Who/what do you place your identity in?

Today’s blog post happens to fall a few days after the start of our church’s start of a new series through the letter of James titled Faith that Works: a journey through James.  As such, I wanted to share briefly on a question I posed to our community this past Sunday morning: “Who am I?”  This question about who we are is a question that is often tied to what inspires us; it is tied to our identity.  Identity plays a huge role in our lives because this is what we believe defines us.

What would you say if you were asked this question of “Who am I?”  Let me venture to guess that your response may begin something like this: “This is who I am (fill in the blank).”  Who/What you place in that blank spot reveals what you place your value or worth in; it shows what matters to you.  For some, they will mention their family, others their faith/religion, and then others politics.  Others by their national heritage/ethnicity, and some will even state something about their occupation or the school they went to.  We even identify ourselves with places of worship and even our favorite hobbies such as sports teams.

Everyone puts their identity in something.  The moment when we talk about something and we use the words “we” to identify ourselves as part of something, we have already made a connection to that thing.  For example when the San Francisco 49ers play, I tend to say “We won!” or “We lost!” Though I didn’t really play for the team and probably would never make the team, I have placed my very identity with this team.  This is what happens when people fall in love with and root for sports teams, we identify with them.  When the SF 49ers lost last week in the Super Bowl, I was really forlorn!  Like me with the 49ers, we have placed our identity in something, we become emotionally connected/invested because we have placed a lot of “heart” weight and “me” into those things.

Often times, we place so much value in these things that if one was to insult us about something that we do not have emotional investment in, we could care less and can ignore the insult.  When the person insults what we place our value or worth in such as our family, career, school, faith or even sports teams… we become greatly offended. We feel so offended because you have attacked what I have placed my worth and value in.  What you have attacked is my heart aka what I believe in, and me… who I am.  The reality is we do this a lot, and we may not even know it.

For example, if a guy was to let a girl know of his interest in her and she lovingly/ prayerfully rejects him, the guy may respond by becoming inconsolable and totally depressed. Despite the girl’s loving response, he may totally be wrecked by the matter.  Why is this?  It is because the guy had placed much worth/value… his identity… in being in a relationship.  He may have put so much of “heart” and “me” into it that when she responded negatively, it hurt him much more greatly!  Though she may not have intended anything hurtful and didn’t see it that way at all, this is what happens when our identity comes into play in our interactions.

With such a heavy emotional tie into our identity, it is no surprise that: Whoever/whatever we identify with often defines who we become. If you tell me your inspirations (idols), I can usually kind of tell how you will be like.  We end up modeling ourselves like those that we identify with or what we are inspired by.

With that thought, I shared with our church this past Sunday that what we identify with becomes very defining in our lives.  If you consider the opening words of the letter of James, James identifies himself first with this simple statement:

“James, a servant of God and of The Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1).

James, the brother of Jesus, identifies himself by answering the “Who am I?” question with a very simple, but powerful answer.  He first identifies himself as a servant/slave/bond-servant (Grk. doulos).  A doulos was a person that had willingly given themselves up to another person’s will; it was a slave/servant that had given up their freedom to serve a master they deeply loved.  James in his opening words showed what he had placed his identity in!  James saw himself as a willing servant/slave to the Almighty Powerful God and of His Lord Jesus Christ, whom is His Savior! God’s love and plan brought James to where he was!

How did this identity as a servant of God and of The Lord Jesus Christ shape his life?  Let’s take a moment to look.  Prior to Jesus’ crucifixion during his early life (before 30/32 AD), we know that James was one of Jesus’ younger siblings (Mk. 3:31-34). James did NOT believe in what Jesus was teaching during this time (Jn. 7:5).  Yet soon after seeing his brother die, Jesus resurrected and appeared to James personally (30/32 AD) (1 Cor. 15:7)!  This radically alters James life, and he becomes an early church leader in Jerusalem despite great persecution (Acts 12:17b).  James also counseled and encouraged Paul multiple times (Acts 21:18; Gal. 1:19; 2:9, 12).  He did this over the next 20+ years as a Church leader, and was part of the first Jerusalem council dealing with Jew/Gentile question in 48/49 AD (Acts 15:13-21).  James was later recorded being martyred in 62 AD by stoning, and despite the abuse up to his death, he continued to proclaim the Gospel to those accusing him and praying for his persecutors to The Lord!

Here is an account of how his identity as a servant of God and of The Lord Jesus Christ shaped his life.

