A key quality, perhaps the key quality, that God looks for in those involved in ministry for Him is faithfulness (1 Corinthians 4:1,2; 2 Timothy 2:2; 1 Timothy 1:12). And all Christians in their own way are to be involved in such ministry. The word is used of waiting tables (Acts 6:1), giving to the poor (Acts 11:29; 2 Corinthians 9:1; Romans 15:31), and general service (Romans 12:7; 1 Corinthians 12:5; Ephesians 4:12), as well as the ministry of the word (Acts 6:4; 20:24; 2 Corinthians 4:1,2). (Note, it is the same word in all these passages, though it is sometimes translated differently.) But faithfulness as the requirement flies in the face of what we often look for. We want someone with charisma, with grand schemes and flashy programs. And we put all our hopes in a few key people given celebrity status. But Christ says He will build His church (Matthew 16:18; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Colossians 2:19). What He wants is for all of us to be is faithful in doing His work. Could it be we have hitched our wagon to the wrong star?
Should we expect to understand God? Even the physical laws are beyond our comprehension. Should not our Maker be even more so (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 55:9; 1 Corinthians 3:18)? One of the most basic teachings of Christianity is that God is Three in One at the same time. And one of the most difficult to understand. But it cannot be dispensed with without changing the entire nature of what is taught.
We say that God is love (1 John 4:7-16; John 3:16-18; Romans 5:5-8). Now the problem is, we need more than a vague benevolence. We are sinners and need someone to rescue us (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). We need even less the stern taskmaster who forces us to perform. We are not able to do it (Romans 3:19,20; 8:8; John15:5). We need the kind of love that sends His Son to save us. We need the type of love that comes down from His throne to deliver us (Philippians 2:5-11; John 1:1-18; Hebrews 2:9-18). We need a God who will pay the price for our sins (1 Peter 2:24,25; Colossians 2:13,14; 2 Corinthians 5:21). We also need God to work within us to understand and accept what He has done for us (1 Corinthians 2:14-16; John 3:3-8; 1:12,13). We also need God at work within us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:17,18; Galatians 5:16,17; Ephesians 5:18). And we need God to unite us in a new community involving unity and diversity (1 Corinthians 12:11-27; Ephesians 4:11-16; Romans 12:3-8).
But there are requirements for this type of love. For it to be fundamental, there must be an object of that love. And for it to be part of the nature of God, God must be more then one within Himself. He must be Three in One. A unitary God can be benevolent. A unitary God can be strict. But a unitary God cannot be love, in the deep sense. And for the ideal among people to be unity in diversity, it makes sense for God to be unity in diversity. From this love in diversity comes the various roles that accomplish our salvation. There is the Giver, the Gift, and the One who delivers the Gift. We have the Father, who gives the Son and receives the payment for sin. We have the Son, who becomes incarnate and pays the price. We have the Holy Spirit, who works in our hearts that we might receive the payment. And together They work in different roles to bring about our salvation. I like C. S. Lewis' analogy which likens our relationships to God and each other to a cosmic dance. A dance where we relate to each other in complicated and varied interchanges of roles. And to make sense, this dance needs to originate in the very nature of God Himself.
The Kingdom of Christ is a proclamation of peace and grace, as the angels sang that He should be Saviour of the whole world to free his people and save them from their sins. That He has done and is still doing. He is not the sort of Lord who fights with the sword and has to do with civil government. Rather he rules with the gracious preaching of peace. For that reason he is called Jesus, meaning a Saviour who helps his people to turn and be saved.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, Shepherds, translated and arranged by Roland Bainton (The Westminster Press, 1948, p. 46)
How does the power of man differ from the power of God? How should this affect our lives?
Joe walked by the row shops with holiday decorations. He always found the gymnastics amusing. Some still used evergreen branches and holly, hoping not to be noticed for it.Others seemed to be trying for every other type of tree or plant. Others avoided greenery altogether. He passed a balloon tree, all gold and red with not a trace of green. Occasionally you saw an elf or something of that sort, but there were more clowns and more dogs and cats than reindeer. And Santa was a problem. Some had a look-alike and called him Father Holiday or even Mr. Holiday. Some still called him Santa and hoped no one would connect it to Saint Nicholas and from there to Christianity. The really bold ones would put him with Hanukkah Harry and other alternatives and hope the egalitarianism would save them. It probably would not.
