Easter: At this Point, What Difference Does It Make?

Episode 22

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We interrupt our regularly scheduled Route 66 journey to bring you an Easter Supplemental episode of the Radio Show.

I’m recording on Monday, March 28, 2016, the day after Easter and some things I read over the weekend disturbed me enough that I felt compelled to address them before moving on in our New Testament Survey.

Over the weekend, I read two articles that came out of Scotland, downplaying the historic value of the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus to the Christian message. The essence of both stories, was that the Resurrection message was about hope overcoming adversity and emotional desolation. It is resurrection power.  We used to call that ‘Neo Orthodoxy’.

I remember way back in the 70s hearing a guy on the radio respond to a caller by saying that what really  happened was Jesus disciples realized on Sunday morning that although Jesus had been murdered, the love he showed and his core teachings of loving one another did not die with him. His teachings lived on through His followers so, in a sense, Jesus was still alive within them.

It’s a sappy, touchy feely sort of message that sounds good in some sort of milquetoast sort of way, but falls way short of mattering in the real world of disease, terrorism and discord.  It’s no wonder that a 20 pound weakling kind of message has been rejected by rough and tumble, pragmatic Scottish population.  It also explains part of why Christianity is slowly fading here in the USA.

Interestingly, the Bible itself has a completely different take on the Resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus death and resurrection are the principal message of all four Gospels AND the Book of Acts.  Each of them recount the Death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as space, time event, that are verifiable. They are not purely spiritual in their meaning, but historic events that change the future of humanity.

You can read about it in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, John 20 and Acts 1. Acts 1, in fact, has Luke saying Jesus demonstrated the reality of his physical resurrection by ‘many infallible’ proofs. Luke is throwing down, and says, check it out. Paul repeats that dare later on in Acts 26, when Governor Festus questions Paul’s sanity over his declaration of the Resurrection, the Apostle appeals to his reason by saying, “I’m sure Agrippa knows all about this, as none of these things were done in a corner.’

Paul goes even further in 1 Corinthians when he stakes everything about the Gospel and Christianity’s right to exist, on the verifiable, literal event of the Passion and Resurrection of the Christ.

The in your face, hair on your chest, nature of the Biblical doctrine of the resurrection stands in stark contrast to the weak kneed, Mealy mouthed, psychobabble that is pedaled in much of mainstream preaching and doctrine.

Let me share an incident from my own past that illustrates the superiority of a muscular Easter message to the squishy, pastel message as delivered in the two articles I read.

26 years ago, while I was at the peak of my career as a Christian Evangelist, serving in Scotland, my entire world collapsed. My life unraveled like a ball of yarn in a room full of felines.  I lost everything.  I ended up being and outcast in many Christian circles, rejected and literally scorned in many places. And all for things for which I was not guilty. As a result, like Peter, I denied Jesus.  Not verbally, But everything about my life, the people I hung out with, the places I went, the things I did, were all in stark contrast to who I’d been and what I did. Sure, I rarely missed Church on Sunday, but that was the extent of my relationship to my old life.

I wanted so badly to, as Job’s wife said, ‘Curse God, and die.’  One thing kept me from doing just that. I could not escape the fact of the empty tomb.  No matter how far I ran, or how I tried to ignore it, the empty grave followed and haunted me. In time, I turned to confront the story, and because I could not disprove it, I was faced with the awareness that the Easter message contradicted my deep feelings that my hurt and rejection had come from God and that the Gospel message was a hoax, without value in a real world.

Step by step, day by day I came to understand that the victory of Jesus of Nazareth over the grave, demonstrated that the real lie was the one being whispered in my ear by one who would use whatever deception possible to keep my heart away from the God who loved me without measure.

I knew instinctively that if Jesus was dead and gone, the whole Christian thing was a fraud, but because He really did rise, His message had to be considered. It was the empty grave that started me on the road back to Faith.  I couldn’t face my real life problems with some saccharine sweetened Pablum of a religious message, but a muscle bound Victor who wrestled death into submission, now that was a Savior I could trust to take me beyond my pain and help me become, as Paul said, more than a conqueror.

Someday, I’ll tell you the whole story, but for now, I want to encourage you not to reject Jesus because a lot of people are spouting crap in his name, I KNOW, both from my own experience and from the facts of the case, that there is a new life, a live of joy and victory available and accessible, because the grave is empty.  Check it out for yourself. Think on these things while you chew on left over chocolate bunnies and creepy marshmallow peeps. Cause it changes everything.

 

Good Friday Sermon Scandalizes Scottish Fishing Village

chapel1.jpg (420×280)That was not the actual headline in the local paper, but I expected it to be. I hadn’t intended to create a crisis that Friday evening, all I wanted to do was preach a sound Gospel sermon, but, boy howdy, did I get more than I bargained for. Grab a cup of coffee and I’ll give you the details.

For the record, Easter Sunday, 1981 fell on April 19, which means Good Friday was the 17th.  The week had been remarkably uneventful, but would certainly not end that way. It was my first Easter in Scotland. I had moved to Birmingham, England the July before, and found my way to the breathtaking Moray village of Buckie, in Northeast Scotland, October of the same year.

