Embodied – Colossians 3:1-4

The following is the manuscript of a Sunday teaching I delivered on May 3, 2020.

Close your eyes.

Picture the first thing you will do after the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order ceases.

It might be a place you will go to eat. Maybe it will be a gathering with friends. Maybe it will be the gym where you go to work out.

How clearly can you see it?

Right now, some of you see this picture crystal clear. Some of you are distraught because you feel like you can’t picture anything. Whether you can picture it clearly, or can’t picture something at all, what will make that picture reality?

Acting on what you picture. As we will say in this series, it’s embodied–to give a tangible or visible form.

A vision, a dream, a thought becomes reality when it is embodied. Some of us are living in a dream world that we never expect to make it a reality because we are unwilling to take action. Some of us are living so firmly focused on the world around us that we never dare to dream of more–a picture of what could be thus is seemingly foreign. Some of us see both the dream and the reality and have no flippin’ idea how the two get bridged because we don’t see how the dots can get connected. All three of these disconnects prevent us from seeing the vision of God be expanded through people. That has already been God’s goal–his will and his way manifested through people.

In the same way, the reality of Jesus bringing heaven to earth through His Church right now, while not always seen with clarity doesn’t make it any less real. The reality in heaven must become embodied on earth. The vision made manifest is not always the most practical. It’s not always the most heroic. God’s will embodied is composed of men and women who learn obedience through the Holy Spirit wherever they are.

Paul is writing to a group of believers whom he wants to remind them that their experience can catch up to reality. Paul wants them to aspire to be like Christ because through Christ God sees them as actually like Him. Therefore, they don’t need external practices to make them appear to be what they in fact actually are. 

If then you were raised with Christ: Paul here begins a section where he focuses on practical Christian living, with a clear understanding that practical Christian living is built on the foundation of theological truth. Because we know that Jesus is really raised from the dead, then our identification with Him becomes real. Now, if you are skeptical about the claim of the reality of Jesus’s resurrection, on this week’s episode of the mid-week podcast we will cover some basic evidence of the resurrection. 

It is only because we were raised with Christ that we can seek those things which are above. The idea of being raised with Christ was introduced back in Colossians 2:12, where Paul used baptism to illustrate this spiritual reality. Now, seeing that we are raised with Christ, certain behavior is appropriate to us. An inward resurrection drives external resurrected living.

“The opening verses of chapter 3 sustain the closest connection with the closing verses of chapter 2. There the apostle reminds the Colossians that ascetic regulations are of no real value in restraining indulgence of the flesh. The only remedy for sinful passions is found in the believers’ experience of union with Christ.”

Because we were raised with Christ, we should act just as Jesus did when He was resurrected.

  • After His resurrection, Jesus left the tomb. So should we – we don’t live there any more.
  • After His resurrection, Jesus spent His remaining time being with and ministering to His disciples. So should we – live our lives to be with and to serve one another.
  • After His resurrection, Jesus lived in supernatural power with the ability to do impossible things. So should we – with the power and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.
  • After His resurrection, Jesus looked forward to heaven, knowing He would soon enough ascend there. So should we – recognizing that our citizenship is in heaven.
  • After His resurrection, Jesus knew he would return to judge the earth and make it new. So should we — actively demonstrate what this new earth will be like so that more people will get to experience it.

To emphasize the implications of Christ’s resurrection, even more, Paul added the phrase, sitting at the right hand of God: Our attention is to be focused on the sovereign rule which Christ now exercises. The command to aspire to the things of heaven is a command to meditate and dwell upon Christ’s sort of life, and on the fact that he is now enthroned as the Lord of the world.” (Wright)

The logical conclusion, of your being risen with Christ, is that… Set your mind on things above: 

“The believer is to ‘seek the things… above.’ The word ‘seek’ marks aspiration, desire, and passion…. In order to seek these things the mind must be set on them.” The best Christian living comes from minds that are fixed on heaven. They realize that their lives are now hidden with Christ in God, and since Jesus is enthroned in heaven, their thoughts and hearts are connected to heaven also. Paul has now flipped the object that was hidden. The mystery of Christ has been made known to us so that we can be hidden in Christ.