“James, the brother of The Lord,…has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior till the present day; for there were many who bore the name of James. He was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine or strong drink; nor did he eat flesh. No razor came on his head. He did not anoint himself with oil, and he did not use the bath…. And he was in the habit of entering alone into the temple, and was often found on his knees begging forgiveness for the people, so that his knees became hard [calloused] like those of a camel” (Hegesippus according to Eusebius, Church History 2:.23.4-6).

In closing, Who/what do you place your identity in?

Who/what we identify with defines who we will become.  #faiththatworks

James identified himself as: “a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” and his life reflected this belief after he came to Christ; he lived, and died becoming what it says in James 1:1.  Tell me who inspires you, who you identify with, and I’ll tell you who you’ll be like.  Oh, may you be like James and may you place your identity in Christ first above all things!

Please preserve the unity

In the last two months around the Dallas area, I have heard that various churches have split due to various reasons. There is a time and a place for church split. For example in church history, there have been three main church splits all for fundamental doctrinal reasons: 553 over the incarnation of Christ, 1054 over the authority of the church and Scripture, and 1517 over redemption/soteriology. Fundamental doctrinal reasons should be, in my opinion, the only reason for churches to split. In today’s culture, churches split for selfish reasons: different visions, money, location of a new church building, the new senior pastor, wanting to be a senior pastor, and so many more. If we can’t have it our way, then we will try to make it our way one way or another. How dumb of the body of Christ. We have let the mantra of our culture shape the church. What a pity. We are the light of the world shining in the darkness, but because of endless church splits, our light is being dimmed.

The church is the body of Christ, why are we dividing the body of Christ? The plea of the apostle Paul is “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:1-3). The battle cry of the apostle Paul is twofold. First, Paul calls us to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit. The idea of being diligent is to spare no effort, to do our best, and to take/make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit. This is counterculture. We are too quick to give up and split the church. Paul urges us to give it our all to what… preserve the unity of the Spirit.

The second part of the battle cry is to preserve the unity of the Spirit. The word preserve has the idea of to keep, to preserve what is already in existence. It is not the establishment of a new entity, but rather to keep and not lose or destroy something already in our possession. We are the body of Christ and we have to make every effort to preserve the body of Christ.

The local church must do everything within her power to be diligent to preserve the unity of the church. The church is one body. When one part of the body hurts, the whole body does not function as it’s supposed to. In like manner, if one part of the church hurts, then the whole church is not going to function as it’s supposed to.  One would not cut of an arm if it suffers a broken bone, rather one would do everything in one’s power to restore it. If that arm, however, suffers from a flesh-eating bacteria that would spread to the whole body if it is not cut off, then yes, it would be better to cut that arm off ­­–– only after all possible remedy have been tried –– than risk death. In the same way, the local church has to do everything in her power to preserve unity in the Spirit when “petty” differences exist. Fundamental doctrinal differences such as, half the congregation does not believe in the Trinity and the other half does, without any possibility of reconciliation, then yes, split the church. I am not promoting church split. I hate it. I abhor it. I detest it, yet I am not callous to the fact the sometimes it is necessary. We have taken church splits too lightly. The battle cry is to be diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Oh love ones, please preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

The Gospel and Resurrection

Recently, in our apologetics series in Friday night youth group, we went over the importance of the Resurrection. When it comes to apologetics and the resurrection, it’s often a matter of marshaling the textual and historical evidence to support the bodily resurrection of Jesus. As I studied Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 15, however, I was struck, not by any evidence that Paul gives, but by the central place that the Resurrection takes in his preaching. For Paul, the Gospel culminates in Christ’s Resurrection, and that has profound implications for present life, here-and-now. Here’s what I mean:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:1-2 ESV)

Paul promises to sum up the Gospel, the good news in which we are being saved. I think it’s important to pay attention to what he says here, lest we become deceived by all the other “gospels” out there (e.g. prosperity gospel, self-help gospel, etc). Well, let’s see what Paul says:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
(1 Corinthians 15:3-5 ESV)

This message should be familiar to evangelical Christians. Jesus Messiah, the perfect, spotless Lamb of God, died for our sins, taking the punishment of death on our behalf. God, however, did not abandon His Son to death, but raised Him on the third day. For many Christians, it’s easy to be too familiar with this message, to take it for granted. So let’s try to pay more attention to what Paul is saying here.

