Prepositions in Proportion

A Study in the Ways we Talk About Conversion

When I was in school growing up I loved English but hated grammar.  I loved to read and write but I hated having to learn to identify the subject from the object or to know what a subjunctive clause was.  I used to think, just let me read or write something and when I see it on the page I can tell you if it’s good grammar or not by the way it looks.  I can even tell you what’s wrong with it but what I can’t do (nor can I see any reason to learn to do) is use the fancy words to tell you that it’s got a misplaced modifier or a dangling participle.  I don’t know what those things are.  I’ll just tell you that that word doesn’t belong there or this phrase doesn’t work here and I can fix the sentence and we can all go home happy.  My teachers and I never quite saw eye to eye on this.1

I especially hated prepositions.  If you asked me right now, I couldn’t define a preposition in a way that would pass a high school examination.  I remember one grade school teacher saying that if a cat can do it, it’s a preposition.  Words like over, on, through, beneath – a cat can do those things so they’re prepositions.  I’m pretty sure that example breaks down at some point, but it’s the best I can do.

All of this matters because this morning, despite my reticence, I want to consider two prepositions from the Bible.  And if you’re like me, you might feel tempted to shut down at this point, but I urge you to stay with me because this is not a grammar lesson.  This is study in Christian conversion that will be accomplished by paying attention to the prepositions, “in” and “into” as they’re used in the New Testament.

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversion lately.  By that I don’t mean that I’m thinking about converting to anything myself but that I’ve been thinking about the concept of conversion in general.  In the past several months I’ve read the conversion stories of some of the great Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Saint Augustine and also some recent Christian leaders like D.L. Moody and even Billy Graham.  I’ve also been in school lately studying the history of Christian movements – everything from the Great Awakenings to the rise of Evangelicalism to the Pentecostal movement.  And through all of this I’m wondering what causes someone to change from one set of beliefs and practices to a completely different set of beliefs and practices?  How does conversion work?

And lately, just for my own personal interest, I’m starting to pursue a line of thinking that asks questions about the psychology of conversion.  This sort of thing might strike some of us as odd.  We understand that conversion is a spiritual process.  We either respond to the Holy Spirit’s prompting and make changes – or – we are changed almost in spite of ourselves by the Holy Spirit – or – some combination of both occurs depending on your theology, I suppose.  And I agree with that.  But surely our mind and our make-up play a role as well.  It’s obvious.  Certain people will respond to certain modes of communication that others won’t.  Every week somebody loves my sermon and somebody else hates it.2 There has never been a week where this hasn’t been the case.  People can always be counted on to respond differently.  Not all of us are as relational as others, for example.  Not all of us are wired emotionally the same way.  Not all of us are as expressive as others.  Some of us are more governed by reason and logic than others.  God, in His wisdom made us all with different temperaments.  All of this plays a role in how we respond to various forms of preaching, teaching, or gospel proclamation.

But I’ve also been thinking about not only how we respond but how much we respond.  This means looking at the spiritual versus psychological factors involved in why some people change more than others.  My father in law was nearly a complete pagan as a young man, and then went forward at an altar call and started attending church, studying his Bible and tithing the very next week because that’s what he was told to do and he’s kept it up for the rest of his life.  Others come forward with the same sincerity, believing in the same truths, are told the same things, and then change very little.  In individuals, is it just that some people resist the Spirit more than others or is it that some people are of a different temperament than others?  And it’s even more interesting when we talk about cultures instead of individuals.  For example, why are North American Christians less different and set apart from North American non-Christians than Christians in Africa are from their non-Christian countrymen?  Any study will show you that the divorce rate is the same in the American church as in the American culture, American Christian give away 2.5% of their income while non-Christians give away just over 2%.  In nearly every measurable comparison of behavior Christian and non-Christians in this country are almost identical.  That’s just not true everywhere.  Why?  Is it just that some cultures are more open to change?  Is it the fault of mass media?  Or is it that the Holy Spirit is stronger is in Kenya than in Canada?  To put it bluntly, why do some conversions seem to stop just short of any real change?

One answer may be in the prepositions.  The way we talk about faith amongst ourselves and the way we present faith to the unconverted matters a great deal.  And over the past sixty or so years the main metaphor used by evangelicals in America (that’s us) to talk about faith is to say that to become a Christian is to invite Jesus into your heart.  Into is the preposition in that sentence.  To be converted is to have Jesus in your heart.  And make no mistake, that’s clearly a Biblical way of speaking.  In his letter to the Ephesians Paul writes in chapter 3 verses 16 and 17, “16I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.”