Actively look & do not settle. This is not passive. 

Inevitably I end up coughing loudly or knocking something over to reveal my location so I can extricate myself from said contorted position. Horrible game. This, I think, is the kind of seeking we sometimes employ when attempting to “seek the things that are above.” We give the search little attention – 10 minutes in the Word here and there, a brief pause to pray or meditate – but are ultimately distracted by other things and aren’t fully invested in the search.

See, my kids might look for me for a few minutes but ultimately if you offered them a snack or a video game they’d abandon the search immediately without bothering to inform me. Isn’t that often what our seeking looks like? Half-hearted, easily distracted. 

We just got finished with looking at how the ascetic practices and rules will not curb self-indulgence, meaning, these won’t effectively move our eyes from self to what is above. So what will?

First, seeking God in a distracted world begins with picturing the end. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory: The promise of the return of Jesus is not only that we will see His glory, but so that we also will appear with Him in glory. Christ who is our life:  Sometimes we say, “Music is his life” or “Sports is his life” or “He lives for his work.” Of the Christian, it should be said, “Jesus Christ is his life.” There is a nuance between “Church is his life” and “Jesus is his life.” In our community groups, we will take a look at this nuance.

On that day, all will see the saints of God for what they really are, not as they merely appear to this world. “Paul, the prisoner, an eccentric Jew to the Romans and a worse-than-Gentile traitor to the Jews, will be seen as Paul the apostle, the servant of the King. The Colossians, insignificant ex-pagans from a third-rate country town, will be seen in a glory which, if it were now to appear, one might be tempted to worship.”

Second, Encounters with believers who embody the character of Christ. [One of my first encounters, in-laws with cars. Everyone had their own car.]

While ascetic practices won’t curb self-indulgence there are good practices that put us in position to be changed. Ultimately, these practices won’t bring change because that only comes from the Holy Spirit. What do other people’s encounters with you communicate about your encounter with Christ?

‘Earthly things’ are not all evil. Even things harmless in themselves become harmful if permitted to take the place that should be reserved for the things above.” When good things become God things in our lives, the people we encounter will be directed to something temporary instead of the intended eternal.

This is why we talk about progress over perfection: Disciplacing the temporary things that aren’t connected with Jesus from the driver’s seat of our lives. If we are connecting with Jesus, then the next interaction with the person should be different than the next.

Imagine what our world might look like if people saw Jesus as clearly in your life as they see a video on a smart phone. Imagine if their interaction with you catapulted their lives in a community of people who began to shape their life for the better. People would begin to experience Jesus wherever they lived, worked, or played.

 If this sounds like pressure to you, then please know this…we won’t get it right. Together we must return to the core of who Jesus is…a Savior who forgives us and then gives us the motivation to try again. Today, you have begin to experience newness of life through Him.

Making Christ Known Through Suffering

Sunday I preached one of the most difficult sermons to date at Generations Church. Not only did my teaching text have a difficult verse, but it also had a difficult meaning an application. I have written out a portion of my sermon that covers suffering for the sake of others.

The letter of Colossians is written to a church by the apostle Paul. He wants this church to know that they have been following the real Jesus. The feeling that they are missing out on a fuller spiritual experience has been evoked by false teachers through a cheap trick.

Paul can’t counter these false teachers in person because Paul is in prison. For those who may not know the backstory for Colossians, Paul didn’t plant the church. But, Paul introduced Jesus to a guy named Epaphras who then started this church. This church is filled with people from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

So far in this letter to the Colossians: he has praised this church for their impact on the world. He has reminded them that they aren’t missing something. It’s not Jesus+. After this long build-up, Paul as he often does gives them an example of sorts. This example comes from his life.

Paul is a guy who had power. He had comfort. He was in control. He had the approval of others. He gives that up when he encounters Jesus. Here’s how he describes what he is doing to the followers of Jesus…

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church. 25 I have become its servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints.

– Colossians 1:24-26

This first verse is difficult. Is something missing in Christ’s sacrifice for us? The short answer is no. Nothing is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.

Paul’s point is that he is suffering for the sake of others so that Christ is made known and mature believers are grown.