First, a preliminary remark: I know sometimes I tend to think of the death of Christ as the “main event,” so to speak. I mean, that’s where the action happens, right? That’s where my sins get forgiven so I can go to heaven when I die, right? Thus, the resurrection becomes more of an afterthought. It’s the thing that proved that everything worked out in the end…or something like that.Well, of course, the whole thing – Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection – is the Gospel, and it could be foolish for us to try to divide it up. I do think, however, that my way of thinking of the death as the “main event” may be a little misleading, and here’s why. In chapter 15, Paul wants to draw special attention to the Resurrection, and for good reason. Take a look:

Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
(1 Corinthians 15:6-8 ESV)

Paul continues to emphasize that Jesus appeared to people after his death. In other words, Jesus is alive again, and He still lives. Paul goes on to expand upon this theme in verse 12: Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?

So to recap, here’s the Gospel: Christ is not just proclaimed as dead, but as raised from from the dead! Now, why is this so important to Paul? Why all the emphasis on Christ’s resurrection and appearance?

A bit of context will help us here. As we can see from verse 12, there were some in the Corinthian church who didn’t believe in a bodily resurrection. Instead, they (likely) thought of the resurrection in quasi-spiritual terms. The “resurrection” (if there is one) is some ghostly, disembodied state. The conclusion that they drew from this was that it didn’t matter what you did with your earthly body, since it would be destroyed anyway. As a result you have people in the Corinthian church indulging in all sorts of immorality (i.e., the kind that you find in the earlier chapters of 1 Corinthians). The way that Paul fixes this is by pointing to the reality of resurrection.

First, Paul lays out the negative side. If it’s true that there is no bodily resurrection, then it’s also true that Christ wasn’t raised from the dead (vs 13). And if that is true, then the game’s up. This whole Christianity thing is one huge mistake. Preaching and faith is in vain (vs 14). We’re lying about God (vs 15). We’re still in our sins (vs 17). In fact, says Paul, if there’s no resurrection, then Christians are of all people most to be pitied!

You might think that last statement is an over-exaggeration by Paul. After all, people are wrong about things all the time. But Paul knows his Old Testament. He knows that, since the Fall, God’s plan and purpose has been to save a fallen world. Now, if there’s no resurrection and if Jesus isn’t raised, that means death isn’t destroyed. If that’s the case, then Jesus isn’t Lord. Death is. Death is the final master, the ultimate reality. In other words, the problem of sin, suffering and death has not been solved. Everything that’s wrong about the world is still wrong. It doesn’t matter what we do to try to fix it, because in the end, we will still die. To quote verse 32, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Thankfully, it doesn’t end there, for Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead. Paul continues:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

(1 Corinthians 15:20)

What are firstfruits? Quite simply, they are the first of the fruits gathered at the harvest. In other words, Paul is saying that Christ is the first of the new humanity. In fact, he is the first of the New Creation. God’s plan to restore and save the world has come to its fulfillment, and the firstfruits, the forerunner, is the man Jesus Christ. Furthermore, those who belong to Christ will also be raised like him (vs 22-23). That is, in the same way that Christ was raised, we will be raised too. That’s why the resurrection is so important. If Christ didn’t rise from the dead, then neither will we.

Notice that Paul is speaking of a bodily, physical resurrection. As evangelicals, many times what we look forward to after death is “going to heaven,” where by heaven, we mean some disembodied, spiritual existence with God. However, when we look in the Bible, the New Testament writers are consistently looking forward to the bodily Resurrection. The real goal, the real focus is the resurrection – not just a spiritual resurrection, but a resurrection in which we receive glorified and immortal bodies.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: what we do in this life matters. Because Jesus is alive, because he has conquered death, our lives are going to be radically different. So says Paul, “Wake up from your drunken stupor, as is right, and do not go on sinning” (15:34). The life we live now is lived in anticipation of the resurrection. Or even better yet: in the present, here and now, our calling is to learn to live the kind of life that will “characterize God’s new creation” (to quote NT Wright). That’s why we do the things we do as Christians. It’s not just an arbitrary system of rules. Being a Christian is nothing less than getting a head start on the New Life. You don’t have to wait until after death to start living eternal life. Being a Christian means you’ve died with Christ, but you’re also been raised with him. Eternal life starts now.