Paul wants Christ to dwell in the hearts of the Ephesians through faith. He wants Christ to come into – that’s the preposition – into their hearts.  Now, that’s not the only way the Bible talks about conversion, and in fact, using the same prepositions it speaks about it a very different way.  Here’s what Paul writes to the Romans in chapter 8 verse 1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…”

Notice the difference?  Paul says to the Romans that those who have received salvation are no longer condemned.  But what’s the metaphor for salvation?  It’s those who are “in Christ.”  It’s those who have stepped into Christ who are no longer condemned.

In the first passage, Christ came into us; in the second, we came into Christ.  What we have here are two Biblical metaphors, both using the preposition in or into, which pertain to salvation or conversion.  Now if we took a survey of all North American evangelical Christians about the day they felt they were converted, which language would the majority of them use?  Would they say, “I invited Christ into my heart on such and such a day…” or would they say, “I came into Christ on such and such a day…”

It’s pretty clearly the first one.  The second one just doesn’t sound right to most of our ears, probably because the first one is so prevalent.  It’s the one we use in children’s evangelism, for example.  I heard a true story the other day about a little girl whose grandfather was going in for open heart surgery and she asked her dad if the doctors would be able to see Jesus when they opened grandpa’s heart.  It’s the kind of story that makes you say, “awww…” and it’s a good question and it’s illustrative of the power the metaphor for having Jesus in your heart has, especially for young children.  And again, it’s Biblical to speak this way.

But here’s something interesting.  Of all the times the prepositions in or into are used in relation to Jesus in the New Testament, the overwhelming majority are used to say that it’s we who are in Christ rather than Christ who is in us.  Both are there, but the dominant form in the New Testament is to say that it is we who enter into Christ at conversion rather than the other way around.  Here are some other examples:

  • 1st Thessalonians 2:14 – For you, brothers, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea which are in Christ Jesus. (Here the churches are considered to be the people who are in Jesus rather than described as the people who have Jesus in them.)
  • Galatians 3:27 – For all of you who were baptized in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  (Here we enter into Christ at baptism and being in Christ changes our whole identity.)

These are just two examples of how the Bible more often tends to see conversion as us entering Christ rather than Christ entering us.  There are lots of others.  The phrase “in Christ” occurs 27 times in the book of Ephesians alone versus the one example I already gave in Ephesians of Christ dwelling in us.  Interesting.

It’s interesting that we’ve gone the other direction and made our recent speech about conversion almost universally about Jesus entering into our hearts rather than about us entering into Christ.  Why’d we do that?  When did that start?  Those are the kinds of questions that might make someone who’s interested in the psychology of conversion look a little deeper.  This seems to be an evangelical phenomenon.  Other traditions don’t talk about salvation this way.  It’s particular to us.  I don’t want to give a history lesson here, but the history is fascinating, so let me just say this about the beginnings of evangelicalism: American evangelicalism has been around only since about WWII when certain Christians began to feel that instead of being liberal Christians who didn’t believe anything in the Bible was to be taken literally or fundamentalists who believed everything in the Bible was inerrantly literal, that they would be a middle way between the two.  And instead of viewing the surrounding culture as pure contamination and escaping it like fundamentalists, or uncritically embracing the surrounding culture and adapting or even changing the gospel to fit it like the liberals, they would let some things from the culture in and keep some things from the culture out.  It was a middle way; a dangerous way that meant everything had to be discussed and debated with the hope that the Holy Spirit would lead us to truth.  It was called evangelicalism.

From the start, evangelicalism has put a strong emphasis on personal conversion.  Not all forms of Christianity do this.  And from the start, the phrase of choice for conversion has been to become “born again” by accepting, inviting, or receiving Jesus Christ into your heart.  The lead figure for evangelicals in the early days was none other than Billy Graham and his influence has been enormous.  His common invitation was to ask (in my best Billy impersonation), “Have you received Jesus into your heart?”  But he wasn’t the only influential one.  In 1954 a little booklet came out by a man named Robert Munger.  It was called My Heart, Christ’s Home.  It took the metaphor for Jesus coming into a heart and put it in story form as if your heart had several rooms and each one must be made right by and for Jesus if he were to live there.  The booklet sold for ten cents a copy and has been re-published numerous times since.  By conservative estimates, there are at least 10 million copies in circulation today.  In the 70’s, The Billy Graham association gave away hundreds of thousands of them as follow up to their crusades.  In 1992, the evangelical publisher Inter Varsity Press asked Munger to update it and released it again.  IVP has released 27 editions and printed it in 16 languages to date.  It has had a massive influence on the way we view conversion.