Paul’s claim is steeped in the backstory of God’s chosen people. Israel’s experiences of affliction throughout its history—particularly Egyptian slavery, the Babylonian exile, and subsequent oppression under the Syrians and Romans—is understood as part and parcel of God’s redemptive purposes. The age of suffering was limited, and the age to come would dawn soon and God would judge the measures used.

Paul is not attaching atoning value whatever to his own sufferings for the church. The term ‘afflictions of Christ’ speaks, rather, of those ministerial sufferings which Paul bears because he represents Jesus Christ.

Christ’s sufferings climaxed in the cross are all-sufficient. Peace, reconciliation, and right standing with God are its results. At the same time, Paul is also convinced that this gospel must be proclaimed, received in faith, and implemented in everyday life in order for God’s redemptive purposes to be achieved.

The type of suffering that Paul is speaking to is the result of the verbal proclamation of Jesus as King that’s a direct assault on one’s culture. This is not the general consequences of living in a fractured world.

The reason the Colossian people are suffering and the reason for their prior success in impacting others are their following Jesus. However, there were these teachers who advocated they missed part of the gospel because of their suffering. Let’s get rid of it through intense self-discipline and seeking individual spiritual experiences. They could be described as ascetics or mystics. Here’s where they differ from the core of the gospel.

Ascetics focus on their holiness, on their spiritual growth, and on their perfection. These mystics focus on spirituality removed from community. Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus and was an others-centered person. Paul found holiness, spiritual growth, and maturity when he pursued these things for others.

Here’s the temptation as you focus on resolutions or goals….If your goals and resolutions are purely for yourself and have no benefit to others, then you’ve missed the “for” aspect of faith. Read those verses again. Suffering “for” the body. I was given a commission “for” you.

A self-focused lifestyle is a Jesus+ lifestyle. A Jesus+ lifestyle doesn’t work when suffering comes because whatever you have added to Jesus will tell you it’s not worth it.

The cost of suffering begs the question: What type of motivation does one have to willingly put themselves out there in the awkward and uncertain?

Paul’s goal is to make God’s message fully known. In part, the message holds a “mystery that’s been hidden for ages and generations.” Paul is referring to the process by which God was going to rescue and redeem his creation. The mystery was “when” and “how.”  The mystery was not the “what.” In Jesus, what was once pixelated is now in 4K.

Paul is now working to advance this message and bring clarity to the mystery by participating in God’s mission. Here’s an example of how these principles are applied because as American Christians we don’t always understand suffering. The following was taken from two separate articles.

“Over 100 members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, China, were arrested beginning Sunday, December 9, 2018. Among those taken away were Pastor Wang Yi, senior pastor of Early Rain, and his wife, Jiang Rong.

On December 26, 2019, Wang Yi was secretly tried at the Chengdu Intermediate People’s Court. On December 30, the court announced that Wang Yi was sentenced to 9 years of criminal detention and fined 50,000 RMB. This is the longest sentence given to a house church pastor in a decade.” You can read Wang Yi’s full statement on Civil Disobedience here. I have quoted the portation I read below.

On the basis of the teachings of the Bible and the mission of the gospel, I respect the authorities God has established in China. For God deposes kings and raises up kings. This is why I submit to the historical and institutional arrangements of God in China.

As a pastor of a Christian church, I have my own understanding and views, based on the Bible, about what righteous order and good government is. At the same time, I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience. But changing social and political institutions is not the mission I have been called to, and it is not the goal for which God has given his people the gospel.

For all hideous realities, unrighteous politics, and arbitrary laws manifest the cross of Jesus Christ, the only means by which every Chinese person must be saved. They also manifest the fact that true hope and a perfect society will never be found in the transformation of any earthly institution or culture but only in our sins being freely forgiven by Christ and in the hope of eternal life.

As a pastor, my firm belief in the gospel, my teaching, and my rebuking of all evil proceeds from Christ’s command in the gospel and from the unfathomable love of that glorious King. Every man’s life is extremely short, and God fervently commands the church to lead and call any man to repentance who is willing to repent. Christ is eager and willing to forgive all who turn from their sins. This is the goal of all the efforts of the church in China—to testify to the world about our Christ, to testify to the Middle Kingdom about the Kingdom of Heaven, to testify to earthly, momentary lives about heavenly, eternal life. This is also the pastoral calling that I have received.