So again, let us listen to Paul’s exhortation to wake up. Let put away those petty sins that we think will satisfy us. Stop messing around with drunkenness, lust, pride, envy, and malice. Let us put away the things that the world values – status, wealth, comfort – and start pursuing love, justice, mercy. That’s why the fact of the resurrection is so important to us as Christians. It’s not just about getting it right or wrong. If Christ really rose from the dead, then those of us who belong to him get to share in the same resurrected life now. If Jesus didn’t rise, then we’re not just making an intellectual mistake; rather, we’ve lost the basis for the entire Christian life.

12/14/12

By now, I am sure you have heard about what happened in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut with the murder of the 20 children and 6 adults.  You may also have heard of the 22 children that were stabbed to death from YuanChuan Elementary School in the village of Chengpin in Henan, China that happened the day before.  If anything, what happened so saddened even President Obama that he cried as he shared his condolences and support to those that died.

After hearing the news on Friday morning, I was so heart broken that I felt led to go and make some major changes to my Christmas service sermon that I was sharing because I felt that it was so important not to forget what had transpired.  What I share next is not meant to take away from the pain, heart break, loss, suffering or aching that the families and their loved ones may be feeling, but I feel it is important to explore an important topic together… that is this concept of sin.

The truth of the matter is this: This is not the first time nor will it be the last time we will hear of such horrific things happening.  Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, such terrible things will have happened and will continue to happen.  We must take a moment then and ask ourselves, what drives such activity?! What I write to you after this is related to this because I believe what motivates such an action is this concept of sin which leads to such evils.  A quote I saw on my friend’s Facebook said this:

“The presence of evil does not imply the absence of God, rather the presence of evil demands a God who must be present — present to judge, heal, restore, and to save.”

I think that this is so true… that what sin reveals to us… what this evil shows what the world needs and has is a God that is able to judge, to heal, to restore and to save.  You see, sin is this corruption… this separation from God and what He originally planned for humanity.  It is a break from this vertical relationship with Him.  Originally, God intended for humanity to glorify Him, love Him, worship Him, love others, and to care for His world.  From the beginning with Adam & Eve till now, humanity has willfully disobeyed God.  We have done so by going against God’s original plan and desire for us … and have placed our own lives and priorities before what God has planned. By doing so, we have disconnected the vertical relationship with God and we have placed our own desires before God’s  By doing so, our sin has separated us from God and because of the inability to be perfect, our sin always now disrupts this relationship with God.

The truth is this… sin is nasty… it is what leads us to place these other plans and purposes (what we want) before God… and by doing so… we have started to worship creation and created things rather than the Creator!  God is no longer first.  As a result, our sins manifest themselves in two ways. One is outward and are actions that place one’s own desires above the care and consideration of others.  This often leads to acts of violence, exploitation, murder and taking advantage of others; it is about putting oneself before others.  This is what happened in China and Connecticut; it is this outward display of sin by selfish, sin-corrupted, evil people.

But you must be wondering, I am no nowhere near as messed up or evil as such folks, but the truth is sin is not just an outward display of selfish action, but it is also an inward disposition of our heart.  It is the corrupted selfish thoughts, feelings that we may have… the intentions, the desires, the bitterness, the jealousy, the greed, the rage and the pride that may lead us thinking about hurting others and putting ourselves first.  Trust me, the only reason sometimes we don’t act on these thoughts is simply our fear of self-preservation; we are afraid of the consequences of our sin and going to jail and being victimized as well.  The reality is we have the potential of great sin as well.  Humanity is unable to escape from this slavery of sin, and this is what brings us to where we are today.  As imperfection due to our sin, we cannot attach ourselves to a God that is so perfect because our sin now makes us imperfect.  Perfection and imperfection cannot mix!  You see, what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary and at YuanChuan Elementary is not alien to humanity, but common; it is the unchanging reality of our lives apart from God… the date, title and story of the News event may change, but these things will continue to happen because of sin; sin is the lowest common denominator of human reality!

In light of the Christmas season and preparing a sermon, I realized that ultimately the failure of Christmas for many Christians is not that we don’t remember it is about Jesus, but that we fail to remember the entirety of the story and just the birth of Jesus.  For some, we may only see Christmas as an occasion to deal with food, relationships and gift exchange; it becomes only about the horizontal relationships.  I think Matthew had a different idea when he wrote these words coming from an angel as it spoke to Joseph about Mary:

“She (Mary) will bear a son, and you shall his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

What Matthew shares is that what Christmas needs to be about is remembering this story of restoration of the vertical relationship between God and humanity through the physical reality of Jesus’ coming.