I fell in love with Buckie the moment I stepped foot in the town. Love at first sight, that’s the only way I can describe it. That first winter was long, dark, damp, and cold. I spent it getting to know the people, customs, thoughts and core values of this historic fishing community. I remember long afternoons, sitting in front of coal fires, sipping tea, munching on cakes of different kinds, and being regaled with stories of days gone by, as recalled by elderly Church members and other local citizens. I can still feel the radiant heat of the fires as they warded of the chill of the Scottish winter.  I can taste the tea, and If I try hard enough, I can almost smell the sooty, tangy aroma of the coal and occasional brick of peat as the low flames labored to lull me to sleep.

Shortly after arriving in Buckie, I was invited to join the local ministers’ fraternal, which I eagerly accepted. Despite being from south of the Mason Dixon, complete with Kentucky drawl, I was, in the eyes of local Scots, a Yank, and there was no point trying to explain American cultural differences.

As an American, I was a curiosity, and many of the local pastors and congregations wanted to know all about my background and why a Yankee (the title still rubs be the wrong way 😉 ) would come so far to serve a congregation that most in town thought had been closed for years. In my youthful exuberance, I explained my motivation and desire to build a vibrant, growing congregation that would ignite a revival that would sweep the entire country.  Many, including the elders at the Church I served, merely chuckled at my dream, a few discarded it as fantasy talk, and a handful considered it hubris.

The winter found me speaking most weeks at various youth clubs, women’s groups and local schools. After all, having an American in town was a genuine novelty.  I enjoyed every minute of it. The people were so welcoming, despite making it clear that I was an outsider. People listened to my message, but held me at arms length. It would be nearly 4 years before I felt genuinely embraced.

As spring approached, I learned that Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, was a grand week of Ecumenical celebration in Buckie. There would be community breakfasts and joint worship services held each night at various Church Buildings in the town. The congregation I served would not be hosting, which is just as well, because our facility was in a dire state of repair. I’ll describe more of that another day.

The week would reach a crescendo on Good Friday evening with the worship service being held at the local Scottish Episcopal Church. The ministers’ fraternal asked me to preach that service. I was honored and humbled beyond my ability to find words.

I spent hours and hours preparing my message. I would preach from Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, chapter 27, with special emphasis on verses 51 through 53, where the curtain in the temple was torn and graves were opened and many saints were raised from the dead.

It is such a powerful, hope filled passage that I couldn’t resist.  The day is called GOOD Friday, because Jesus death brings Life.

It’s hard to forget, even 35 years later, how nervous I was that evening. The other ministers in town would sit behind me, with all except the Salvation Army Officer wearing varying colors of robes and clerical collars. It was quite intimidating seeing them in all their pomp, while I mingled  among the congregants clad in my dress trousers, with a tie and cardigan. I didn’t even own a suit, much less a robe and collar. One of the more senior pastors offered me one of his robes, but like David of old, I refused, just as the boy who would be king, refused the armor Saul offered him before the great encounter with Goliath.

To this day, I have no idea how my lack of traditional clergy attire was received by the mixed congregants, but it paled in comparison to the reception my message garnered.  Of that, I am certain.

As I stood before the combined worshippers from many different denominational traditions, I felt confident in the fact that by preaching directly from Scripture, I was on solid ground; foolish boy. I was a bit disappointed to see only one member from the Church I served in attendance. To be fair, the members from the Buckie Church of Christ were elderly and most were in varying degrees of failing health. Only Richard Souter, one of our Elders, had braved the night chill to come in support. It would be another few months before attendances at our Church would begin to pick up and real growth emerge from the hard packed spiritual soil of the Moray Firth region.

God was truly with me that night as I preached my heart out.  I still recall many parts of the sermon and the fact that every eye was fixed on me as I described the agony of the cross, the victory of Resurrection and the hope available by turning to Christ. I even offered an invitation to receive Jesus. Apparently that was a no no.

After the service, the response was overwhelming. I was surrounded by crowds of people asking me questions about the Gospel. Several wanted me to help them find the passage I’d preached from. One person said, ‘I’ve been going to Church my whole life and I never heard this’. Another said, “I had to look the passage up for myself, because I thought this was something only in your Yank Bible.”

What a night. I stood among the fisher folk for what seemed ages, sharing the Scriptures and explaining the Gospel. I returned home filled with indescribable joy. God had been let loose from some invisible box, and He had used my Kentucky tongue to open the door.

By Wednesday, word reached me that several Churches in town were in an uproar, especially those from either a ‘High Church’ (Liturgical), or a theologically liberal, background. I guess there was even a hastily called Ministers’ meeting to which I was not invited.

It would seem that my Good Friday message really struck some tribal chords and the natives were getting restless.  Some of the more liberal Pastors were fit to be tied. This ‘Evangelical Preaching’ had no place in ecumenical gatherings. It was just ‘too controversial’.

The big news came from the Scottish Episcopal Church, where after learning of Friday night’s shenanigans, the Bishop made and announcement that I would never again be allowed to preach from their pulpit.