Joe felt sorry for the storekeepers. All they really wanted to do was sell stuff and not offend anyone. And there seemed to a large contingent of people who made a point of being offended by anything "religious." Joe suspected they were a minority, but a very vocal minority was all it took to affect commercial behavior. Merchants were not generally known for standing up to that type of pressure where money was involved. For a while, Hanukkah had been all right, being a minority belief. Santa lasted longer. But there were more and more people who only felt comfortable if everything was entirely neutral. There were, of course, still some Christians who went around obnoxiously insisting on making a point of Christmas. Joe wished they would stop; it was not a way to win friends or influence people.
He walked into one of the stores. "Happy Holidays," said the greeter looking very nervous. Joe had spoken to her in the past about Christ, and she knew where he was coming from.
"Happy Holidays," he returned. He had better things to do than make people uncomfortable or try to get them fired. There would be other times to witness in a meaningful manner.
He bought a few extra things for supper. They were having roast beef, a change of pace. Nothing against turkey, but there was nothing specifically Christian about it either.
When Joe made it home, the other families were already there. They had supper together and spoke of what God had done during the year. They read Scripture, lit the Advent Candles, sang carols, and played games. Later, they would gather with the rest of the congregation for a candlelight service and celebration of Christ's birth. And if they really wanted to, they could celebrate the holiday season on January first (nothing clearly "religious" about that date) with everybody else. Maybe it was better this way.
Christ came, was born in a manager, and died on the cross to win the victory over Satan and all the powers of darkness (Colossians 2:13-15; 1 John 4:4; Hebrews 2:14,15). This is important to remember during the holidays, when there are those who would suggest we should be afraid even to celebrate them due to a pagan connection. Now it is a dangerous world, and it is well to use some caution (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; 1 Peter 5:8-10; Ephesians 6:10-13). But we should not be hiding in a corner as if Satan and his minions are stronger than God, who is at work in us. But rather, let us go out confidently, based on our victory in Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; 2:14; Romans 16:20).
My previous historical personalities have been real people. I want to deal this time with someone who may not be real or, if he is, little of what has been said about him may be true. I am talking about Nickolas, bishop of Myra, the original of Santa Claus. The problem, of course, is that everything that is said about him was written long after the fact.
There are a number of anecdotes about his kindness, and it is hard afterwards to evaluate which ones are true. There is the familiar story of his providing money for three daughters of a poor man to use for dowries by throwing three bags of money secretly in their window. There is the tale of his rushing to the aid of three falsely accused soldiers to prevent their execution. It is told how he miraculously obtained reduced taxes and grain in time of famine. Even if the miracles are discounted, Nicholas still could have somehow obtained these. Though the specific incidents are dubious, they may still reflect a generous heart of the real man toward the poor and those in need.
He is also pictured as being imprisoned for his faith in the final Christian persecution under Diocletian. Later, when Christianity was an accepted belief, he worked to tear down the pagan temples.At the the council of Nicaea when Arius was explaining his views, Nicholas is said to have lost his temper and to have slapped Arius in the face. It is said that when Arianism later became the official belief, Myra, based on the teaching of Nicholas, was one of the few places that remained firm in its belief in the deity of Christ.
There are questions about whether Nicholas was ever at Nicaea. But this is something that I would not expect to be included if it were not true. Also, we have to ask how Nicholas became so famous. There were many imprisoned for their faith in the final persecution and many who helped dismantle paganism and were generous to the poor. But the slap in the face is the thing that seems to set Nicholas apart. While I am far from dogmatic about this, if it is true there is a certain irony here. That Santa Claus became Santa Claus by slapping someone in the face is very serendipitous.
Here is a man who held strongly to his faith, even through imprisonment. But slapping people in the face is not the way to deal with doctrinal disagreement. He appears to be a generally generous man, strong in his convictions, who at a certain point went overboard and lost his temper. Now there are some folks who are just consistently mean, and it is hard to defend that. But perhaps there is a place for grace for those who are over-dogmatic. After all, we are all people in process, and none of us have arrived yet. But in the end, all this is nothing but a good story that may or may not be true.
There is in that alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, The Everlasting Man, The God in the Cave (Dover Publications Inc., 2007, p. 168)
What are the Christian's obligations to the poor? How should we carry them out?
C. S. Lewis speaks of three different holidays involved in Christmas. One is a commemoration of the birth of Christ. Despite much speculation, we are not sure when Christ was born. But December 25 is traditional and is as good a day as any to remember Christ's birth. There is a question whether it is a replacement for a pagan holiday. I am not sure it is. I am less sure that it matters. I have a great deal of sympathy with Gregory the Great's policy of replacing pagan holidays with Christian holidays. People like to celebrate. You can cancel all the holidays and be a killjoy. You can try to force people to celebrate some different time, which becomes a war. Or you can try to give new meanings to the old celebrations, which has its drawbacks but is not necessarily the worst choice.