For this reason, I accept and respect the fact that this Communist regime has been allowed by God to rule temporarily. As the Lord’s servant John Calvin said, wicked rulers are the judgment of God on a wicked people, the goal being to urge God’s people to repent and turn again toward Him. For this reason, I am joyfully willing to submit myself to their enforcement of the law as though submitting to the discipline and training of the Lord.

At the same time, I believe that this Communist regime’s persecution against the church is a greatly wicked, unlawful action. As a pastor of a Christian church, I must denounce this wickedness openly and severely. The calling that I have received requires me to use non-violent methods to disobey those human laws that disobey the Bible and God. My Savior Christ also requires me to joyfully bear all costs for disobeying wicked laws.

But this does not mean that my personal disobedience and the disobedience of the church is in any sense “fighting for rights” or political activism in the form of civil disobedience, because I do not have the intention of changing any institutions or laws of China. As a pastor, the only thing I care about is the disruption of man’s sinful nature by this faithful disobedience and the testimony it bears for the cross of Christ.

As a pastor, my disobedience is one part of the gospel commission. Christ’s great commission requires of us great disobedience. The goal of disobedience is not to change the world but to testify about another world.

…The Bible teaches us that, in all matters relating to the gospel and human conscience, we must obey God and not men. For this reason, spiritual disobedience and bodily suffering are both ways we testify to another eternal world and to another glorious King.

This is why I am not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China. I’m not even interested in the question of when the Communist regime’s policies persecuting the church will change. Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience. For the entire commission God has given me is to let more Chinese people know through my actions that the hope of humanity and society is only in the redemption of Christ, in the supernatural, gracious sovereignty of God.

If God decides to use the persecution of this Communist regime against the church to help more Chinese people to despair of their futures, to lead them through a wilderness of spiritual disillusionment and through this to make them know Jesus, if through this he continues disciplining and building up his church, then I am joyfully willing to submit to God’s plans, for his plans are always benevolent and good.

Precisely because none of my words and actions are directed toward seeking and hoping for societal and political transformation, I have no fear of any social or political power. For the Bible teaches us that God establishes governmental authorities in order to terrorize evildoers, not to terrorize doers of good. If believers in Jesus do no wrong then they should not be afraid of dark powers. Even though I am often weak, I firmly believe this is the promise of the gospel. It is what I’ve devoted all of my energy to. It is the good news that I am spreading throughout Chinese society.

I believe we need to take a sober look at our lives. We can learn from our brothers and sisters in places like China and the Middle East.

Our priorities as followers of Jesus must be to not live in a space that we can meticulously control or pursue comfort but to live and work for a coming kingdom.

In our country, the type of religious devotion present by both Wang Yi and the Apostle Paul seems so foreign.

Christianity is the only religion in the world the proposes an argument to endure suffering for the sake of others. We serve a suffering Savior. We have a hope of vindication on the other side of suffering. May we live our lives in such a way that it communicates everything we do is “because of Jesus.”

Breaking The Seal

It has been almost two years to the day since my last post. I have written a ton. Sermons. Email updates. Devotionals. Generations plans and material. I have written down stories. I have even written about the emotions and spiritual pressures in the lead up to starting a new faith community. While I was in the midst of it all, I found it difficult to share the words in writing. Like I said, I wrote a ton, but it did not seem adequate. At times what I would write seemed almost too good to be true, especially the numerous answers to prayers. Other times, I was scared to share because I did not want my words to be perceived the wrong way.

I was always conflicted in my soul as I secretly evaluated my journey of church planting. I would often compare it to others’ journeys. What was their training? What is their background? How old are/were they when they planted? What success are they having by the metrics of multiplication and disciple-making? The comparison was never out of spite or pride. I have been told enough times the comparison trap in life and ministry will eat you up and spit you out. I evaluated and compared the stories because I wanted to figure out exactly what God was doing. I wanted a better understanding of God expressed in these other stories so that I could better understand mine. What was He up to in the midst of all these different locations and planters’ lives?

