Archive for the ‘loving your neighbor’ Category

His name was Joseph. Yet everyone called him Barnabas, which means “Son of Encouragement”. That name became such a part of his identity that today few people remember that his given name was Joseph and we refer to him only as Barnabas. So how did Joseph become Barnabas for the rest of history? There are two events in the Bible that stand out. The first comes in Acts Chapter 4:32-37. In the early church Barnabas is noted as one of the people who gave a large sum of money in order to insure that the poor were feed and had their needs met. That act of sacrifice was a huge encouragement to the first generation of Christians.

Later in Acts 11:19-26 we find Barnabas seeking out a young convert to Christianity and including him in the leadership of the new church at Antioch. That convert was the Pharisee named Saul, who we come to know as The Apostle Paul. In an incredible irony, that is only possible in a faith in which love and forgiveness are core values, Paul ends up leading a church that was begun by refugees who fled the persecution that he instigated before he came to faith in Christ. Imagine the kind of person Barnabas had to be that he insisted on reaching out and including the very guy who started the persecution that resulted in torture and even death for some followers of Jesus. Paul had already been rejected by the leaders in Jerusalem after his conversion. They didn’t trust him. They basically said, “great to know you are not killing us any more. We will call if we need anything”. So Paul ends up hundreds of miles away doing next to nothing for the expansion of Christianity, until Barnabas, The Son of Encouragement” takes a journey to find him and include him in the leadership of the Church at Antioch.

So what can we learn about being an encourager when we look at Barnabas? For one, he was willing to sacrifice for the sake of others so that they would be built up, strengthened, encouraged. He was willing to sacrifice financial resources so that people in need could have hope. He was willing to sacrifice his reputation when he brought in Paul for leadership. In both cases Barnabas thought more about the needs of someone else than he did about his own. But it wasn’t only the needs of the one he encouraged that he thought about. In bringing Paul into a leadership role, Barnabas was also thinking about the people Paul would impact with his ministry. He saw a gifting in Paul that needed to be encouraged to the surface in order to help others.

An encourager sees the positive impact another person does make, and can make, and comes alongside them to help it happen. What Barnabas did was come along side people to empower them, when nobody else would. That is what an encourager does. Far too many people are willing to point out the negative, where people are lacking, what can go wrong. Barnabas looked for what could go right and did what he could to make that happen.

Encouragers don’t care if someone else gets the limelight and credit. I think one reason why we don’t encourage one another more is that we are self-centered and worry that there is only so much credit and encouragement to go around. So in order to rise up above other people, we put them down or at the very least, withhold encouragement that might give them the strength they need to succeed. We see the opposite in Barnabas. He didn’t care if someone else received recognition and credit. In fact he seems to have been very happy when the one he encouraged had success. Very quickly in his relationship with Paul, he takes second place. Paul moves to the forefront as spokesman and leader. Lesser people would have been jealous, not Barnabas. An encourager does not worry about that. In fact an encourager finds delight in the success of those they encourage.

I have got to believe that over time, Barnabas rubbed off on Paul. Paul who was so encouraged by Barnabas, eventually became committed to a ministry of encouragement. Just one example comes from First Thessalonians 5:11-14 where Paul writes;

11 Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.

How different might your life be if you had someone who encouraged you instead of discouraged you, built you up instead of tore you down, respected you instead of denigrated you? We all need people like that in our life. But we also need to be that person to others. If you are around people who are encouragers, it will rub off on you like it did with Paul. I learned this from a wonderful guy I meet as part of the coaching staff at North Allegheny High School in Pittsburgh. His name was John Ross. John was the quarterback coach on that team and he was the consumate encourager. He always had positive feedback for players and friends. That does not mean he didn’t correct errors. Any coach has to do that. But he did it in a way that you knew he was on your side. John was quick to point out to other people how great someone was. I remember the first time one of my young sons met John. One of the first things he did was tell my son how lucky he was to have such a great dad. That is an encourager. What did it do for me? For one thing it motivated me to be an even better dad. Far from making people rest on their laurels, encouragement does the opposite. It gives people the motivation to live up to the words of encouragement and do even better.

Here is another thing I have learned about encouragers. When you give out encouragement to others it has a funny way of coming back to you. If you are always negative, the attitude that comes back to you will be negative. But if you encourage others, come along side them and build them up, you quickly find yourself in an environment of encouragement and others will encourage you. You will be paid back in kind. Dish out negativity and you will be paid back in negativity. Hand out praise and encouragement and you will find yourself rich in encouragement.

A very practical first step is this, look for someone who could use some praise, some encouragement, some positive reinforcement and give it to them. It could be as simple as telling someone how much their friendship means to you. It could be telling someone at work what a great job they did on a project, or what a wonderful idea they had. Find a character trait in someone that you admire and let them know you wish you could be as good at that as they are. The point is, build up people, encourage them. When you do that consistently, you will find that your life becomes filled with people who act as Barnabas in your life and encourage you.

In the fall of 2008 the Indian state of Orissa was rocked by a shocking wave of violence. Tens of thousands of Hindus went on a month-long rampage against local Christians. By the time the violence ended more than 60 pastors were killed, mostly beaten to death by mobs, and 100 churches or church related buildings were burned. I have just returned from doing 3 days of basic ministry training for 130 pastors and other leaders in Orissa. It was the most difficult trip I have ever taken. Not because of the forty hours of travel to get there, or the large furry rodents running at my feet as we ate in the hotel restaurant to go with the two others the kitchen staff had just killed and swept out the door. It wasn’t because of the garbage and filth that lined the streets and choked every lake, pond or canal. It wasn’t the smell of raw sewage flowing in the gutters or stepping in one of the countless cow patties left by the animals that roamed freely, everywhere. It wasn’t even the concern for my safety that my hosts had after a gang of men tried to disrupt our training. (From that point on I was not allowed to be on the street and was never alone expect when I got back to my hotel room.) All of that I expect as part of the deal. I have traveled enough to know that’s how it is and that someplace has to be the worst yet. You simply have to learn how to roll with that.