Then there is the idea of a general time for celebration. I agree with Lewis in being very much in favor of celebrating. Nor do I see any problem with celebration in connection with the coming of Christ. It is a cause for celebration. Now there is a delicate balance here between Christian celebration and the celebration of the world. The Christian has better reason to celebrate, but must do it with a degree of restraint. There has historically been a danger of falling into the world's excesses on Christmas. But that should not be a basis for avoiding celebrating, though it may be a reason to make the celebration more Christian.
But the third holiday is what Lewis calls the commercial racket. This can easily become a celebration of greed. Now store owners have to live, like everybody else. And there is a legitimate joy, particularly for children, in receiving presents. But when the commercial aspect overtakes the idea of commemoration and celebration, there is a problem. It is hard to know where to draw the line, but when the whole thing becomes a burden rather than a joy, it needs to be reconsidered. And when we make the chief thing concern about what other people think, rather than what is enjoyable, there is a problem. People speak of the war on Christmas, and sometimes I wish the secular side would win. Then they could take the commercial holiday and celebrate it without too close a connection with anything Christian. And Christmas could become a holiday largely celebrated by Christians. But I doubt anything so practical is going to happen. However, I would recommend for Christians to emphasize the Christian and celebration parts of the holiday. And to minimize the commercial. Perhaps it would help to think of them as three holidays. And to ask which Christmas we are celebrating.
We all desire community. And we all fear it. We fear rejection. And we fear losing ourselves and vanishing into some featureless conformity ("You will be assimilated"). Even worse, we fear trying our best to lose ourselves in such a conformity and being rejected because we fail the test. God calls us to a unity in diversity (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11-16). This pictures the Christian church as different people coming together in one body, while retaining their identity. There is a real unity here: we all need each other and are not simply people who come together in a building once a week. But we are not the same, but each has their individual function. And we gain by being different. We complement each other.
But how do we get there? We need to trust God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 127:1,2; 37:3-6), and we must be willing to put others before ourselves (Philippians 2:3,4; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13,14). The first is really required for the second. For it is not till we trust God that we will be willing to reach out to others. For the simple fact is, if we reach out to others we will be hurt. It is always a gamble. It is safer to hide in our own little shell and never come out. This is also true for leaders. It is safer to try to press everyone into the same mold than to encourage them to give up their individualism while keeping their individuality. Even more difficult is knowing where to draw the lines. If we tolerate everything, it can become destructive. It is so much easier to draw the lines in close, where it is comfortable. But God requires us to take that risk. For it is only by taking that risk that we can become the church of God He designed us to be.
Jesus said that God wants those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23,24). What does this mean? In the Old Testament God very carefully outlined in great detail how He should be worshiped. He also punished those who deviated from this (Leviticus 10:1). But Jesus was saying that the old order in which every detail was prescribed was passing away (John 4:21,22; Colossians 2:16,17; Galatians 4:1-7). This fits with the New Testament, where broad principles are given, but there is no new list of requirements. But we still want to lay down absolute rules as to what can be done in terms of worship. We want to ignore the gift and fight over the nature of the wrappings.
We are to worship in spirit. One thing that is firmly condemned both in the Old and New Testaments is going through the outer motions of worship without the inward reality (Matthew 6:1-18; Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 58:3-12). Now the issue here is not the precise form of worship, but what is in the heart. It is easy to flatter ourselves that if we follow a particular mode of worship, this is proof against doing it by rote. The truth is, the basic issue is whether we mean it. And it is possible to go though the motions of any form of worship in order to please people or call attention to ourselves. We can also go through a wide range of outward forms and mean it. But we need to beware of beating up ourselves and others because we do not have some theoretical perfect attitude of worship (1 Corinthians 4:3-5; Romans 14:4; James 4:11,12). All of us are sinners who fall short of perfection (Philippians 3:12-16; Romans 7:14-25; Galatians 5:17). But there is a call here for basic sincerity.
We are to worship in truth. There is a requirement of basic conformity to Biblical teaching (Jude 3; Romans 16:17; John 17:17). There are certain truths that need to be upheld (Deuteronomy 13:1-3; 1 John 4:1-4; Galatians 1:8,9). But we can too easily sit in judgment and forget we do not have all the answers (1 Corinthians 3:18; 8:1-3; 13:9-12). However, the basic issue is content, not form. For example, there is a continual argument over the various types of music used in worship. But the real issue is what is said, not the form of music, which is nowhere mentioned in Scripture.