My whole life I had been conditioned to get it “right.” I have always been good at gaming the test in order to get the answers “right.” Even when I tutor kids on Thursdays I find myself explaining the logic of test makers and how to reduce your options down to two without even knowing any of the material. What I have become increasingly aware of is my desperation to know the “right” answer once again. This time…it comes in the form of church planting. I want to get it right. However, for the first time in my life, there is no “right” answer on a graded test or argument to present to persuade. Because even if I got something wrong, as in the past, I could attempt to talk my way into a differing score. This experience is another thing entirely.

My subconscious would not let me escape the nag of getting it “right.” The desire of knowing exactly what God was up to came out in the first sermon series at Generations. KNOWN. The mystery that had been hidden for ages and generations was made known in Jesus, which is Christ in you (the Colossians and those of us that are believers) the hope of glory. Thy mystery of the “right” answer is only found the centrality of Jesus in my own life.

God has not given me some glorious picture of the future for Generations Church. Some perfectly “right” location that I can take it to and then be graded in order to be given an A. I am not sure why He would give me some insight into the other stories when they are viewed through social media or even passing conversations. During my yearly reflection, I have realized that some of my joy in seeing God work through others began to drift into a critical spirit about my own journey. Was I getting it “right” and can I prove it?

On this side of the “launch” of Generations Church, What God has reaffirmed in my soul again and again…what is known is Jesus. Give people Jesus. Point others to Jesus both in word and deed. Follow Jesus. The mystery made known is not how to get planting a church “right,” instead it’s Christ in us (those who believe) the hope of glory. I am the recipient of this good news of Christ’s presence in our lives being the hope and knowledge that we need.

To do the above well…I must pay attention to Him, pay attention to those in proximity to me, and give voice to what I see. I may never know what God is exactly up to across the country even though I like to analyze it. My journey in church planting does not belong to me at all. I am participating in a project that’s already underway. God is at work in Vancouver, WA.

He is at work in the lives of everyday people committed to expanding His family together because of Jesus for generations to come.

Five Contextual Agreements for 2018

Beginning the year is always an interesting time in the blogging world. Christian leaders make their predictions on the church, changes, and challenges for the coming year. Three of the best lists I have seen thus far are Carey Nieuwhof’s, Thom Ranier’s and Chuck Lawless’s. Rather than create my own, I have decided to list five which directly connect to my context and what I am wrestling with as a church planter. Here they go in no particular order:

One: Carey’s number one disruptive trend is “A move beyond church in the box.” Chuck Lawless predicts, “Life-on-life, genuine community will ground people in a church.”

I combine these two together because I believe they go hand in hand. Especially in the Portland area, people crave authenticity and accessibility. As Nieuwhof articulates, gone are days when “you sat down Thursday night at 8 to watch your favorite show, because you didn’t want to miss it.” Yet, churches still function on a set time and schedule which is not on-demand. I will address this later, but the on-demand culture does not mean the physical space will cease to exist; instead, the culture enhances it.

“Bottom line? Churches who only think Sunday and who only think building will continue to shrink. In 2018, if coming to Christ means coming to your church in a set location and a set hour, you need a new strategy” says Carey.

How will people engage with the local church? A life-on-life genuine community will attract and connect people to a local church. These life-on-life relationships are on demand and can be engaged with a quick text, Facetime, Facebook message, etc. Conversation can happen in an instant, followed by a genuine embodiment of the characteristics of Christ. Hence, spiritual formation and discipleship will become essential for the local church to thrive moving forward.

In fact, one of my current projects is a series of conversation points followed by basic resources for anyone to employ in an on-the-go world.

Two: The Team is Eclipsing the Solo Leader. I am a church planter and my greatest desire is to have 1-2 other spiritually mature couples to move to Vancouver and co-lead with me and my wife. While The Village Church is not the first to function with three lead pastors, they are the church which has the most viable track record and visible presence. These other lead pastors would help oversee and champion mobilization and spiritual formation. These pastors would help expand the good already in the community. These other pastors would help free me up for what I do well, and I, in turn, will enable them to lead out of their strengths. “The leader who can do everything well is being eclipsed by the team that can do everything well.” To reach, teach, equip and send a diverse group of people will require a diverse and well-rounded team.

