The Center of Our Faith

“He destroyed the record of the debt we owed, with its requirements that worked against us.
He canceled it by nailing it to the cross.”
Colossians 2:14 (Common English Bible)

             There is a primary tendency to think of the cross of Jesus Christ as something that was inflicted upon him; that Jesus was a passive character in this narrative, bowing his head in meek submission to this terrible unfolding of events. Yet, in these words from Paul to the church in Colossae, that clearly isn’t the case. The cross was a demonstration of God’s power. According to Paul, the cross was actually God’s decisive response to our sin. God’s desire was to destroy the record of sin against us. This God accomplished by “nailing it to the cross.” Often we see in our mind’s eye that the Roman government was doing the nailing that day – the day that Jesus was crucified.  Clearly Paul’s words do not fit such an account. It was God doing the nailing that day.

            Jesus could have escaped the cross. He spoke during the evening meal with his disciples that one of them would betray him. Following dinner, in the garden, Jesus spoke to God, in prayer, about the cross that was now imminent. The cross was no surprise to Jesus. And armed with this knowledge, Jesus could have left the city of Jerusalem entirely and escaped. But he did not do so. Jesus deliberately directs his steps to the cross. There is present in this story an atmosphere of mastery about all of the unfolding events – a sense that all of it had been carefully choreographed. Resolutely, Jesus sets his face to the cross. Jesus is in control, not those who hate him.

            This profound, and often overlooked, truth offers deep insight into how we understand and live into our faith. First, it makes a considerable difference to understand the cross as God’s intentional and active will dealing with us. God isn’t passive. Often we think of God’s power as some sort of great reservoir that is available for the asking. It is there for us to seek out, to explore and draw strength as the need arises. Our misunderstanding is that God waits our decision to be engaged in faith formation and then answers the door when we knock. Except the witness of the Bible is just the opposite. God is active, always taking the first step toward us. The cross demonstrates God’s movement toward us, involving us in a most personal relationship as God grabs hold of our sin, “nailing it to the cross.”

            The second thing is this: the cross of Christ is not simply God’s activity toward us, but also God’s activity through us for the sake of the world. It is insufficient to understand the cross as God’s salvation for individual men and women. Both the Old and New Testament gives witness to a God movement to reclaim the world. And that movement is accomplished through individuals gathered together in a faith community. Those God calls and separates apart from the world eventually become the bearers of God’s universal activity of salvation for all the nations. At the center of our faith is the conviction that followers of Christ do not simply find themselves passive bystanders to what the mission of God accomplishes. Our sins are nailed to the cross; our relationship to God is restored, all for the larger purpose of making us partners in God’s redemption of the world.



Andrew: The First Disciple

“One of the two disciples who heard what John said and followed Jesus was Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter. He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, ‘We have found the Messiah.’ He led him to Jesus.”

John 1:40-42a (Common English Bible)

            John the Baptist was in the wilderness once again preaching that the Kingdom of God was drawing near. But this day would be different. On this day John sighted in the distance, Jesus. And when John’s eyes fell upon Jesus there was a spontaneous utterance of his thoughts, “Look! The Lamb of God!” This was all that Andrew, one of John’s followers, needed to hear. Instantly, Andrew realized that the object of his longing had now appeared. Andrew and another, unnamed person who was with him, left John and began to follow Jesus. Andrew became the first disciple of Jesus Christ.

             Andrew was the first disciple to follow Christ but little is known about him. John’s Gospel tells us that Peter was his brother; the same Peter who would step-out of a boat upon stormy water to approach Jesus, the Peter that Jesus declared would be the rock upon which the church would be built, the Peter who would deny Jesus three times on the night of Jesus’ arrest. Yes, that Peter. The gospels provide considerable detail about Andrew’s brother, Peter. But of Andrew, we know little. Perhaps, for many ordinary followers of Jesus, Andrew’s story is a story of grace. Andrew was not a superstar disciple, not in the sense that he plays a major role in the story of Jesus. But it was Andrew who brought his brother, Peter, to Jesus. Without Andrew, there would be no story of Peter.

            John’s Gospel only mentions Andrew two other times. On the occasion of Jesus teaching five thousand men, plus women and children, Jesus asks his disciples to provide a meal for the people. The suggestion of feeding so many exhausts the disciples; all the disciples except Andrew, that is. Andrew goes looking for what is available. Andrew simply trusts that anything is possible when Jesus is nearby. In this story, Andrew brings a child to Jesus with the child’s meager five loaves of bread and two fish. Then, the final story about Andrew occurs during the last week of Jesus’ life. Some Greeks are in town for Passover and are curious about Jesus. The Greeks made inquiry of Philip who introduced them to Andrew, who brought them to Jesus. What little we know of Andrew is enough. Andrew was always bringing people to Jesus.

            What is remarkable about the story of Andrew is that there is no evidence that he was ever jealous of the other disciples. Andrew is only mentioned three times in the Gospel of John and in each instance, Andrew brings someone to Jesus and then steps back into the shadows. Andrew never sought, nor received, top billing in the unfolding story of Jesus Christ. It was enough to be used by God to introduce others to Jesus. And then Andrew demonstrated grace in being left behind as the drama of Jesus moved forward. Andrew understood that it wasn’t about him. In the end, that just may be the quality that made Andrew one of the greatest disciples.