Going on simultaneous to this was another organization known as Campus Crusade with its founder Bill Bright.  Campus produced an even smaller document, known as a tract, called the Four Spiritual Laws.  These laws lay out the good news of Christ and at the end the reader is invited to pray to receive Christ so that he can enter into their life, or their heart.  Now, if you’re waiting for the hammer to drop from me, you’re going to be disappointed.  I don’t think Billy, or Munger, or Campus Crusade are bad.3 Randa and I send money to Campus every month.4

All I’m trying to establish is that the major drivers of the evangelical engines for conversion all prefer the Biblical idea of Jesus coming into our lives rather than the Biblical idea of our lives coming into Jesus.  This has been our phrase of choice from the beginning and remains so today.  Again, this is in spite of the Bible’s preference to speak of conversion the other way around by a tremendously wide margin.  What I’m trying to do is make a case for speaking of salvation the way the Bible does.  I don’t want to abandon the “Jesus in my heart” language but I want to us to learn to stress the “entering into Jesus” language more.  In other words, we need to get our prepositions in proportion.  I want us to think and speak more about salvation as entering into Christ.  And here’s a few reasons why.

First of all, think of the implications of each metaphor.  Each suggests that there is one thing that fits inside of another thing; ie. that one is smaller than the other.  To have Jesus come into your heart or life is to suggest that your heart or life is bigger than Jesus.  To be in Christ is to suggest that Christ is bigger.  This creates some very subtle perceptions.

First of all, with the language of Jesus coming into my heart there is the unintended perception that I don’t have to change much.  My life is what it is and Jesus can come into my heart and with a few tweaks here and there can make my life in its present form work better.  He’ll improve my marriage!  He’ll give me an advantage in the job market!  He’ll keep me safe!  He’ll bring me blessing!  It’s all about him making my life in its present form work better.  Now not everybody comes right out and says that, but isn’t that the way American Christianity plays out in practice? Jesus can come into my heart, but I still make the decisions.  It’s my life.  He can be my savior, but not my Lord.  He can guide me, but not command me.  It’s my heart and like any guest he can make himself comfortable but as long as he’s under my roof I’ll make the rules around here.  It’s not fun to talk this way but it’s difficult to deny that this is the way we understand salvation when you look around the church today and see very little difference between how we live and how the world lives.  Again, this is fairly unique to North Americans.  It’s a big life but a little Jesus.

In contrast, when it’s we who are in Christ, it’s we who are little and Christ who is big.  What was it John the Baptist said? “[Jesus] must become greater; I must become less.”  (John 3:30)  That’s an entirely different attitude.  To decrease in stature is contrary to the American dream.  But to be in Christ is to see clearly that I am now beholden to something bigger than me; bigger than my right to do as I please, yes even bigger than my plans, hopes, and dreams.  If that is how salvation is presented to me it requires a whole lot of careful consideration and counting of the cost before making that decision.  It’s probably not the kind of decision I want to make immediately after a sermon or reading a 16 page book or 8 page tract.  When Jesus speaks of conversion he asks us to count the cost.5 The cost is our very lives.  Instead of increasing the self, it’s almost like asking you to die to the self.  Now which is more in tune with the overall message of the New Testament?

Consider also the implications for community.  We live in the most individualistic culture the world has ever produced.  One reason we prefer speaking of Jesus coming into my life is because it heightens the role of the individual.  We’re a nation of rugged individualists.  If Jesus comes into your heart, whatever happens in that transaction is particular to you.  It is an individual event.  But if you come into Christ you have stepped into the same Jesus that billions of others have stepped into.  By definition you are never in Christ alone, but always together with others.  That changes our perception of things.

It means that you’re stepping into something that already exists and the expectation is that your life changes to conform to Christ and his community.  Change is implied.  Paul writes the Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2nd Cor. 5:17)  This cuts against the grain of our whole culture because it says that serving and preserving the individual self is not our highest priority.  In fact, the individual self that we know has to go in favor of something new.

One of the reasons we have such struggles with the New Testament theme of dying to ourselves is because talking about salvation exclusively in terms of Jesus coming into our hearts implies that something new has come into something old.  Jesus has come into our existing hearts.  And yes, he may tidy the place up a little, but it’s still our heart.  He will change it, but not overwhelm it by tossing it out and creating something new.  The old has not gone and there is no need for the new to come.