What made this so difficult was seeing the video tape from the news station that showed people being beat to death because of their faith, seeing the homes and churches that were burned, talking to pastors who hid in the woods for a month while people brought them food. Seeing all that and then seeing that these Christians continues to press ahead, longing for ways to reach out and serve the very neighbors who attacked them and then comparing it to our own situations in the west, THAT is what made it so difficult and painful. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t, and still can’t, shake the words of Jesus out of my head, “to whom much is given is much required”.

You see, even though these pastors have theological degrees and are well-educated in doctrine, church administration, preaching and the like, they have received no training in basic disciple-making, community outreach, the pastors family life, or multiplication through church planting. The training we did was the only known training conference for pastors EVER in this area. The average evangelical church member in the USA or England or South Africa has tons more training and resources in basic ministry than these pastors of churches in India. On top of that a single pastor there typically oversees 6 or 7 churches at the same time. They have nothing. Yet they press ahead in the face of life threatening opposition, seeking to learn how to love and serve their neighbor, their enemy. They are doing more with nothing than most in the west are doing with everything.

When I finished a session on The Good Samaritan and told them you do “What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are”, a number of them said that they felt guilt and shame because they had no idea that ministry was supposed to be about reaching out to those God puts in your path, those who are clearly in need. They had a time of repentance right there.

The typical reaction when hearing about this is for western Christians to express how grateful they are for the blessings God has given us, our freedom, resources, safety, etc. But as we are prone to do, such sentiments, while a good start, fall woefully short of what is really needed. What we  need to do is ask, “God, what do you require of me in light of all my freedom, blessings and resources”. Again I say, “to whom much is given is much required”. It simply will not do to stop with a recognition of our good fortune. We must go the next step and ask how that fortune is to be used by God so that others will come to know and love Him. In Orissa, Christians are asking that question in spite of the fact that the answer could lead to their death. How much more should we be asking that question ourselves?

I have traveled enough to have seen my share of Third World Poverty. From Swaziland, to the Amazon Basin, to India poverty has a somewhat familiar face. There is a difference between the rural and urban face of poverty but generally speaking when you see rural poverty in one country it looks a lot like rural poverty in another. The same can be said of urban poverty. Or so I thought. A few days ago I was introduced to rural poverty like I have never seen it before. The Western Province of Zambia is about the size of England yet has only a million people. Mongu is the largest town in the province with about 30,000 people. But don’t let the word “town” fool you. From what I could tell most of those 30,000 people live in grass huts no different from the rest of the province. Folks outside the town live in small grass hut villages ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred people.

It is estimated that in Western Zambia there is close to a 50% HIV/AIDS infection rate. Before the introduction of ARV’s or antiretroviral drugs, the infection rate was about 30%. So why the rise in infection rates? The ARV’s are helping people live longer. The tragedy in that is that lots of those folks are not changing their sexual habits and simply passing on the disease to more people. Included in that culture is what young girls go through after they experience their first menstruation. I small, closet sized straw enclosure is made outside the house. It has no roof and no door. It is a glorified walled fence with no door. it is built-in such a way that you can’t see directly in. The girls are placed their as the place where they now live and are forced to keep silent in order to learn submission. But every sex offending guy in the area knows this. So it is common for these young girls to be repeatedly raped and they must keep quiet the whole time. Not only do they suffer the trauma of that violation butit comes with the astronomically high risk of HIV infection.

As if it could not get more shocking, three out of five children in Western Zambia die before the age of five. So 60% of all children never see their fifth birthday.  What do they die from? Well AIDs is a big factor but so are very preventable and basic things. Scores of children die from drinking water that is not clean. In little ones, the diarrhea that results is quickly followed by death. Also high on the list is death from malnutrition. Even though Zambia is a net exporter of agriculture, the western province has been shut out and ignored by the central government. There are almost no roads leading into the area. Roads the do exist are either crater filled dirt roads or subject to flooding several months out of the year. So because of tribal disagreements, apathy, and the lust for power, children die.

As painful as that reality may be, the most shocking reason for this mortality rate was that some children are killed by their own parents in obedience to the dictates of the local witch doctor or shaman. Friends who I stayed with told me of the horror of learning that a family just a hundred meters down the road killed their baby. The local witch doctor told them the baby was cursed and the needed to kill it. So they buried the child alive. By the time my friends heard this and rushed to save the baby, it was too late. Lest you think that is one, extreme, unique situation we heard similar stories on several occasions.

But there is hope. My friends, Paul and Marinette Van Coller are living in Mongu and leading an effort called The Zambia Project. Along with an amazing team of people, including their 5 and 3-year-old sons, the Van Collers are providing education, health care, job training, a safe house village for abused children and are taking the Gospel to all parts of the province. Their vision is to plant a church within walking distance of all 1 million people in the province. Walking distance for them is not what it is in the west. Six or seven kilometers or about an hours walk is their target. That means they are working towards planting 6,000 churches.

The reason for planting the churches is simple enough. The only way to break the hold of animism and witch doctors, and sexual abuse of kids, and provide clean water and dignity is if there is a healthy church that is serving people in Jesus name. These folks need the freedom and power that can only come from the Gospel.

The process is actually rather simple. A group of people, including Zambians who are being raised up for leadership will head off into the bush in four by fours. They will go to a village and live out of their vehicles for a week or two at a time, building relationships and talking about Jesus. Eventually some people come to faith and become the beginning of a church. The team then stays in contact and trains local leaders to begin the process of improving their lives in the village. Eventually those new believers duplicate the process in villages nearby. If that all sounds very “first century Book of Acts” to you, you’re right. It is exactly that.