I would maintain that within these broad boundaries there is plenty of room for people to choose the forms that are meaningful to them. And to allow others to chose what is meaningful for them. I suggest that much of this is a matter of personality and background rather than principle. I have worshiped in the liturgical, charismatic, and baptistic modes and see valuable things in each. I think it is good to learn to appreciate other approaches to worship. And if we cannot really enter in, at least to respect them.
One has the picture of great centripetal roads coming from all directions, with well-disposed people, all meaning the same thing, and getting closer and closer together. How shockingly opposite to that is the Christian story! One people picked out of the whole earth; that people purged and proved again and again. Some are lost in the desert before they reach Palestine; some stay in Babylon; some becoming indifferent. The whole thing narrows and narrows until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear - a Jewish girl at her prayers. That is what the whole of human nature has narrowed down to before the Incarnation takes place.
C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963, God in the Dock, The Grand Miracle, (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1970, p. 84)
Is God selective? Is that a good thing? How should we look at it?
The argument from order has long been used as a defense of the Christian faith. It also has serious problems. So serious that some have been inclined not to use it. Part of the problem turns on what we mean by it.
One way to approach it is to see the universe as being designed for us. This runs right straight into the traditional problem of evil. If the universe is designed for us, why do so many bad things happen? Even the argument from size, which I generally consider a very weak one (Does something's importance depend on its size?) is relevant here. If God designed things for us, why so much empty space? There are things that can be said in answer here. We can say that this is a world in rebellion against God, resulting in the existence of evil. We can ask, with Philip Yancey, why there is pleasure and beauty in the world even when there does not obviously need to be. We can ask, with C. S. Lewis, where we get the idea of evil if there is no God to base it on. But all these are arguing points. It may be questioned whether we can make this into a powerful argument for God's existence. And there is a danger here of falling into an unrealistic sentimentalism that ignores all the bad things in the world and only sees the good. I can see how a person might weigh out the things in the world, the good and the bad, and still conclude there is an argument here for God's existence But it is not something to make a real skeptic pause.
There is, however, another argument from design that I believe has some real substance to it. That is the argument from complexity. This argument claims that this universe is too complex to be explained by pure chance. This has to be distinguished from another argument I believe has value, which is why something rather then nothing is here. The argument from complexity looks at how that something is organized and asks whether it looks like it could have come about by chance. It looks at the complexity of the living cell and asks whether it could have simply happened. It looks at the complexity of the physical laws and asks how they came about. It asks questions about irreducible complexity and fine tuning. In this effort, I find science is in many ways on our side. When it was thought the universe could be explained by simple substances acting according to simple laws, it made sense that the only thing God had to do, if anything, was to kick things off, and they would all continue automatically. But the universe is more complicated than that. And we have to ask, given that, whether the explanation of chance really works. I believe there is a worthwhile point to be made here if we can distinguish it from the first version of the argument.
It is easy to see the goal of the church organization as recruiting people to fill open positions. Often there is a desperate struggle to find someone to fill spots. This can result in a frustrated attitude on the part of the leadership. But there can also be frustration on the part of the people. The things they would like to do or are good at seem to be not needed or are minimized. Now we live in a fallen world. It is not surprising that things do not always work out the way we would like them to. But could there be a deeper problem?
Scripture says that the body of Christ is diverse people with diverse gifts, working in unity (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; Colossians 2:19). This results in people being built up in Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16; Colossians 1:28,29; Matthew 28:18-20). But it is easy to let the purpose become the perpetuation and growth of the organization. Or even the upholding of the authority of the leadership. Now it is appropriate for leadership to have authority, but that authority is for building up the congregation (1 Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13). But when it is turned the other way and the congregation is seen as having the purpose of exalting the leader, there is a problem.
However, there can be a reaction to this of individualism. We can see ourselves as carrying out our ministry on our own, apart from the rest of the body. We can also see our goal as developing our potential, without regard for others' needs. We should understand that we are part of a community (Hebrews 10:24,25; Philippians 2:1-4; 1 Peter 2:4,5).
That is why we need to think things through when it comes to filling slots in the organization. The most basic question is whether the slots should be filled or should be there at all. And there is also more involved here than just the heavy hand of tradition, though that can be a problem. The deeper question is whether this is building up the people or building up the organization. Now part of building people is inviting new people in. But there is a question of what we are inviting them in to. We need to ask what can best be done to encourage people to use the gifts and abilities they have. Now I think there is a place for a person to accept a job they are not particularly gifted in because that is needed. But we have to ask what we mean by needed. And the leaders have to consider what the people are capable and motivated to do. Now there are individualistic tangents that people need to be reined in on. But the issue needs to be the good of the people involved and not just what makes the organization run smoothly. For if our goal is to build people, the organization needs to serve them, not the other way around.