And when it comes to community this is the difference between joining a club and being born into a family.  I can think about the church as a club.  I can look around and say that she has Jesus in her heart, and he has Jesus in his heart, and I have Jesus in my heart so we have a very strong point of connection.  But it’s a connection based on what we share between us as individuals, like the connection between Saturn drivers, or Mariners fans.  It’s a real connection.  The connection began the moment the connecting thing came into your life.  You bought a Saturn or went to your first ball game at Safeco and you loved it and thought about hanging out with people who’ve had similar experiences when the same thing entered their life.  So you joined a club of people.  Now there are plenty of Mariners fans who aren’t part of the fan club and plenty of Saturn drivers who don’t get together at car shows.  They can do this because it’s an individual thing – no strings attached.   Just like there are plenty of people who have accepted Jesus into their hearts but are part of no Christian community.  See, no matter how radically you love your Saturn, you as an individual are not totally defined by it, or are only defined by it as much as you want to be.  It came into your life when your life was already established.  It didn’t make you a new creation.  In your mind, it enhanced the old one.  And therefore any connection you feel towards others will last until you buy a Camry, or move to Boston and start cheering for the Red Sox or a church that better meets your needs.  If you don’t do any of those things, that connection can last indefinitely for as long as you keep re-upping and buying Saturns, but it will always be a connection between individuals who have believed the Saturn sales pitch.

But that’s a far cry from being born into a family.  The moment you were born (or born again) you entered this family.  You didn’t get to choose that family.  It didn’t enter you by virtue of some preference you had.  If so, most of us would have chosen a different family.  But that wasn’t an option.  You just entered it by being born (or born again).  It’s bigger than you, and your preferences, and your changing and shifting whims or even needs.  You are an individual, but at the same time, you’re not because what you’ve entered will shape you.  All of us are shaped by our families.  Even those of us who never knew one of our parents are shaped by that absence.  Your family will form you into who you will become.  It will make claims on you.  These claims are not dependent upon something entering you but rather on the fact that you entered something.  Now which is the Biblical model for community – a club or a family?  Obviously a family.  And which do the majority of our churches resemble more?  I think we’re more like a Jesus club than a family.  Jesus entered into our hearts like a Saturn entered our garage.  It changes our life a little, and maybe we start hanging out with some new friends, but everything is still very much on our terms.  Easy come, easy go.

This is the deal evangelicals struck with the culture.  For the sake of our sales numbers, we’ll present conversion in the easiest possible terms.  It’s quick and painless.  Our evangelistic philosophy is “Don’t let them leave the showroom floor.”  Decide now.  Today is the day of salvation.  This is the hour of decision.  If you died tonight do you know where you’d end up?  We’re pushing for instant decisions and we’re getting half baked Christians.  In the Bible, when instant conversion happens, it’s always a miraculous work of the Spirit.  And conversions tend to be near total and cultures tend to be changed.  Think of Paul or Pentecost.  Evangelicals learned to present a reasonable facsimile, and our culture remains unchanged.  In the post WWII instant-consumer culture that spawned us, we’ll present Jesus in such a way that you can consume him to enhance your lives.  Life if better with Coke.  Life is better with Jesus.  The problem is that Scripture presents Jesus in a way that consumes us.  Jesus is not a tame lion.  In the Silver Chair the young girl Jill asks the lion Aslan if he’ll promise not to do anything to her if she comes near.  Aslan says he’ll make no such promise.  She asks if he eats little girls.  He says, “I have swallowed girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”6 See there is no question of Aslan being consumed by Jill.  The only question is whether or not Jill wants to be consumed by Aslan.

That’s how the New Testament frames conversion.  Did you know that in the Gospel of John, lost in our English translations, the preposition into is attached to the word believe?  36 times “believe” is followed by “into.”  In John 3:16 when we say that whoever believes in Jesus shall not perish, the actual Greek preposition is “believe into” Jesus. To believe “in” something means to accept a set of doctrines or statements.  I believe in Jesus means that I believe that Jesus died for my sins and rose again so I receive him into my heart.  To believe into something is more than just intellectual assent; it’s a believing that moves us into union with the object of our belief.  One commentator writes, “Faith, for John, is an activity which takes men right out of themselves and makes them one with Christ.”7

There’s another preposition.  To move into Christ is to come out of ourselves.  This aspect of conversion is lost when we only talk about Christ coming into our hearts.  Look, all I’m arguing for is a return to Biblical language about salvation.  That includes wanting Jesus in our hearts, but emphasizes our lives being in Jesus.  The way we talk about things tends to be the way we come to understand them which in turn becomes the way we live them out.  I leave you with this challenge: Ask yourself what it means for you to be in Christ.  Meditate on that phrase throughout the week.  Ask yourself how your conversion experience may have been different if you were invited to come into Christ rather than been invited to ask Jesus into your heart.  Consider how radical your conversion really was.  Do you want Jesus to get you to heaven, and maybe tidy up your life a little on the way?  Or do you want to be made new?  Do you want a whole new life?  We’re talking about the very core of what it means to be Christian.

There is room for both ways of speaking of conversion, but the proportion matters.  Isn’t it time to speak and live as a people who are in Christ?  As an example, we’ll close with the prayer of Jesus from John 17, immediately before his arrest.  Close your eyes and listen to Jesus as he prays for us and pay attention to the prepositions he uses.  Let’s pray.