What inspires me is that people like Paul and Marinette and James and Jess, Lehana, Moses, Stephen, Maurice, Scott and Naomi, and Ruani, have dedicated themselves to serve others as Jesus would. Some of them are from the province and they are struggling desperately to bring Jesus to their homeland. Others are from outside Zambia but they know that God would not let them ignore the needs of others. In the developed world we find it easy to insulate ourselves from the harsh realities faced by most people on the planet. Just by reading this blog you have allowed yourself to move out of your isolation and see the stark reality of life that is normal for others. The question is, will you slide back into your comfortable world in the next five minutes or will you allow what you have learned to change you into a different person? Will you live more simply so you can give to others? Will you give up your vacation in order to go and spend two weeks feeding babies or even planting churches in Zambia? Will you reach out to the homeless person you pass each day on the corner? Will you spend more time with Jesus so you can learn to love as He loves and tell others about Him?

For 33 years Dr Tom Little and his wife Libby served the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan. They had dedicated their lives to a ministry of eye care and preventing blindness. On Thursday August 5th, Tom and nine fellow aid workers were killed by the Taliban. The initial report from the Taliban was that they killed them because of their missionary efforts. Later that was changed to a charge of spying. That’s just a thinly veiled way of covering up the fact that these people were killed because they were serving others in Jesus name.

Tom’s wife made it clear that this was their ministry. It was their way of serving God by serving those in need. This was not a short-term two-week trip that they made on occasion. This was a lifetime of serving others. It even included having their children with them and at times avoiding rocket attacks and worse. As Libby put it, 100 rockets was a good day. These are people who are sold out to serving others in Jesus name.

Tom could have easily had a nice comfortable practice in America, living in the suburbs and working 9 to 5. He could have spent Sunday’s going to their church in New York and doing some occasional outreach events. Instead they listened to the radical call of Jesus to do something truly provocative. They did something that caused countless numbers of Afghan poor to honor, love, and do their best to protect them over the years. They provoked the kind of response that living radically for Jesus is supposed to provoke.

But they also provoked the kind of response that Jesus warned about when he said, “blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you for my name’s sake”. When we serve Jesus in radical ways, there will be lives that are changed because people are confronted with the love of Christ. Far to often we Christians fail to live radically for Jesus. We fail to sacrifice for others. We fail to give up our comfort. We fail to invite others into our homes to give them shelter. We fail to stop and help the broken along the road. When asked why, most people point to the uncertainty, even danger, of living a risky, provocative life for Jesus. Tom Little considered the risk well worth the reward of loving those in deepest need. He loved them with the sacrificial love of Christ.

When speaking about what has happened, Tom’s widow said very calmly “We had 40 wonderful years together — of serving together, all those years, doing what we thought we should do. And that’s enough for a life.” Tom Little gave his life, everyday, for 40 years. He gave it in service to others in Jesus name. When he was killed because of that service on Thursday, it was one more day of service and sacrifice for others, only this time it was the ultimate sacrifice. I have got to believe that 40 years of giving his life for others served to prepare him and his family for that day.

God be with the Little family. God be with us that we might live as Tom Little lived.

In a tragic and ironic twist a modern-day Good Samaritan is left to die on the side of the road instead of being helped by the people who pass him by. The phrase “Good Samaritan” has come down to us from a story told by Jesus. In the tale an unknown man is beaten and robbed and left for dead by his attackers. The story is found in The Gospel of Luke 10:25-37. As the man lay beaten on the side of the road he is ignored by a Levite and a Priest, two religious leaders. He is finally helped by a man from Samaria, our Good Samaritan. That Samaritan would normally have been an adversary at best and a sworn enemy at worst. However on this day he showed what it meant to love your neighbor and that was the point of Jesus story, to show us that whoever we come across who has a need is our neighbor.

Recently a woman was being attacked on a New York street. Coming to her rescue was Hugo Alfredo Tale-Yax. The woman was able to escape as a result of the Good Samaritan Mr. Tale-Yax. Tragically, during her rescue, Tale-Yax was stabbed several times. He collapsed on the sidewalk, bleeding. During the next hour and a half more than 25 people walked by him. They were all caught on camera as several even stopped and looked at him. At least one man leaned down and shook him but ran off when he saw the pool of blood on the sidewalk beneath his body. The whole time it is obvious from the film that our Good Samaritan was still alive. Eventually he bleed to death.

The story of this fallen hero is not unique and it is not isolated to New York City. Jesus was able to tell the Good Samaritan Parable and give it such a lasting impact because it is all too common, then and now, for people to ignore those in need even if they have to step around them to do so. What made this story particularly unique is that Tale-Yax had tried to break that cycle of personal isolationism by helping a woman in trouble. He refused to ignore the desperate plight of his “neighbor” and acted in a most Christ-like way. He gave his life, not for a friend, but for a person he had never before met.

The additional tragedy is that many will use what happened to our modern-day Good Samaritan as their justification for not getting involved. Rather than being motivated to act in the future because of the callous lack of action by two dozen people, many will pull further back into isolation. “You never know what is really going on and what may happen to you if you try to help”. “It’s best not to get involved”. “You need to think of yourself and your family first”. Certainly the priest and Levite in Jesus’ story used such statement for their own justification. For many of you it will sound wise and prudent to mind your own business and the death of Mr. Tale-Yax serves to reinforce that. My friends, that is an even bigger tragedy. That is evidence of a life lived in fear. Fear of what might happen. Fear of the cost. Fear of the unknown. Fear of hardship or struggle or danger.

