditional, unrelenting, unending, love. We are a community in Ann Arbor seeking to experience and express God’s love. We are Agape Ann Arbor.

Christian Recruiting

At lunch the other day, a friend asked me an interesting question. He asked, “Why do you feel the need to recruit?” Here’s my favorite thing about his question. He used the word recruit. I’ve never heard it put that way before. I’ve heard evangelism (the Christian term of which no one seems to know the definition), outreach (an equally vague bit of Christian jargon), and proselytize (typically used pejoratively by people who are not Christian). But, I’d never heard recruit used in that context before.

As a member of the Michigan Air National Guard, I have a specific view of recruiting. It generally involves a young naive person who is looking for purpose and a job. Someone in a uniform (The Marines always have the advantage at this point.), extols the virtues of serving in the (insert branch of service here) and tries to get them to enlist. The goal for US Military recruiters is to fill the ranks of the US Military.

Living within walking distance of the University of Michigan I’m exposed to another view of recruiting. The NCAA Division I football coach. This conjures up thoughts of middle-aged men with personalities too big for their bodies wearing polo shirts enticing young naive boys to play football at (insert school here). The goal of the college football coach is to get the best talent possible to win football games.

We Christ-followers recruit too. The uniform is different. The recruits are often different. But, most importantly, the motivation is different. When someone chooses to follow Jesus, I get no direct benefit.

OK, you might argue that I get the benefit of people attending Agape Ann Arbor. That’s a fair critique. So, let me answer that before I explain my motivation. First, there is no prerequisite to attend an Agape Ann Arbor gathering. We don’t care what you believe. You’re welcome to hang with. Everyone is welcome. Second for a lot of people who decide to follow Jesus, Agape Ann Arbor isn’t a good fit for them. They’re looking for a church experience very different from our community gatherings. They’re looking for a more typical expression of American church. Agape Ann Arbor is anything but the typical expression of American church. I have a lot of friends who are pastors of different churches. I’m happy to connect new Christ-followers with those communities.

Truly, I don’t get a direct benefit from someone choosing to follow Jesus. So, why do I do it? There are three specific reasons:

First, Jesus changed my life. Jesus has given me direction and a purpose. Through Jesus I experience God’s love. This is the most meaningful thing in my life. I honestly believe that everyone who follows Jesus will have this same transcendant experience. I love people. I want people to be all that God has created them to be and I think that can only happen through Jesus. So, I share Jesus with people hoping they will follow him.

Second, I believe in a literal heaven and hell. I know that’s not a popular belief. According to the statistics I’ve read, I’m in the minority. That’s OK. It’s still true of me. I believe that people have the choice to experience heaven now and forever through Jesus or experience hell now and forever without him. Since I believe this to be true, I believe I would be the biggest selfish jerk on the planet if I didn’t share Jesus.

Third, one of the last things Jesus said to his followers after his resurrection and before he ascended into heaven was to go make disciples. Jesus literally told his followers to go recruit followers. I love Jesus. If you love someone, you do what they ask as a loving response. Since I love Jesus, I do what he asked me to do.

I feel like there’s one thing I need to add to this. People are not projects. I don’t make friends with people to “get them in.” I make friends with people because I love people. If my friends never choose to follow Jesus, it makes me sad because of what I believe about him. But that doesn’t change how I feel or what I believe about them.

If you’re my friend. You’re my friend because I love you and like hanging out with you. Your choice to follow Jesus or not is your choice. That’s between you and Jesus. It does not change the fact that you’re my friend.

I Respect Your Choice

A few weeks ago, I sent a message to many of my Facebook friends asking them, to share one question they would like a pastor to answer about faith or Jesus. I received several great responses. Over the next several weeks I’m going to attempt to answer those questions. I will be as honest and thorough as I can. Due the fact, however, that this is a blog, I’m going to be brief. I want this to be as readable as possible. I will have to leave a lot out. The advantage to this being a blog, though, is that you can interact with us right here. If you want to engage more regarding any of these questions, please jump in. We’d love to talk to you. Also if you have a question you’d like us to address, post it here or contact us through this website. With that said let’s dive in.

One of the most intriguing questions I was asked had to do with why Christians don’t seem to respect the faith choices of others. It made me very sad to read the stories of rejection experienced from people calling themselves Christ-followers. That is completely antithetical to the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Choice is one of the greatest gifts God gave us. It’s central to the story of the Bible and God’s relationship with us. At the very beginning God created humans. God provided everything they needed. He put them in a lush garden that provided all the food they needed. He created two people so that they would have companionship. He gave them meaningful work so that they would have a sense of purpose in life. At that time, in that environment, people had an amazing connection with God. The Bible describes it as that they walked with God in the cool of the day.

I love that imagery. It reminds me of the walks my wife and I used to take in the evening when our daughter was a baby; or walking with my daughter to and from school through the woods, now that she’s older. At those times we have the most amazing conversations. That’s what it was like for the first humans with God.