(Pray John 17:20-26)

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Posted in Sermons | 1 Comment

Lucky

Download the sermon with footnotes here: Lucky

Picture this with me:  The young preacher has been attracting quite a following.  He and his pack of disciples have been travelling through the countryside.  Between sermons he’s been healing the sick, making paralyzed people walk again, and generally creating a buzz throughout the area.  The people he heals continue to follow him and want to hear more of his message.  This is his coming out party.  Previously he’d preached in local synagogues to small audiences of the faithful.  But this is the big time.  His miracles mean that a crowd has formed.  He’s not in a synagogue but out in the open air, on a mountainside, and this is his first major public address to the masses.

He sits down, as is the custom for preachers in those days.  He clears his throat.  The people lean forward in anticipation.  And then he says, “You’re lucky if you’re unemployed.  You’re lucky if you’re clueless and confused.  You’re lucky if your marriage is falling apart.  You’re lucky if you’re terminally ill.”

And everybody scratches their heads and wonders what sort of craziness this is.  This is the worst sermon ever.  They hear these words and they wonder, what are we supposed to do with this?

This is the set-up for the Sermon on the Mount.  The Sermon in Matthew is Jesus’ first recorded public teaching.  He begins with a section known as the Beatitudes.  The name comes from the Latin word for “blessing.”  The Beatitudes are right up there with the 23rd Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments on the list of most highly regarded Scriptures.  They’re put on bookmarks, carved into plaques, and memorized by children, and rightly so.  I memorized them as a kid and my oldest daughter is memorizing them right now, every night.  They are so highly known and regarded partly because of their easily identifiable format but more so because they are essential to the ethical teaching of Jesus.

Let’s read them.  They’re found in Matthew 5 verses 1-12.  Follow along with me as I read.  (Read Matthew 5:1-12)

The word “blessed” used in these beatitudes does not refer to someone who God blesses but is probably better understood as referring to someone who is fortunate.  Literally, it means “to be on the right path.”  It is used of someone who is to be congratulated.  To put it in plain speech is to say, “Lucky.”  Lucky are the poor in spirit.  Lucky are those who mourn.  By any definition of any of those words we have what seems to be a contradiction.  To come across someone who is grieving because their dear friend just died and to say, “Oh your friend died?  Lucky!” would be considered a terrible thing to do.

So when Jesus begins his sermon with these words, more than a few eyebrows are sure to be raised.  I mentioned before that the initial audience might hear a sermon like this and walk away wondering, “What are we supposed to do with that?”  We might have the same response.  And that, I think, is precisely the problem.  We’re hearing the Beatitudes wrong if we think we’re supposed to do anything with them at all.  They are not intended as positive models for who we should be.  They are descriptions, not recommendations.

What I mean by that is that Jesus is not giving us this list so that we will say, “I need to be more like that.”  The Beatitudes are often interpreted as the picture of the ideal Christian.  This is who we should be: poor in spirit, meek, etc… Nothing could be further from the truth.  This misreading is a symptom of the poor approach we’ve developed to the Bible in the first place.  The way we often read the Bible is to think that Scripture is about what we are supposed to do instead of what it actually is about – who God is.  Scripture is first and foremost God’s revelation of Himself to us.  It tells us who God is.

The Beatitudes are not instructions on how we should try to be; they are revelation about who God is.  All Christian ethics begin with who God is and the way God is.  The first question should never be, “What should I be doing?” but rather, “Who is God?”  The Sermon on the Mount is the major ethical teaching of Jesus and he begins not with a list of rules to try to follow but rather a description of a God who makes the kingdom of heaven available to the very people the world seems to reject.  When we read this passage as anything else we quickly get off track and then the Beatitudes become a recipe for legalism, or a monument to works rather than grace, or one more reason to feel guilty for not stacking up to another set of religious requirements.

We get so turned around this way.  Take the first Beatitude: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Consider the context.  Jesus has just begun his ministry.  He begins it where?  Not in Rome.  Not in Jerusalem.  Not in the corridors of power.  He begins it among the oppressed, rejected, and especially, the suffering.  Look at the passages preceding the Beatitudes.  Start in chapter four, verse 23:

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. 24News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them.

Who is Jesus working among?  What sort of people make up the crowds that are following him and listening to him as he sets forth his ethical teaching?  It’s the outcasts.  It’s the sick and dying, the ones with chronic pain, the demon possessed and mentally ill, the epileptics, and the paraplegics.  It’s all the people who have been crushed on the wheels of life.  That is what the phrase “poor in spirit” means.  It refers to those who are out of options.