Maybe Mr. Tale-Yaz should have ignored the woman being attacked. Maybe he should have crossed to the other side of the street. But what if the next day he read a headline that told of the death of a woman on that corner and of the man who crossed to the other side of the road refusing to help? What then? I suspect that he would have not been able to live with himself knowing that he could have saved her, even at risk to himself. I wonder what the two dozen people who passed by Mr. Tale-Yax felt when they saw not only the headlines, but the video of themselves passing him by? Would their fear from the previous day have been replaced by guilt and shame? Which do they now wish they lived with, the unknown repercussions of loving a neighbor or a lifetime of guilt?

Time and again the Bible calls us to “fear not”. Why? Because it says, “God is with us”. We are told that two people are better than one for if one struggles the other is there to help. When you walk in a relationship with God you are never alone. It doesn’t mean that nothing terrible or painful will never happen to you. It simply means that He is there with you to help you through it. That is all we need ask or hope for, that God be with us at all times to carry us through whatever comes our way. That includes sometimes doing hard things to help and love those around us. It is an effort to love your neighbor. It is sometimes dangerous. But it is extremely Christ-like. People used to have “WWJD” bracelets. It was a big fad for a time. “What Would Jesus Do?”. The answer is simply. He would love His neighbor no matter the cost, no matter the risk, no matter the danger.

Oh, one last thing. Don’t be the kind of person who reads this story, bemoans how bad the world is and who wrong those two dozen passers-by were, and then goes back to life in your little Christian bubble. The easiest thing in the world to do is point out what others should have done and then retire to our own safe haven, thinking we are fine and wonderful simply because we can see what someone else should have done. Why not go out your front door, look the left and the right and ask God what you can do to love your neighbor today. Loving your neighbor and taking a risk seldom requires putting your life at risk. Usually it just requires that we get up off the sofa and open our eyes.

I made the mistake of asking a friend for some book suggestions related to the chapter on worship for the Provocative Christian Living book. He suggested a book that connects our worship of God to our doing justice for the poor, oppressed and enslaved. It was not what I expected but more than I could have hoped for.

The bottom line of Mark Labberton’s book, “The Dangerous Act of Worship”, is that we can’t say we love God if we do not love our neighbor. I know, that comes right out of 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” How we treat our neighbor, especially the poor and oppressed has a direct connection to our worship of God. In short, it is not possible to worship God if we are not concerned about the issues of pain and suffering that are faced by people made in God’s image.

I am reminded of a story of a congregation that was confronted with a dilemma one Sunday morning. Just like every other Sunday morning they made their way from their cars to their seats in the sanctuary. Each one was dressed in their Sunday best, including their obligatory Sunday morning smile and greeting for the other worshipers parading in to worship. What made this Sunday morning different was the man huddled in a corner near the bottom of the steps, outside, near the street. He was dirty and had his own uniquely unpleasant aroma. His hair was greasy and knotted, and covered by a dirty brown beanie pulled low over his eyes. An over-large tattered trench coat kept him warm while one arm remained hooked around a shopping cart loaded with the totality of his worldly possessions. No one spoke to him. Most turned away and made sure not to lock eyes with the man. Children who embarrassed their parents with overly loud questions about the man where told not to pay any attention.

Inside the sanctuary the service was about to begin. Everyone was seated in their normal places, the ones they always sat in, waiting quietly for the pastor to step onto the platform. To the shock and dismay of the entire congregation, the dirty, homeless stranger from outside came stumbling down the middle aisle and took a seat in the front row. No one dared move or say a word. A few minutes of uncomfortable silence felt like an eternity. Just when people expected the pastor to come out to begin the service and maybe deal with the man who was so out of place, the man stood up. He slowly walked up to the platform and had the audacity to step into the pulpit. To the gasps and bewilderment of the congregation, he removed his cap, took off the knotted wig, removed the tattered coat, wiped the grime from his face and revealed himself as their pastor in. All he needed to do was stand there. The Holy Spirit did the rest. People were confronted with their rejection of someone in need as they prepared to tell God how much they loved Him by worshiping as they always did.

It really gets back to what Jesus said about what we do for the sick, the prisoner, the naked, the hungry and the rejected. To the degree we serve them and care for them, we are serving and caring for Jesus. If we fail to serve them and care for them, then we really are not serving and caring for Jesus no matter how many songs of praise we sing or offerings of resources we make.

Buy caring about issues of justice and loving our distressed neighbor, we take worship out of the exclusive realm of the sanctuary or church auditorium. Instead, we find ourselves on the road to making worship a 24/7 act of giving ourselves to God. When we care for, and show love to others, we are honoring God who made them. You cannot honor the creator and dishonor that which he created. If I say I love Picasso but I slap graffiti on one of his paintings, then I am really making a statement about what I truly think of Picasso. If however I really love Picasso, then I will cherish and care for that which he painted. The same is true in our worship of God. If I really want to honor God, then I must cherish and care for that which He has made in His image. It is in that context that doing justice is what God wants from us in our worship of Him. It is summed up in these words from the Prophet Micah:

He has shown you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. Micah 6:8

No it does not say “Sacrificing Your Enemies” as good as that might sound at times. Jesus instead was pretty clear and adamant about us making sacrifices on behalf of our enemies. In the Sermon on the Mount he hits this hard.

If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Matthew 5:41

Imagine this scenario if you would. The country in which you live has been conquered by another country that is steadily taking over the entire world. Everywhere you go there are foreign soldiers patrolling the streets. They are proud and boastful. They take what they want from anyone and arrest people whenever they feel like it. On a daily basis people are executed by the soldiers. Women live in fear that they may be violated like their neighbor was last week. Men live in anger and shame over their inability to do anything to protect their family and their possessions. In the midst of all this the occupying army has a law that any soldier may, at any time, grab any citizen and force them to carry their gear for one mile.