All our questions, our doubts, our pain, our heartbreak… we need to see that God about 2000 years ago answered our cries about sin and the brokenness of humanity.  It can be found by Matthew’s hinting using the name of Jesus at his birth.  Consider Jesus in verse 21, which means “God saves”.  Consider Immanuel in verse 23, which means “with us God”, or “God with us”.  What Matthew is pointing out is that in Jesus, God has answered our questions by sending Jesus to finally resolve this break in the vertical relationship between God and His people. God is here to save and He has not left us alone… but has entered into the historical timeline as a physical reality both as God and as man… the 2nd person of the Trinity, God’s Son, Jesus Christ has come so that He will know our pain as a reality.  Despite being tempted, with opportunities to outwardly sin, and inwardly sin, Jesus resisted and lived a life without sin.  Yet despite his sinless life, he was persecuted unjustly and put to death in the most humiliating way … through the cross!  Yet despite this, after three days, He resurrected, overcoming sin and the consequence that is death and separation from God, and now sits at the right hand of God, the Father advocating on our behalf.  By such actions through Jesus, God has taken all of humanity’s sin: past, present and future sin, and has washed those that call on the name of Jesus Christ as their Lord & Savior… a restored vertical relationship that gives humanity hope despite this world’s hopelessness.

In Christ, I don’t have an answer, but every time we see acts of incredible evil and sin, we realize the Author has written Himself into His story (History) and is here to save us.  It does not take away the pain and the inexplicable acts of violence and evil and suffering of this world, but these things should drive us to see that this is not the way God intended things to be; God had such a better plan that would lead to no heart break, and so now, God through the Gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us that He is bringing about a restoration and hope.  He comes alongside the brokenhearted and He lovingly embraces us and says, He understands… He knows because about two thousand years ago, He, a Father as well… lost His only Son to sin too.  He lost His beloved child and knows exactly how it feels.  

During this Christmas season, do NOT forget this true Christmas story about Jesus.  God has come to restore the vertical relationship that was broken due to sin, and Jesus is God saves, God with us.  May you continue to pray for the children and the adults that have died in such senseless tragedies and consider your own need for the love and redemption of God.  Remember,

“The Lord is near to the  brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

Please Read God’s Word

The last post was a petition for Christians to pray because prayer is one of the most beneficial disciplines in the Christian faith. In this post, it is a petition to read God’s word. I want to say that there is a relationship between how powerful a person’s prayer life is and their knowledge of God’s word. Prayer might be the fire, but the fuel to the fire is God’s word. One author describes the relationship in this manner, “Unless the vital forces of prayer are supplied by God’s Word, prayer, though earnest, even vociferous, in its urgency, is, in reality, flabby, and vapid, and void. The absence of vital force in praying, can be traced to the absence of a constant supply of God’s Word, to repair the waste, and renew the life. He who would learn to pray well, must first study God’s Word, and store it in his memory and thought.” Again, Bounds writes, “The Word of God is the fulcrum upon which the lever of prayer is placed, and by which things are mightily moved. God has committed Himself, His purpose and His promise to prayer. His Word becomes the basis, the inspiration of our praying, and there are circumstances under which, by importunate prayer, we may obtain addition, or an enlargement of His promises.” Is there a relationship between prayer and God’s Word? Yes.

The apostle John writes, “This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him” (1 Jn. 5:14-15). The stipulation to answer prayers is God hearing us, but God only hears us if we ask according to His will. How does a person know God’s will? For the most part, I believe, God’s will is revealed in and through His word by the Holy Spirit. The promise is if we pray according to God’s will, then we know that God hears our prayers. The result is God will answer our prayers. What an amazing thought. Again, the apostle John writes, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn. 15:7). One commentator writes, “effective prayer is based on faith in Christ and on His words remaining in believers. Christ’s words condition and control such a believer’s mind so that his prayers conform to the Father’s will. Since his prayer is in according with God’s will, the results is certain – it will be given you.” Praying and reading God’s Word go hand in hand. If one reads God’s Word, one is driven to prayer. God’s word has the ability to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Heb. 4;12). When one spends time in the presence of “Holiness” it will show the presence of filth in one’s life, which would move us to prayer.

Oh, love ones, please read so that we can pray effectively. How is Bible reading going for you? Do you want a powerful prayer life? If so, please develop a ferocious reading life of His Word. Please read God’s Word. Don’t forsake it. It is essential to the Christian life. Without it, everything else will fall apart. May we be a generation that loves God’s word by reading it. Please read, understand, digest, and practice God’s word in order to ensure a great prayer life.