It’s not a good thing.  Nobody should want to be poor in spirit.  It would be like wishing you had inoperable late-stage cancer.  It is a miserable situation that we should rightly try to avoid.  But in an effort to make sense of the Beatitudes as instructions on how to be a good Christian, some people have turned the phrase “poor in spirit” into something praiseworthy as in “I just need to be poorer in spirit and then God will bless me.”  To be poor in spirit is not something anyone should aspire to be.  It means to be in dire straights, between a rock and a hard place.  It means to be beaten, in over your head, drowning in depression, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  The Message Bible translates the opening Beatitude as, “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope.”

That is what poor in spirit means.  It means that you’re at your wit’s end.  It means that you are barely holding on.  This is not a condition anyone ought to aspire to.  It is, however, a condition that we all may find ourselves in from time to time.  It is the condition that a man suffering from uncontrollable seizures may be in during the time of Jesus.  He’s been to the priests; he’s been to the doctors; he has tried absolutely everything but the seizures keep coming.  He’s at the end of his rope.  It is the condition that a paralyzed woman may be in during the time of Jesus.  It is the condition that a sufferer of chronic migraines may find herself in during the time of Jesus.  They are at the end of their ropes.  This is an exact description of many people in the crowd who have followed Jesus and are now listening to this sermon.  They get what Jesus is saying.

All those people can count themselves lucky not because they are in that condition but because they have just met Jesus and he has shown them the kingdom of God.  It is theirs.  By a touch of his hand it has been revealed to them.  They get up and walk.  The seizures stop.  The chronic pain disappears.  To all of you who were just hanging on by a thread: This is your lucky day – the kingdom of heaven is yours.  This is what it’s like.

Consider further with me the context.  These are not the people who have it together – quite the opposite.  They are the dregs of society.1  So how do they acquire the kingdom?  Not by any means you might think.  These people have not dedicated themselves to holiness and Bible study.  They are not the ones who are highly educated or highly paid.  They don’t tithe or pray or go on short-term missions trips.  They can’t seem to get their act together to do any of those things.  They can’t, because life has thrown something at them that seems to completely dominate them and drown out all other concerns.  They can’t really make heads or tails of everything the Bible talks about or what preachers have to say and they don’t have the time or capacity right now to figure it out.  All they know is that Jesus touched them and the rule of heaven came down upon their broken lives and set them right again through their contact with Jesus.  This is the luckiest day of their lives.

The poor in spirit are blessed not because they are poor in spirit but rather they are blessed in spite of the fact they are poor in spirit because that’s just who God is.  They are not in an admirable state that anyone should want to be in but they are blessed anyway.  That’s what God does.  That’s why Jesus begins his sermon this way.  It begins in God’s grace, not man’s holiness.  When we are at our worst, God still opens the kingdom to us.

The key to understanding the Beatitudes is to stop taking them as recommendations.  No one is told to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek.  Jesus is saying instead that due to who God is and the nature of His kingdom it should come as no surprise that among those who follow are the so called “losers” at the game of life.  Counted among the fortunate are those who can’t quite seem to clean themselves up, put away the bottle, get over their issues, or put off their dysfunction.

To take a survey through the rest of the Beatitudes is to see the same dynamics in play.  They go from a description of a largely undesirable state to a fortunate state.  Follow along with me.  The second one is obvious.  Clearly being in a state of constant mourning can hardly be the point.  It would be foolish indeed to see the mourning Christian as the ideal Christian and that we should all try to be in mourning as often as possible.  Rather, the point is that God is a God who comforts mourners.  When we can’t see anything but our pain and loss – at times to the point of not even functioning – we are not excluded from the kingdom of all comfort.  The kingdom of God is always in contrast to the way of the world.  The world is not comfortable with mourning.  We don’t know what to do or say, and often those in extended periods of mourning are eventually shunned, or even worse, told that its time to get over it and move on with life.  But our God is not only comfort-able with mourners but also is comfort-ing to mourners.  To be in mourning is not desirable.  But God doesn’t need for us to get over it in order to come to Him.

Next come the meek.  To be meek is not a synonym for humble, and it’s not necessarily a virtue.  It essentially means those who will not or cannot assert themselves.  It is the shy and the intimidated.  The book of Numbers describes Moses as a meek man, more meek than all others.  It does not mean it as a compliment.  In the context it is used, it means to say that he is not able to stand up to his brother and sister when they undermine his leadership.  It’s a character flaw.  He is not able to take what is rightfully his – namely the leadership of God’s people which has been given him by God.  God has miraculously and directly called him to lead His people.  There’s nothing admirable about Moses’ inability to tell his sister and brother where they can go when they start undermining that authority.  He’s too meek to follow God’s call.