That is the context for these words from Jesus. This is not just some theoretical sermon on his part. This was life as faced by his followers everyday. The Roman army had conquered Israel years before. Soldiers were everywhere. In fact a unit was posted in a fortress right next to the Temple, the most holy of places for the Jews. Even when they went to worship they were reminded of being a conquered people. There was even the law about carrying a soldiers gear for one mile. You simply had to do it.

So now imagine that you had a son who was killed by the Romans, or a wife who was raped by them, or a husband who was beaten senseless by them. Then one day as you are heading to the market to buy food for your family, you see some Roman soldiers coming towards you. You keep your head lowered, avoiding eye contact at all costs. You move to the side of the road hoping to stay well out of their way and their notice. They move past you and you let out a quiet sigh of relief that nothing happened and you can move on to the market. Suddenly your heart sinks when you hear one of them shout, “Hey, you! Carry my pack and supplies”. The natural human reaction is to be angry, upset, maybe even a little afraid. You are being forced to go a mile in the wrong direction. In order to get back to where you are now means a total of two miles out of your way. You need to carry the very supplies that this soldier uses to keep your people in subjection and you need to do it so he is not worn out from doing it himself and has more energy to fight your people if need be.

Jesus makes it clear that when you get to the end of the one mile requirement of the law that you should offer freely to carry the pack a second mile. That means a four mile total for you to sacrifice for and serve your enemy and then get back to where you started hours earlier. This is clearly going above and beyond that call of duty. It is in fact where we get the phrase, “going the extra mile”.

In all of this Jesus is giving us a real life example for the principle of loving your enemies. It is a hard principle to follow but that is what makes it so provocative. Picture the response of your enemy at the end of the first mile when you freely offer to go a second. No one has ever done that before. Always in the past they dropped the gear as fast as they could and went rushing back the way they came. Maybe they even mumbled a few choice words as they did so. But you offer with a smile to serve this enemy. He is going to ask, “Why would you do that?” At which point you are given an open door to say, “because I love Jesus and I know he loves you too”.

It really is a matter of what you value most. If you value your agenda, time, pleasure, need for revenge, sense of justice or anything else more than you value fulfilling the call that Jesus has placed on your life, then this is an impossible task. Your reaction will default to complaining, anger or disgust. But if you have as your primary reason for being, to honor Jesus and see more people become worshipers of him, then you will set aside your need for revenge. You will give up your right to grumble and complain over the unfairness of it all. You will avoid the pity party of why this has happened to you. Instead you will, with joy, look at the opportunity that Jesus has given you to show someone what it means to truly follow Him.

That is what it means to be a Provocative Christian. So what is the extra mile you can go for someone? What is the thing you can do for another, even you enemy, so that they ask why you did it and you can point them to Jesus?

I came upon this quote recently. It was written by Dionysius the Bishop of Alexandria in 260AD. He wrote at the conclusion of a five year plague that at its height killed 5,000 people a day and by the end two out of every three inhabitants of the city.

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty,
never sparing themselves
and thinking only of one another.
Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need,
ministering to them in Christ,
and with them departed this life serenely happy;
for they were infected by others with the disease,
drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and accepting their pains.
Many, in nursing and curing others,
transferred their death to themselves
and died in their stead.
The best of the brothers lost their lives in this way”

My friends, that is how we change the world. That is how people are drawn into following Christ. It makes no human sense that people would want to give themselves to a religion that asks them to serve people they don’t even know, even to the point of death. And yet, that kind of service was a major reason why the Roman world was turned right side up. Our love of our neighbor, with that kind of devotion and sacrifice, is exactly what tells people that this whole thing of following Jesus must be right. There is no other explanation for an action that is so self-sacrificing. Jesus must really be who he claimed to be if his followers live with such a radical love for God and neighbor. There is substance to our words when our actions are so provocative. Oh that we would have that kind of faith again. Oh that I would have that kind of faith.

Today is what many followers of Christ refer to as Maundy Thursday. Have you ever wondered what Maundy actually means. You would be stunned to find out. I know I was. Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum from which we get the word mandate. In the Latin Vulgate translation of the scriptures, after Jesus washes the feet of the disciples it says, novum mandatum, a “new mandate” or “new command” do I give you. That command was that we are to serve one another and love one another as Jesus has served and loved us. Maundy Thursday was named as a reminder to all followers of Jesus that we are to serve and love one another just as He did. Somewhere along the way we have completely forgotten that aspect of being Christ followers, at least as it relates to Maundy Thursday.

With the expection of the ritual washing of feet performed by the Pope each year on this date, you rarely if ever hear of foot washing as an act of service for others. I have had the privilege of being on both the receiving and the giving ends of foot washings and can tell you that it is humbling from both directions. But it is also incredibly freeing. To serve and allow yourself to be humbly served is an amazing experience.

When I look at our contemporary methods of holding communion services I have often wondered why we simplified it down to a piece of bread and some juice when it was originally a full blown meal. I sometimes also wonder why we have simplified it by eliminating the foot washing. This may be the only instance in all the history of the church in which we simplified something instead of complicating it. We would have been better off to have left it in it’s original form.

Every year churches around the world with commemorate the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples. They will have a simplified communion service that will point them to the coming crucifixion and the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf. In many cases churches will have a Seder Meal, a Christian interpretation of the Passover, focusing on Jesus as the unblemished lamb that was slain. We will rightly look to the suffering savior and the incredible and unique way in which he served us.