Three: Thom Ranier notes, “The e-book has not proved to be nearly as popular as we thought it would be. Many blog writers are reporting declines in readership. But audio books are rising in popularity. Listeners are moving to podcasts so they can learn while they jog, drive, and exercise. Outside of preaching podcasts, churches have many other opportunities to reach and disciple people through audio ministries.” The Village Church does this through their ‘Knowing Faith’ podcast which takes complex theological issues and makes them accessible in order to equip the everyday Christian.

In Vancouver, people are increasingly working odd hours and 50 hour-plus weeks via two jobs. Therefore, having a small group on Tuesday evenings is ceasing to be an option (think point #1). Spiritual formation will occur as they walk to work, ride their bike, or on the MAX (public transit). As Lawless notes, while this will increase, the subsequent results will be less evangelism. The life-on-life portion of discipleship is so crucial, evangelism must be modeled so that discipleship leads to evangelism. I have stated before how both are the wings of a disciple-making airplane.
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Four: One of the options to maintain a viable presence in the community is a trend which Ranier highlights: “Churches moving into retail spaces.” Anecdotally I have seen greater success for church plants who have rented a storefront. The brick and mortar can be used throughout the week, can be multi-purpose, and don’t require extensive set-up for services on Sunday. In addition, the presence enables a return to the parish model (see point five). Where we are specifically looking to plant, there is an abundance of affordable retail space. I envision a ministry center which can double as a worship space. I envision a place that is filled with worship and ministry seven days a week. A place of resource for the needy. A place of growth for the spiritually hungry. A place which champions and models unity. A place of worship for the gathered church. A place of sending for the scattering during the week. A hub for life and ministry in the community, in the neighborhood, and in the home.

Five: “The rise of the neighborhood church.” The parish model is on a comeback. Because people like their craft or customized “fill-in-the-blank” (i.e coffee, beer) they will increasingly expect this in their church. Further, pastors will be forced to lead wellness for their whole community. They are not just the pastor of the people who attend the church on a Sunday service. They are also the pastor of a select community. A church will gain credibility in our skeptical world when it seeks the good of the whole community. This can only be done when they understand the narrative of the neighborhood and highlight how the story of God brings wellness. It will be increasingly difficult for pastors to know the narrative of multiple neighborhoods. Therefore, multiplication of churches will happen when a group of people lives in another neighborhood. In order for this to be effective, team leadership must be modeled and championed.

These five create a perfect storm for a revival of old models and methods blended with the technological advancement of the twenty-first century. Regardless of theory and prediction, would you join me in praying for the advancement of God’s kingdom during 2018?

New Year. Same God.

“Sing a new song to the Lord for he has performed wonders; his right hand and holy arm have won him victory. The Lord has made his victory known; he has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations.” – Psalm 98:1-3

It is day one of the New Year. As many look forward to the newness of the new year with anticipation, excitement, anxiety, and even determination, I find myself resting in the won victory of Christ. For me, that’s more than a cliche Christian response; it is a necessity. I (we, my family and I) need it to survive just like we need oxygen. We will live in Vancouver, WA for a full year in 2018. This is far away from immediate family, yet God is creating a new family around us. We will attempt to discern where God wants us to specifically plant. We will attempt to gather a core group of people who may want to be a part of a new church. We will begin to more clearly articulate the vision for the church God desires us to see planted. In all these, while I may not have every ‘i’ dotted or every ‘t’ crossed, I am confident in God’s track record of revelation.

I could not have confidence in any of the future plans if it was not for the assurance that Jesus wins. We know the ending to the story. God is sovereign. Therefore, His righteousness will be revealed to the nations (including Portland/Vancouver) because He has been revealing himself to the nations since the beginning of time. God will be faithful because he has been faithful and is being faithful.

We could not manufacture, program, or schedule God working in the ways He had in 2017. God is consistent and unchanging. New year, same faithful God.

“Let the sea and all that fills it, the world and those who live in it, resound. Let the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains shout together for joy before the Lord, for he is coming to judge the earth/ He will judge the world righteously and the peoples fairly.” Psalm 98:7-9