Identity: Loved

The Beloved Disciple In the Gospel he wrote about the life of Jesus, the apostle John never mentions himself by name, but refers to himself often as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  (John 13:2319:26-2720:2).

For years, when I read these verses and others like them, I assumed John talked about himself in this way because he was somehow favored by Jesus. But a few years ago, I realized that it is possible that John called himself “the disciple whom Jesus loved” not because Jesus showed favoritism towards him, but because John himself couldn’t get over the simple fact that Jesus loved him.

It didn’t matter that he was John of Galilee, the fisherman, the son of Zebedee, the brother of James, a Jew, the youngest disciple and the one to live the longest, the one to receive the revelation of the future. All these things were important parts of who he was, yes, but John knew that when it came down to it, the only thing that truly matter was that Jesus loved him. No title or piece of his identity could compare to that. None of the rest of it mattered if that one fact wasn’t true. But it was true, and John’s life was defined by this fact, so what better way to describe himself?

John wrote, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16). He just couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus loved someone like him enough to die for him. That fact motivated the rest of John’s life. Nothing else about John mattered, except that he was loved by Jesus. He found his entire identity in Christ. And he longed for others to do the same.

As we study 1 John, we see the emphasis John places on relationships-- with God and with one another. These relationships are centered around love, namely the incredible love God has for us. His love pours into our lives and that love overflows as we live with one another. A love like that changes who we are. It gives us identity and responsibility.

When I think about the fact that the Creator of the universe and every living thing; the holy, righteous, sovereign, omnipotent, omniscient God who exists outside of time yet still works in it; the One who caused a worldwide flood, split the Red Sea, brought down kingdoms, cities, and armies, enabled the weak to lead the strong, and raised people from the dead— when I really think about the fact that he loved me enough to send his only son to die in my place and now calls me his child and lives in me— I can’t get over it. And I’m guessing John couldn’t either. He couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus loved a poor, dirty, fish-smelling guy like him. And his life proved it.

Identity Transformation

But this identity, cause, passion, and purpose didn't snap into place for John immediately. We read in Matthew 20:20-28 and Mark 10:35-45 that John and his brother wanted to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. Jesus knew that in their hearts, the root of this request was pride. They wanted the places of honor, respect, and power. It wasn’t about being close to Jesus because He loved them. It was about making themselves look good.

But Jesus reminded them that following him would require great sacrifice. If they were just in it to get good seats, it wasn’t worth it. He knew they would suffer greatly for his name (which they both did— James was killed for his faith and John was exiled). Then, he told them that his kingdom doesn’t work like a human kingdom: the first will be last and the last will be first. These are the ones God views as great— not the ones pushing and shoving for the seat next to him, but those bowing at his feet.

It took time for John to really grasp this, but eventually he did. As a result, we have some of the most Christ-magnifying, service-focused words ever written. By the time John had the vision that became the subject of the book of Revelation, he definitely got it. Out of fear and awe, John fell at Christ’s feet (Revelation 1:17). When he saw Christ in his glory, John wasn’t asking to take a seat beside him, he was face-first on the ground. He realized where he belonged. Christ took a prideful, self-serving man and turned him into a humble servant in awe of His love.

We could speculate when this transformation happened in John. Was it when Jesus washed John’s own grimy, calloused feet— the job of a lowest servant?

Was it watching his friend, teacher, and Lord be beaten, ridiculed, and tortured, without a word of opposition?

Was it huddling near the cross, looking up at his bleeding, suffocating Savior, as Jesus entrusted John with the care of his own mother?

Was it running to Jesus’ tomb to find it empty, then seeing him alive and tracing Jesus’ wounds with his fingers?

Was it following Jesus’ command to go, tell, and make disciples; watching people come to trust a Lord they’d never met; seeing his friends give their lives for Christ?

I’d say it was a process; a journey. John may not have fully grasped these words when Jesus first spoke them, but years later when he recorded them, he had lived their truth:

a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them”-- John 13:16-17

Truly, if we follow Christ, we will be like Christ. John is proof that God can take a heart for self and turn it into a heart for Him. He transforms our identity.

 

Adapted from posts previously published on LauraCoulterwrites.com. Used with permission.

Genuine Faith: How Do I Know For Sure?

There are two kinds of people in the world. I know we hear that kind of stuff all the time, but really... there are two kinds of people in the world (if you categorize them the way I’m about to).  If you believe in a literal heaven and a literal hell (which is what the Bible teaches), then when all is said and done there are people who will end up in heaven and people who will end up in hell.  Christians have labeled these two categories of people-- saved and not saved. Although there are two kinds of people in the world, there are four kinds of people reading this blog.  There are those who are going to heaven and know it.  There are those who are going to hell (as of right now) and they know it. That seems straightforward enough.  There are those that know exactly where they’ll end up.