Eusebius was the first church historian whose work has been preserved. As such, he provides a valuable service. He preserves information on many individuals and events which we would otherwise know only limited amounts about. There are a number of other sources from the period that confirm at least the broad outline of what Eusebius writes, if not all the details. One could wish for an alternative narrative that we could compare it with and that would provide a wider view. He seems to emphasize the teachers of the Alexandrian school and says less about some of the others. But he provides us a service by preserving what he does.
The man himself was not extremely impressive. He was a supporter of Constantine and something of a sycophant. His history of Constantine passes over any questionable thing about him and only reproduces the good. (He fails to mention Constantine putting to death his oldest son on the charge, which some claim was trumped up, of the son committing adultery with his stepmother.) Eusebius tried to take a middle road in the dispute between Athanasius and Arius. He was more of a supporter of the party line, and his history may suffer because of it. While he is critical in places, he has a tendency to be laudatory, at least as regards the Christians. He is more of a work-a-day, though solid scholar, but as such he does put together a wealth of useful information. And shows that the studious scholar, without necessarily possessing deep insight, can accomplish things worthwhile for the kingdom of God. We do not necessarily have to be extraordinary to be used of God.
One of the most basic fears of modern times is that life has no meaning. Having lost the idea that there is a God who made the world and is concerned about us, we are frequently left with an idea of meaninglessness. We can feel we are merely white rats stuck in a maze or computer circuits in a large machine. And we can try to define ourselves or create meaning for ourselves. But this is a hopeless endeavor. We can no more define ourselves or create meaning for ourselves than we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps with no bootstraps. It all becomes a meaningless game. This fear is one that Christianity speaks to very directly. It says there is a God who loves us and sent His Son to save us (Romans 5:6-8; John 3:14-18; 1 John 4:9,10) if we put our faith in Him (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). This results in God working in our lives to carry out His purposes in the world (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 1:28,29). This gives us a goal of doing good to others (Galatians 6:9,10; 1 John 4:11,12; Romans 13:8-10). God's saving grace has the ultimate goal of our being with God forever (John 10:27-30; 1 John 5:11-13, Romans 8:38,39). This gives meaning and context to our lives. But it is easy, even for those who have trusted Christ, to fall back into this fear of meaninglessness. So we need to remind ourselves of who we are and what our purpose is. We need to know what we believe and why we believe it. For we need to avoid falling into the void of meaninglessness that characterizes our culture.
There was a man who followed the wind. One day he came upon a large plain.And as he approached it, he saw a man on a strange contraption.It was a platform with wheels, and it had a mast on it with a large sail.
"What are you doing?" asked the man on the contraption.
"I am following the wind," returned the first man.
"You will never get anywhere that way, just on your two feet," remarked the sailor. "You need to harness the wind, then you can follow it with ease."
"How do I do that?"
"You need to fix the mast of faith to the platform of commitment and unfurl on it the sail of surrender. If you get these in the right amounts, they will cause the wind to carry you along."
The walking man was thinking about this when he met another sail platform. This one was very colorful and covered with lights and had a device on the mast that put out strange melodious sounds as the wind blew through it.
"To truly harness the wind," explained the sailor of the second craft, "you must obtain this device that produces the sounds of heaven."
The man walked on, considering this.
Then he saw a sail platform all draped in black. The sail was black, and the driver stood up against the mast with his arms stretched out to the side.
"What are you doing?" asked the walking man.
"I am crucifying myself with the King," replied the man. "If I put my inner self to death, I will be able to perfectly harness the wind."
As the walking man tried to figure this out, he came upon a man whose sail platform and clothes were totally white.
"What do you do to harness the wind?" asked the walking man, curious.
"To harness the wind, you must be perfect," returned the man in white.
"You mean you have no wrong desires?"
"I still have infirmities, but I am free from intentional sin."
As the man considered how he might make sense of this, he reached the hill on the other side of the plain. He looked back and saw the people on the sail platforms. They seemed to be going straight and had a hard time turning. And when the wind was not hitting their sails right, they slowed to a crawl. He had no idea what they would do when they hit rough country.
As he stood and stared, the wind seemed to speak to him. "I cannot be harnessed, I will not be tamed. You do not change Me, I will change you. Just follow Me." And the man left, following the wind.