Yet in spite of the name Maundy Thursday and the clear example that Jesus gave as a servant, and his New Mandate that we serve on another and love one another as he has demonstrated, I rarely hear us being called to that outward focus on this day. For some reason we have taken this event that Jesus intended to be used to direct us to the serving of others and we have truncated it into be about how he has served us. Yes it is about how he has served us by his life, teaching, foot washing, serving the meal, and eventually going to the cross. But it must not stop there. He said that he has given us, his followers, and example to in fact follow. We are to look to Jesus as the one who so sacrificially served us and we are to in turn do likewise for others. The day was given the name, New Mandate in order to remind us of that crucial truth. Maybe if we still had to learn Latin we would remember that. But I suspect that in our self-centered way we would still find a way around the New Mandate to serve on another. After all the first disciples did just that at the Last Supper. Jesus rebuked them because none of them were willing to serve one another. Not only would none of them wash the feet of the others. No one so much as got water for them to wash their own feet. Each one sat around waiting for the other to be the servant. So Jesus became the servant and showed them a better way.

Maundy Thursday is the day of the New Mandate, the New Command that Jesus gave. Love one another as I have loved you. Serve one another in the same way that you have seen me, the Master, serve you. In this way you will glorify my Father in Heaven. It is not just about remembering a last meal. Today is about remembering the last commands given us by the Lord.

The Bible is not nearly as complicated as people make it out to be. Yet, what I have learned is that it is simple enough that the least astute child can understand it’s depths and deep enough that the most skilled of scholars can never fully grasp it’s implications. This verse from Philippians comes to mind as one of the verses that so perfectly fits that reality.

12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Philippians 2:12-13

On numerous occasions I have had people ask me about this verse and wondering if there is a contradiction here. People think that Paul is saying our salvation depends on our good works. They get the fear and trembling part because they usually start trembling when they realize they are not doing a very good job of it. But Paul is not saying that our good works, or being a good person is was gets you into heaven. The problem is, people usually read verse 12 and forget to read verse 13. The verse divisions are great for finding places in the Bible but terrible as a guide to understanding it. Verses 12 and 13 are a complete sentence. To read verse 12 by itself is to only read one half of the thought. We would never do that with any other piece of literature yet we do it with the Bible all the time. Not a good idea.

What Paul is saying is simply this, “When I was with you, you did a great job of living for Jesus. Keep doing this even though I am not there. Work hard at living out the salvation you have been given by God. Why, Because God is working in you and that should be made evident in the way you live.” Paul is NOT saying that you are saved by being a good person. He is perfectly clear in many other places that we are saved by God’s grace and the faith/trust we have in Jesus Christ. The life we live as followers of Christ does not save us, but it should be a life that is consistent with being a follower of Jesus who is saved by God’s grace.

Paul does not say, “work FOR your salvation” or “work AT your salvation” or “work TOWARD your salvation”. All of those would mean that in some way it is your efforts that gain you admission into eternal life. He says “work OUT your salvation”. In other words, live it out. Plan out your life, live out your life, work out your life in such a way that your salvation is obvious. And you need to be so committed to living out the Christ-like life that you are driven to it with an urgency that makes you tremble.

But why such urgency? Why such desperation to live out your salvation? Paul gives the reason, “For God is at work in you”. Why work out your salvation with fear and trembling? Because God is working in you, giving you the will to follow and obey Him. To fail to live out your life as a radical follower of Jesus is to actually work against what God is doing in you. That should cause fear and trembling in us. When we fail to love others in Jesus name, when we fail to be content with what God has given us, when we long for someone who is not our spouse, when we fail to love God with our entire being, we are not simply ignoring something that God has told us. We are actively opposing God and what He is doing.

To simply ignore God could be seen as a passive thing. It is like failing to exercise. We view that as passive. We are not actively trying to hurt our body, we are just not doing anything to actively help it. I think we often look at our Christian life that way. We are passive in it and think that this is somehow acceptable to God because at least we are not actively opposing God. What Paul is saying is that by NOT actively working at living for Jesus, we are by default, actively opposing what God is doing in our lives. In reality, failing to exercise means that you are actually actively working at getting fatter, weaker, and sicker. You have made a decision to do something that harms you. That something is whatever takes the place of healthy physical activity. The same is true of your spiritual well being. To fail to live a life that is committed to a radical love for God and neighbor is to actively oppose the work that God is doing in you. Every time I fail to love God with all I have and my neighbor as myself, I am actively fighting against what God is doing in me as He works to shape me into a more Christ-like follower.

The fact that God has worked in me to grant me grace and faith should motivate me to live for Him with all I am. The fact that God has worked in such as way as to pay the penalty for my sin should cause me to tremble before Him. The recognition that my sin is great but God’s love for me is greater, should cause me to work at living for Him like nothing else I have ever done in my life. I do it, not to earn salvation, but because I have salvation.

One of the most common practices in the early church was that of hospitality. It was radical hospitality. It started with Jesus never having a house of his own and most often staying in homes of people who demonstrated radical hospitality. It continued when he sent out the first disciples, telling them to preach the Good News and to stay in the homes of people who would offer them a bed. It culminated in the Letter to the Hebrews in which the author urges radical hospitality for a radical reason.

Be sure to welcome strangers into your home. By doing this, some people have welcomed angels as guests, without even knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

What an amazing statement. The writer is saying that some people have actually opened their homes to angels without knowing it. How incredible! Movies and television programs are full of the theme of angels stepping into the world and making an impact without us even knowing it. Movies like, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Angels in the Outfield”, and programs like “Touched by an Angel”, all revolve around angels in our midst. Put the writer to the Hebrews is not talking about fantasy. He is talking about real life.

It is mind blowing to think that people could put a sign outside their house saying that “An Angel Slept Here”. But what is more amazing to me is that there were probably some people who missed the opportunity by actually turning a stranger away. If people showed hospitality to angels without knowing it, then certainly people turned away angels without knowing it. What a missed opportunity that must have been.