Now back to choice. Those first humans were given the amazing gift of choice. Most importantly, they had the choice to maintain that relationship with God or to go their own way. Essentially the choice was to let God be their god or choose to make themselves god.

This choice was symbolized by a tree in the center of the garden. It was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (different, by the way, from a Tree of Knowledge which is not found anywhere in the Bible; all due respect to Steve Jobs). The only prohibition God placed on the first humans was not to eat the fruit from that tree.

They chose to disobey God. There’s a lot more to the story. But, the result is the same. They used the gift God gave them to choose and they chose themselves over God. One of the lessons of this story is that while the gift of choice is good, not all choices are good. And let’s face it, ever since then the human race has had a propensity to make bad choices haven’t we?

The result of that first bad choice was disconnection. The Bible says that the choice to disobey God caused us to be disconnected from God, from the earth, and each other. The results of that choice were devastating. I don’t think we fully appreciate the effects of that choice because we never experienced the world before that choice.

Anyway, here’s where the Christian perspective on choice comes in. Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God was distraught about the position in which we found ourselves. God loves us and wants a relationship with us like he had with the first people. But ever since then, we’ve rejected him in favor of ourselves.

This is where Jesus comes in. God sent Jesus to restore the relationships that were broken because of that first choice. Jesus came to teach us how to live lives where our relationships with God, the earth, and each other are restored. Then he willingly died on our behalf restoring those relationships and his resurrection is the evidence that he accomplished what he came to do.

Now for a moment, suppose the biblical story is true. Suppose that God really created people. Suppose God loves us and desperately wants a relationship with us. Suppose that the bad choices we make prevent that and all of our relationships. Suppose that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again to restore those relationships. Suppose that following Jesus with your whole life would allow you to experience those restored relationships. Wouldn’t that be pretty cool? If that were true, wouldn’t you want to experience that? If that were true, wouldn’t you want everyone you know and love to experience that?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, Christ-followers, Jesus-freaks, or whatever other Facebook moniker is in vogue today believe that this whole story is true. Speaking for myself; I’ve experienced it. I believe with all that I am that this story is true. Because I’ve experienced this, I want everyone to experience it. I think following Jesus (or choosing not to) is the most important choice in life.

Now back to the misguided judgmental Christians that prompted these questions and indirectly this blog post. It is wrong to look down on other people because they don’t choose to follow Jesus. It is wrong to look down on other people because the choose to follow Jesus differently. It is wrong to look down on people because of the choices they make. It’s even wrong to look down on people because they choose to be Buckeye fans. (That joke makes more sense if you live in Ann Arbor.) At the same time, it’s a very human act to look down on people who choose differently from us. We look down on people who choose different political parties than us. We look down on people who choose to drive different cars than us. We look down on people who support different sports teams than us. We look down on people who make different faith choices than us. It’s not OK. It’s not right. But it is true.

It is also very human to overcome our human limitations. I think that’s why I like the Olympics so much. I get to see people overcoming human limitations to do something extraordinary. Oscar Pistroius from South Africa is a perfect example of this. A double amputee overcame not just physical limitations but cultural limitations of bigotry and mistrust and ran in the Olympics. He is one of my heroes.

In a less spectacular way there are Christians overcoming our human limitations and learning not to look down on people who choose differently than us. Agape Ann Arbor is a community of people trying to do that. We are a group of people that are trying to truly live the way that Jesus lives and love the way that Jesus loves.

As I close this incredibly long-winded post, I’d like to say one more thing. Remember, Christians believe that choosing to follow Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. While many people do a poor job communicating this out, encouraging someone to follow Jesus is truly an act of love. If you believed Christianity were true, wouldn’t you want other people to experience it too?

I believe the story of Jesus is true. I believe that following Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. I would love for you to choose to follow Jesus. But ultimately, I respect your choice.

Relational Necessity

Humanity is a social species. We need contact with other people. We are relational beings. Whether you think it’s because we’re created in the image of a relational God or you think there are evolutionary advantages to gathering together in family or tribal groups the fact remains it’s in our dna to build social connections.

In fact relationships can be the source of our greatest joy. Romantic love. Team accomplishment. Children. Yet, relationships are also the source of our greatest pain. Rejection. Isolation. Abuse.

One of the roles of a Christ-following community is to create an environment where those joys can be celebrated and the wounds from those painful experiences can be healed. At Agape Ann Arbor we describe this as experiencing and expressing God’s love.

That’s why our focus isn’t on buying a building and creating a cool church experience. Our focus is on building relationships and providing spaces where together we can experience and express God’s love. If you’d like to learn more, join us for brunch one Sunday or hang out with us at a party that one of us is hosting. Check out our calendar for more details. Or you can contact us and we can grab a beer or a cup of coffee together and talk.