Life\’s Disappointments

“I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however, you will not cross over into it.”
Deuteronomy 34:4 (Common English Bible)
     This is a remarkable picture of Moses! He is at the point of death, on a mountaintop, gazing out over the Promised Land, a land for which he led God’s people to possess, pondering God’s word to him that he himself will never enter the land. A universal truth of life is captured in this tragic moment, a truth that neither the great or small among us escapes; life brings equal capacity to experience joy as well as disappointment. This singular moment of Moses’ life lays hold of our imagination as no other moment in his life does. Life sometimes falls short of what is desired and for which we intended our labors to provide.
     That moment is on the horizon for every one of us – that moment when we realize that our grandest dreams and the greatest desires of our heart may not be realized. Moses wanted to cross over into God’s Promised Land and the apostle Paul urgently wanted to take the gospel to Bithynia. Both were denied. Both their circumstances and own earnest efforts gave Moses and Paul every reason to believe their central purpose and passion in life would be achieved. But what would lie beyond their vision was the disheartening experience of watching their dreams tumble to the ground. “I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however, you will not cross over into it.”
     What are we to make of this? We do not have access to Moses’ inner thoughts as he sat upon that mountain, looking out over the Promised Land. Paul speaks little of his failed ambition to preach in Bithynia. What we do know is that both Moses and Paul had a choice to make. They could look back bitterly, questioning where it all went wrong, angrily regretting that they ever had dreams at all, and this decision producing tears of disappointment. Or, they can hold their heads up in their disappointment and acknowledge that God has blessed their labor, that in their struggle, God’s purposes were advanced and that by God’s power, they did step closer to eternal things.
     Perhaps there is no greater struggle than recognizing again and again that God’s view of success and failure is different from our own. And, it is God’s view, which really matters. Moses and Paul fixed their gaze upon a destination. Yet, what really matters to God is whether at the end of the pilgrimage those God calls have learned patience, and humility and have entered into an utter dependence upon God. Ultimately, the destination is quite a secondary thing. It is the quality of the pilgrimage that matters. We don’t have access to the private thoughts of Moses and Paul as they experienced disappointment. But they were great men of God and great people live their lives for God. I suspect that, at the end of their life, Moses and Paul lifted their gaze beyond failed aspirations and saw God’s smile at a life well lived.


Doubt and Faith

“Will my Lord reject me forever? Will he never be pleased again? Has his faithful love come to a complete end? Is his promise over for future generations? You are the God who works wonders; you have demonstrated your strength among all peoples.”
Psalm 77:7,8,14 (Common English Bible)
     British singer, Adele, has struck a deep place in the hearts of millions with her song, “Hello”, a piano ballad. The lyrics discuss themes of nostalgia and regret and it is the first song in history to sell over a million digital copies in a week. Lyrically, the song plays out like a phone conversation, “Hello, it’s me. I was wondering if after all these years you’d like to meet, to go over everything.” The difficulty is, the person to whom she places the telephone call never picks-up the phone, “I must have called a thousand times. But when I call you seem never to be home.” I have no doubt that these words resonate with different listeners in different ways. For me, these words express my prayer life some days. I place a call to God but God simply refuses to answer. “Will my Lord reject me forever?”
     Whether consciously or unconsciously, a person of faith occasionally experiences conflict in their thoughts about God. There are those moments in life when it seems easy to affirm God, to believe in a larger purpose than our own small lives, and that, in Christ, we are called to participate in that high and holy purpose. There are other moments where it is just as easy to doubt and deny the goodness – and justice – of God, and even to question whether there is a God at all. In these few verses from Psalm 77, we see these two opposed moods of faith – doubt and questioning in two verses, and in the third, a recovery of faith. This conflict of the heart is familiar to most people of faith.
     With this condition of the heart, what are we to do about it? Herbert H. Farmer proposes an extremely important question in regard to this conflict: “To which of these two voices in the soul concerning God are we going to make up our minds deliberately and consciously always to give the greater weight?”1 Are we going to choose to place our faith in God on trial and require of it proof before the weight of evidence to the contrary? Or will we adopt the position that doubt must justify itself fully before the evidence of our faith? Quite simply, will we say my belief in God must prove itself in times of my doubt or will we say that my doubt must prove itself against my faith? If we do not deliberately and consciously make this decision, argues Farmer, life itself will continually force us to answer it again and again unconsciously, without deliberate thought and intention. The result will be that we shall continually oscillate between the two positions, depending upon the present strength or weakness of the heart.
     Naturally, each person must choose a deliberate decision or an unconscious decision determined by the uncertain rhythms of life. For my part, I have decided that a reasonable person doesn’t leave such a decision to the uncertainties of life. Without running away from moments of doubt and questioning, I will always subject such moments to the evidence of faith I have personally experienced. In troubling times, I am going to deliberately and consciously trust my belief, my faith, my deep inner conviction that confirms God and God’s love and care for me – particularly when it seems that God never is at home when I place my call to God in prayer.

1 Herbert H. Farmer, “Doubt and Faith,” Best Sermons: 1947 Edition, edited by G. Paul Butler (New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1947), 146.