What really is the challenge for us today is to consider the role of radical hospitality today. The move away from any kind of hospitality to a culture in which we hide behind out walls and separate ourselves from others is well documented. How often does the typical suburbanite drive home from work, hit the garage door remote, pull into the garage, put down the door and the walk into the house without ever engaging their neighbors? Most people don’t even know their neighbors names. What a radical shift it would be if Christians actually started inviting their neighbors over for a barbecue or Super Bowl party. But that stuff is not even close to being radical.

The early church was radical. Paul could travel anywhere there were Christians and always have a place to stay. It was so common for Christians to open their homes to others that at the turn of the first century there were already written down standards for such things. It was considered a privilege to open your home to people. Today we only see the extra work and burden of it all.

When I look at our family I can see that we have done some things of radical hospitality but we pale in comparison to those first generations of Christians. The past Christmas we opened our home for a week to two students from Taiwan whom we had never met before. They are not Christians but we had some great conversations about God. The best part was that they started the conversations by asking questions. An added blessing was that my youngest son, Garrett, got to practice his Mandarin with them and build an ongoing relationship.  In September we had three men from Zambia stay with us. Again we never met them before, but we provided a home for them for a few days. In that case it was so they could be part of a choir raising money to support a school in their hometown in Africa. There are more such stories but the point you would get from all of them is that every time we have opened our home to others, we have been blessed far beyond what we sacrificed.

The most common objection people give to opening their home to strangers is a fear for the safety of the family. Yet, if we really pray and seek God in this we should not fear. I have a friend in South Africa who opened his home to a man who was just released from prison. The man was on parole after having spent years in jail on a murder charge. My friend and his wife opened their home and as a result they are being used by God to change this mans life. That is the kind of hospitality God wants us to demonstrate because that is provocative and changes lives for His glory.

I am not a big fan of the WWJD bracelets, simply for the reason that a very good question, “What Would Jesus Do” quickly became a cliche’ and not a way of life. But with that said I have to ask the question about the current economic crisis, “What Would Jesus Do?” It is an important question, especially considering the current human response to it all. Politicians are posturing to get money funneled to pet projects that serve more to win them votes at home than to actually help the economy. Then they express outrage over things like AIG bonuses, only to find that one of their own put that loophole in the bill and they all voted for it. In the meantime people who have their jobs and have no hope that the government will ever really got to helping them, are left frightened and desperate.

Jesus gave His followers some very clear instructions about how to live and how to take care of one another. He said things like,  “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” John 13:34. And just how did Jesus love us? That is simple. He sacrificed whatever was necessary so that we would have all we needed to be in relationship with Him. He died so we could live. As Philippians 2:5-8 puts it,

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The early church figured out how to do this in very practical ways. The Book of Acts tells us that no one in that first gathering of Christians in Jerusalem ever went without having the basic needs of life provided for them.

44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Acts 2:44-45

This was not government forced socialism or communism. This was Holy Spirit led generosity and sacrifice for the sake of family. Those first Christians understood that they were family in Christ. They were brothers and sisters in the Lord. As family they took care of one another no matter what the sacrifice entailed. People have done things like that for family through out the history of mankind. But usually it was for family by blood. This was for family by Spirit. They didn’t just take care of family. They took care of anyone God put across their path, but they especially made sure that they took care of family. Paul said to “Do good to all men, especially to the household of faith”.

In that first church, if someone was out of work, they would be inviting into someones business to help out. If that was not possible the the people who had food would provide for those who did not. If someone lost their home then others would open their home and give them a place to live. No one was concerned with protecting his own little material bubble. Because they interacted with each other on a regular basis they refused to turn a blind eye to a brothers need. People like Barnabas sold property and had the money used to feed people.

Whether we want to admit it or not, Christians today are as infected by the virus of materialism as the rest of the world. Think of your gut response to the idea of opening your home to give people a place to live. Did you immediately go to the impact on your comfort. Did the very idea of it make you uncomfortable. Did you quickly come up with reasons why your life situation would not allow for that? Okay, what if it was your parents, or your child, or your twin sister who was homeless? Would that change the equation? I would hope so. Now, what about your father in the faith, or your brother in Christ, or your sister in the Lord? They are family too. The response should be no different.

What if you are faced with a need that is beyond you ability to meet. Maybe you have a spare room that someone can move into but you do not have the ability to provide food for them and you. You can’t provide transportation for them or medicine or clothing, then what. In the early church that was simple. They gathered together as the church, house to house. The typical church gathering would have been between 20 and 40 people who where the church at someones house. From time to time the various “House Churches” would come together for bigger meetings, but almost daily they would gather in their neighborhood in a House Church. So the person who was homeless, or out of a job, or sick, would be provided for by a couple of dozen people who shared the load. You might open your house, three other families would take turns providing groceries, someone else would make clothing, someone else would watch the children, someone else would you get their friend who was a physician to come and check on them. It was the people of God being led by the Holy Spirit to meet the needs of the family of God.

Those early Christians were so good at caring for their own that they quickly branched out and started doing the same for the non-Christians who lived near them. Eventually the Roman world noticed this as was put to shame by the sacrificial love of the Christians. Through that sacrificial lifestyle the Roman empire was turned on it’s ear as millions came to Jesus because of the love that we had for one another. Oh to see that happen again!

P.S. Props to Scotty Alderman for suggesting this topic and the next few that will follow the Church in Acts 2

I find it very interesting to consider “worst-case scenarios”. A few years ago I even bought a board game by that name. (By the way, don’t bother getting it. It became the fulfillment of it’s own name) But thinking about the worst-case scenario recently I thought, what would the typical church going American do if attending worship at a church building with lots of other people was no longer an option? What would you do if for some reason it was no longer legal or possible to do so? What if it was still legal to be a Christian, you just could never gather in a group of more than a few people at a time? What if terrorist threat levels meant there were no longer any large group gatherings, not just churches, but sporting events, schools and theme parks and concerts. Sound crazy? Often worst-case scenarios seem to be crazy until they actually happen. Think, The Black Death, The Titanic, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina.