The world tends to chew up and spit out those types of people.  But our God is the sort of God who freely gives what cannot be forcefully taken.  To a person who cannot assert himself; to one who others tend to walk all over; the Lord gives the world to.  What they cannot earn they receive as an inheritance.  What they do not deserve they are given by divine proclamation.  They are truly fortunate.

And then there are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  This one, of course, can be seen as a virtue but the question remains, “What usually comes of a person who always desires to do the right thing or to see the right thing done?”  Do they tend to get the promotion, get the girl, and get ahead in life?  The Eastern religions teach karma but the Bible makes no such promises.  To say that virtue is its own reward is to admit that vice has a whole list of obvious rewards of its own.

In any case, I am not so sure this is to be seen as a virtue.  To be hungry and thirsty is never a good thing.  It means that you are unsatisfied.  The one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness is always aware of his own inadequacy.  They can never be satisfied with who they are; never feel loved and accepted.  They have failed too many times and want so badly to be someone they are not.  Or maybe the reason they care so much for righteousness is that they’ve been wronged.  They become consumed with a quest for justice.  They hurt so deeply inside that the need for things to be set right gnaws at them like hunger.  They are literally starving for things to be set right but are powerless to make it so.  Jesus says if that miserable state of being applies to you, today is your lucky day.  Apart from anything you can say or do, God will fill you.  Your hunger will be satiated.  It’s your lucky day.

And how about being merciful?  Is turning the other cheek really such a great strategy?  It tends to get you two black eyes instead of just one.  Isn’t the way of the world to press your advantage, to use every ounce of leverage you’ve got over another person?  Is mercy any way to run a business?  No, you need to get paid.  Be merciful and the world is sure to take advantage of you.  It’s a Wonderful Life is a wonderful fiction.  I cry every Christmas when I see that movie but it’s been my experience that life really isn’t that way.  The world just doesn’t repay mercy with mercy in the way it works out for George Bailey.  But for those who suffer through life for being too generous, too forgiving, too merciful – they will be given mercy in the kingdom of heaven where the world offers none.  They aren’t given mercy because of their own but surely because of their good fortune to have met Jesus.

Next are the pure in heart.  These are the perfectionists.  They want purity so badly.  They will not be satisfied with anything shy of perfection.  They will constantly evaluate and assess even their own motives.  They will pick apart your doctrine, your heart, and your attitude.  They’d be detestable if they didn’t also do it to themselves.  They are bothered by their own corruption and lack of holiness and are downright depressed when they glance around the church and see how tarnished the Bride of Christ really is.2

To be pure in heart sounds like something to desire, but to actually try to attain it results in misery.  Jeremiah knew this and lamented, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  (Jeremiah 17:9)  The pure in heart are to be pitied above all men.  They seek purity in an instrument they can’t even understand and which constantly lies and misdirects them.  And yet, even they will see God.  Our God is the sort of God who will give relief even to those who give themselves none.  What a stroke of luck for these people.

We can go on, but I think you get the point.  The Beatitudes are not instructions on how to be blessed.  They are not a list of the types of conditions that are pleasing to God.  We like to read them that way because we like to be in control.  We like law instead of grace and religion instead of relationship.  If the Beatitudes are just instructions on how to get blessed, they simply become another way of trying to earn salvation and blessing and are a recipe for frustration and failure.  Understood this way, they are anything but good news.

But conversely, if they are a glimpse of what God is like, then they are filled with radical hope and surprising joy.  And that’s just what they are.  Dallas Willard hits it right on the head when he writes, “The Beatitudes are explanations and illustrations, drawn from the immediate setting, of the present availability of the kingdom through personal relationship with Jesus.  They single out cases that provide proof that, in him, the rule of God from the heavens truly is available in life circumstances that are beyond all human hope.”3

Picture that crowd again who originally hear this message.  What changed for those people who were formerly crippled, diseased, and spiritually oppressed?  Only one thing: They met Jesus.  The Beatitudes tell us, “This is what’s possible when you meet Jesus.”  Life is snatched from the jaws of death, hopeless situations are redeemed, mourning is turned to dancing, and beggars become rulers in a kingdom with no end.

The point is that no human condition excludes blessedness.  Before we set out to transform our lives, live in holiness, or purify our hearts, we must begin here.  It begins in grace.  It begins with allowing ourselves to be reminded yet again that our tendency toward religion and legalism always gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus.  Martin Luther read passages like these and decided never to develop a theology of sanctification or human holiness.  He thought any such thing would lead either to despair or pride.  He thought we should never aspire to be anything but a sinner, for Christ dwells in sinners.  Because of the all-surpassing grace of God we’re at our most fortunate when we’re at our worst.  We’re on the right path when we’ve finally come to the end of our road.