To be fair, I did have my backers. Two of the area Church of Scotland Pastors, the Baptist preacher, and my dear friend Ray, the Salvation Army Officer, defended the message as orthodox and appropriate. The majority, however, were, if not outraged, offended. My primary crime was not, preaching that the Biblical account was accurate, but that turning to Jesus in repentance and being ‘born again’ was simply not, as they say, Cricket.  My American Revivalism needed to be curbed.  And they curbed it.

From that day forward, I was never again invited to speak in a good portion of Churches, and I certainly was never again a preacher for a community event. I was denied the opportunity to meet the queen when she came to town a few years later (as were other Evangelical Pastors). There were other ‘punishments’ levied, but you get the point.

Frankly, I was glad that tar and feathering had not been a part of NE Scottish tradition. For a few weeks, the small town had something juicy to chew on. Then it vanished from talk nearly as suddenly as it had arrived. For that small mercy, I’m eternally grateful.

In all, I spent 7 glorious years ministering in Buckie. They were seven of the very best years of my life. We overcame that rocky start and saw God do many great things. I moved away in 1987 to plant a Church in Cumbernauld in the Scottish midlands, and have some great memories and friends from that time, too, but I would be less than honest if I didn’t confess that a large part of my heart still walks up and down West Church Street and occupies a seat in the back of the Buckie Church of Christ at the Corner of West Church and Pringle Streets. And, every single Good Friday, my mind goes back to that first Good Friday I spent in Buckie. Those were halcyon days. And, by the way, Jesus is still opening the grave and scandalizing the multitudes. Hallelujah! He is risen!

 

 

A Seriously Dysfunctional Church – Podcast Episode 21

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First Corinthians

To Christians in Corinth – Paul founded the Church in Corinth during his second missionary journey. See Acts 18. He stayed 18 months. He is very familiar with this congregation. The only place we know for sure he stayed longer was Ephesus. Interestingly, we can see from both Acts and his letters, that these are the two congregations Paul seems most familiar with and appears to be closest to.

Corinth was not just an important trade city in the first century, it’s also a religious center, a tourist attraction, and a naval port. In modern terms, it’s a combination of New Orleans, Las Vegas and Amsterdam.  It is a busy, prosperous and totally decadent place.

The Gospel was welcomed and embraced in Corinth, but from this letter, we can see, that the values of the city also made its way into the culture of the Church, creating some real challenges. Central doctrines were diluted and Godly morality was compromised. As we’re going to see, the Church in Corinth was as dysfunctional and organism as we will ever meet.

This first letter to the Corinthian congregations is pretty in your face.  Where the letter to the Romans was somewhat general and ‘high level’ in its subject matter, 1 Corinthians is quite familiar and in your face. Paul is very candid and direct in dealing with the sin and rebellion in the Corinthian Church.

Frankly, 21st century Church leaders would do well to take a page out of Paul’s book and be less circumspect when dealing with our own congregational problems. Let’s take a look and some of the things he addresses.

Chapters 1-3 Paul focuses on divisions that were cropping up in the Church. In this case the divisions were centered around Christian Celebrities (Paul, Apollos, Peter, and Jesus). Paul declares they are all wrong and reminds them that there are no celebrities in Christianity, only servants.

Unfortunately, Church splits have not decreased over the centuries. I wish I could count the number of Churches I’ve known that have divided angrily and have weakened their witness in their local community. I know a place in Texas where each corner of a particular intersection has a congregation that are all splits of a single Church. My second student ministry was with a split of a split. Wow, was that ever fun.

In Chapter 4, Paul defends his own ministry and his authority. You can hear his sarcasm when he says, I don’t care whether I’m judged by you or any other person.

Chapter 5 is one of the weirdest chapters in the whole Bible. Paul confronts the Church about a man in Corinth who is having an affair with his stepmother. Creepy.

Chapter 6 finds Paul addressing the fact that Church members are taking each other to court and that it’s a terrible testimony to the community.

After that he transitions to address sexual behavior outside of and inside of marriage.  He defines marriage and appropriate sexual behavior very clearly.  I know it’s unpopular to stand by a traditional view of sexuality and marriage, but who would know better than the creator of both, as to how it should work. (Story of Tim White and plane to Alpirod)

In Chapter 10, Paul switches gears and confronts some improprieties in worship. This discussion runs through chapter 14. During this time, he focuses on improprieties in worship like abuse of the Lord’s Table, and abuses of spiritual gifts. Chapter 13, the famous ‘Love Chapter’ is right in the middle of all this. The lesson is, if we love God and our neighbor, abuses will fall to the wayside.

In Chapter 15, the letter reaches a crescendo when Paul goes straight to the point that the resurrection of Jesus is the central point of Christian Doctrine. Apparently some people were falling in with the sadducees who say there is no resurrection. On the other side, some people were practicing ‘Baptism for the dead’.  Paul uses the confusion and division in Corinth to drive home the point that Jesus resurrection is central in our beliefs, our preaching, and our hope.

Finally, despite all their problems, Paul never says the Corinthians have been abandoned by God or that they had fallen away from grace. No, he tells them he loves and misses them and hopes to come for a visit in the near future.

God’s grace is far bigger than our tendency to screw up. We should all rest in that hope. What a relief.

 

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