But lets just stick to the church gathering part of this scenario. What would you do? How would you continue to follow Jesus and grow in your faith if you could no longer gather in a “church building” with others? What would you do differently from the way you live your Christian life right now if you had no worship team to lead you, no pastor/teacher to instruct you, no large gathering to make you feel upbeat about your faith? I know that in some cases, maybe even a majority of cases, people would end up with a faith that withers and shrivels beyond recognition. The reason I am sure of that is that for large numbers of people that is the only activity that connects them to their faith.

For those of you who would keep there faith growing and vibrant in such a situation, I suspect that it would look something more like this. First of all you would have a radical commitment to spending a considerable amount of time each day in prayer, worship, and study of God’s Word. That prayer time would be less about giving God updates on you life since He already knows all that, and more about pouring out your love to Him and listening for His voice. The study of His Word would be systematic and not the Bible roulette verse of the day that is forgotten tomorrow. It would probably include writing your thoughts  a journal.

Then there would be the time spent with a couple of other Christians during the week, Maybe you would meet in your home or office or even Starbucks. But it would be consistent and a top priority. That time together would include sharing insights from your time with God, what you learned, what psalm or hymn or spiritual song really grabbed you in your worship time. It might include being honest about areas of struggle in your life and being prayed for, really prayed for, by the others in the group. In between those meeting times you would be on the phone to each other or email one another, urging one another on in love and good deeds.

There would be lots of time in your schedule to meet with that new follower of Christ whom you are mentoring since leading them to the Lord a few months ago. You would be talking with them about what the Lord is teaching them and about the obstacles they are facing recently. You would be encouraging them by letting them know that this is fairly normal after a few months. The early honeymoon of following Jesus, blessing that it is from God, is now winding down and the road is getting a little steeper. But you encourage them with the assurance that you will be with them every step of the way and remind them that the person they led to Jesus last week needs encouraged in the same way when the time comes.

You will head home to get dinner ready for the next door neighbors who you are loving for the sake of the Kingdom. It started when you cut their grass while they were on vacation and then invited them over for dinner once they got back. You thought of loving them that way, because last year when you went on vacation you wished someone had loved you like that. You came home to grass way too high and a refrigerator way too empty. One day while your neighbor was away you remembered Jesus telling us to “love our neighbor as ourselves”.  When they ask why you did that, you are prepared to give a defence for the hope that is within you. You are determined to not say something lame like, “Oh it was nothing” and instead say something like, “Jesus said we are to love our neighbors”.

You would end your day praying for the people in your life who don’t know Jesus. You would pray for open doors to love them with Jesus love and for the chance to answer questions about Jesus that they bring up. You would spend a bit more time reading God’s Word, just as a snack before bedtime since you already ate fully from His Word through out the day.

Does that sound like how you would want to live out your faith if you could no longer go to a building on Sunday with lots of other Christians? Well let me ask the obvious. Why do you need to have a worst-case scenario in order to live out your faith like that, when that is exactly how Jesus wants you to live out your faith, 24/7, no matter what? How provocative would your life for Jesus be if that was the norm and the large gathering was just icing on the cake?

You can’t read the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats without being just a little bit nervous about your eternal destiny. Now without a doubt, the Bible teaches that we are saved by faith in Christ and even that is not our own doing but a gift from God. Ephesians 2:8-9 is about as clear on this as possible. We are not saved by our works. Yet, there is a incredibly important role that our good works play in relation to our salvation.

In Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus tells of sheep and goats who are separated at the judgment. The sheep are welcomed into eternal life and the goats are sent to eternal punishment. When they ask why one group goes to heaven and one does not they are told that one group, the sheep, visited the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked. As a result, the really did those things for Jesus. The other group, the goats, failed to do so and as a result failed to do so for Jesus. What is amazing is that Jesus said to the goats, away from me, I never knew you. Incredibly, these goats called him Lord in the story. They claimed to know who he was, but he denied knowing them.

So what are we to make of this? Is Jesus teaching that we are saved by works? Is he saying that we can earn our way to heaven when other parts of the Bible clearly say otherwise? Is he saying that we can loose our salvation if we don’t do enough good works? The answer is going to be found in understanding the less clear parts of the Bible, in light of the perfectly clear parts. We have to use Scripture to understand Scripture.

We have already taken a look at Ephesians 2. The next place that will help us is James2:14. “What good is it brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” The answer that James gives is no, it can not. What we need to be clear about is this, James is talking about a certain kind of faith, not saving faith. In essence what he is saying is this, can a faith that does not manifest itself in a changed life, that shows no evidence of doing the works of God, that does not forgive people, serve people, love people as ourselves, really be a faith that saves? True saving faith will demonstrate itself by how we live or more precisely, how we LOVE. If we love God with all we have and all we are, we will love our neighbor. We will serve them and care for them. That is what Jesus says the sheep did. That kind of faith will save you. Faith that does not show up in loving others is really no faith at all. That kind of faith will not save you.

That is the issue with the sheep and the goats. The goats thought they had faith. They thought Jesus was their Lord. But their faith was pure lip service. It was not people service. They talked a good game. They did not walk the talk. What the Bible teaches is that if you have a faith that is guided by loving God and loving your neighbor, then you will show people your faith by how you serve them in their time of need. Those good works do not save you. They are evidence of the faith that you have that saves you. Failure to love your neighbor and love God would be an indication that saving faith is not present. People who show no evidence of loving God by serving others my be shocked to find out that Jesus does not know them as his sheep.