Now Luther may have gone too far, but not by much.  I believe in sanctification and holiness but grace to the sinner while he is yet in his sins comes first.  The Beatitudes scandalize us again with grace.  They insist we get over ourselves and come to know God as God truly is.  Before we undertake any sort of reclamation project upon ourselves we let God demonstrate His poor taste by loving us in our filthy condition.  The beginning of right living is to know God, not to know the rules for right living.

The Beatitudes are not a list of the types of people the Lord normally blesses.  They are not a strategy for achieving a better society.  They are an announcement of the covenant God has made with mankind.  In this covenant even the hopeless have hope.  The forgotten are remembered.  The lost are found.  Entrance to the kingdom of heaven does not depend on what you know, what you do, or who you are.  It depends exclusively on the nature and character of God.

The Beatitudes are good news.  “Congratulations”, they say, “today is your lucky day!  God heals the divide between you and Him and you are welcome into His kingdom.”  Everything that follows in the rest of the Sermon on the Mount – again, the bulk of Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching; the stuff we often use out of context to shame people into behaving better – can only be understood against the backdrop set out by the Beatitudes.  They tell us who God is.  Infinitely more than rules or laws, that is the basis for Christian morality.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you should ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, ‘I am.’  To know God is to know our obedience is due Him.”4

That’s where Jesus starts his sermon.  God Is.  He starts with a relationship that is absolutely dependent upon God having incredibly low standards with regards to the people He is willing to be with.  That is good news for all of us.  That makes every one of us extremely lucky.  Let’s pray.

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For Freedom Part X “Get Dressed & Come to Dinner”

Galatians 3:26-4:7

(Read Galatians 3:26-29)

In verses 24 and 25, which we talked about last week, we learned that the Law was given as a sort of guardian, or babysitter until Christ came.  We ended with Paul asserting that “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” In other words, we’ve grown up.  Faith, that most child-like of entities, is the actually the sign of maturity, the sign that we no longer need a babysitter.  (NT Wright) Continue reading

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For Freedom Part IX “Hello, My Name Is Mike”

Galatians 3:15-25

So we pick up the story in Galatians right where we left off.  And at this point in the letter the ideas and the themes are really building on each other so I would suggest that if you’ve missed the previous week that you find a copy and try to catch up because Paul kind of gets on a roll here and doesn’t really pause for a breath anytime in the near future. Continue reading

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For Freedom Part VIII “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Galatians 3:6-14 

We pick up this week, right where we left off.  Paul is trying various ways to get through to the Galatians who are obviously confused – “bewitched” is the word Paul uses. Continue reading

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For Freedom Part VII “The Interrogation

Galatians 3:1-5

Before I left on vacation, we had worked our way through two chapters of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Maybe it’s time for a quick review. If you’ll remember, the letter started off with none of Paul’s usual pleasantries. He opened with fire, saying, I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting what you know to be true and instead are embracing lies. That kind of gets your attention. The people in Galatia were giving up the freedom they had been given in Christ and instead thought it might be better to just follow a bunch of rules instead. Frankly, that shocks Paul and he tells them so. Then Paul told his own story, in part to demonstrate the workings of grace in his own life, and in part to defend himself against the false charges and accusations his opponents in Galatia were making against him. At the end of chapter two he concludes that story by telling about his confrontation with Peter in Antioch, a confrontation over whether or not the gospel was really about grace, or if grace was just a fancy word that covered up the fact that the way to God was really still about being good enough, or religious enough, or moral enough, or successful enough, or something enough to deserve to be part of the family. Continue reading

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For Freedom Part VI “Undiscovered Country”

Galatians 2:15-21

When I was a kid I collected comic books.  I know – it’s incredibly nerdy.  But judging from the box office success of some of this summer’s movies, I’m not the only one who likes superheroes.  There’s just something cool about them.  And so some of my friends and I collected comics.  And I remember that my friend Billy had one comic that I really envied.  He had this story where Superman and Batman fought each other.  I mean, they’re both good guys, so for them to get in a fight was really something.  I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but there was a disagreement of some sort and the fate of the world hung in the balance so they didn’t have time to work it out as adults and found it necessary to engage in a little hand to hand combat.  And on the surface you think, Superman wins, right?  He’s an alien with real superpowers and Batman’s just a well trained rich guy with gadgets and a sidekick.  But not so fast.  Batman was trained by the world’s best martial artists, including people like Ra’s al Ghul, and has ways of using your own strength against you so he is largely able to nullify Superman’s advantage.  As I recall, Batman actually gets the upper hand.  Anyway, none is this is really pertinent today except to say that as a kid this stuff was fascinating: Two superheroes, both of whom are trying to do the right thing, going toe-to-toe, and we get to quietly observe by turning the pages of a comic book in the comfort of our own home. Continue reading

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