However,  there’s a third type of person, which in my opinion is one of the most heartbreaking.  There are those who are going to hell, but they don’t know it There are people who think they are saved and safe, but they’re not.  Look at one of the most terrifying passages in the Scripture, Matthew 7:21-24:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ "

There are a group of people who will live their lives thinking they are okay with God (many people) only to get to the end and find out they’re not.

Lastly, there are those who are genuinely saved, but think they aren’t.  They wrestle with sin and struggle with unbelief and doubt; and unfortunately, doubt often wins out in their day-to-day experience.  If we could put everyone reading this blog into these four categories, I would guess that there are more of us that fall into the last two categories than the first two categories.  While I don’t have hard data to base this claim on, what I do have is experience living in the Bible Belt my whole life and being consumed in conversations about faith for the past 15 years.  I went to college at the largest Baptist university in the world, and I’ve found no better way to describe the spiritual climate there (like many other places in the Bible Belt) with the phrase "everyone’s a 'Christian,' but no one’s a Christian."

When I think back to my time in college, I realize that my burden for ministry and teaching the Bible didn’t come primarily from interactions with people who were on their way to hell and knew it (quite frankly, a lot of those people didn’t want to go to Christian college).  What kept me awake at night and motivated me to really study the Bible was seeing people on their way to hell, but convinced they were okay because they got baptized as a kid, or said a prayer one summer at a youth camp.  What kept me up at night were the people who showed genuine signs of a changed life, but because of bad teaching lived a life of perpetual fear and doubt—tormenting themselves about their eternal destiny.

Fast forward a few years, and now I’m pastoring a church, in the heart of the Bible Belt, in a building where less than 90 days ago there was another church meeting in the very building we’re in, with another pastor in the very pulpit living a life of open sin, teaching a church that it was okay to live like him.  People who were in danger were being told “not to worry” and that “everything would be okay.”   These are people who will one day stand before God and have to give an account for their lives.  How miserable would it be to head into a very real judgment, thinking that you were okay, only to be surprised by the verdict?

If you’re anything like me, you crave certainty.  You want to know for sure.  Fact of the matter is, if you’re anything like me, when you read about the four categories of people at the beginning of this article, you tried to place yourself in one of the categories.  You probably scrolled through a list of “good things” that you’ve done, prayers that you’ve prayed, maybe a list of “bad things” that you stopped doing.  The question is, is that enough?  Is that what God is really looking for?  Can I know for certain where I’ll end up?  How do I know for certain where I’ll end up?

If you’ve asked any of those questions (or know any one who’s asked those questions) then the book of 1 John is for you, and our Genuine Faith series would be a good for you to tune into over the course of the next two months.  The apostle John writes this book to those who believe in the Son of God  so that they “may know that they have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).  If you’re craving certainty (or are curious about what makes Christians so certain), then we’d love for you to follow along.

A great way to take advantage of this series would be to spend the week reading and praying through the passage that’s going to be preached on Sunday.  For your convenience we’ve included the list below.  We look forward to having you join us on this journey.  We pray that God would use this book in the life of Blueprint to remind us of the simplicity of the Christian faith.

February 3rd – Genuine Faith: Proclaims (1 John 1:1-4)

February 9th – Genuine Faith: Repents (1 John 1:5-2:2)

February 16th – Genuine Faith: Loves (1 John 2:3-14)

February 23rd – Genuine Faith: Doesn’t Love the World (1 John 2:15-27)

March 2nd – Genuine Faith: Abides (1 John 2:28-3:10)

March 9th – Genuine Faith: Shows (1 John 3:11-24)

March 16th – Genuine Faith: Scrutinizes (1 John 4:1-6)

March 23rd – Genuine Faith: Commits (1 John 4:7-21)

March 30th – Genuine Faith: Overcomes (1 John 5:1-12)

April 6th – Genuine Faith: Rests (1 John 5:13-21)

Be Rooted in Family

"that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.

– John 17:21-23

Jesus prayed that prayer for us. Let me say that again. Jesus prayed that prayer for us. He asked God to make us one in him. To unite us, so he could use us as a city on a hill, a light in the world of darkness, salt in a life of weak flavor, family in a species of broken relationships.

He prayed that we would be completely one. Other translations read perfectly oneperfected in unity, and brought to complete unity.

But when we look around, we know are clearly not completely unified. Did God decide not to answer his own prayer? If so, surely our prayers our doomed.

Of course not. Through his death and resurrection, Christ provided the answer to his own prayer. There is a constant paradox in the Christian life: the already/not yet. We are already justified in Christ, but not yet sanctified. We already have new life in him, but are not yet resurrected and glorified. We are already one in Christ, but not yet a perfectly unified family.

And we won’t be in this life. Because we’re human. It’s impossible to always be one when our tendency is to make ourselves the only one. But, as with many of the other not yets, God uses the reality of the already to push us toward the not yet. He desires for us to ache and claw and strive to be one, even while we are not yet one. God wants us to act like family, because that's what we are.

So we pray for oneness, for there to be unity in our churches and in the global Church. We pray that He would break down the walls that we've built– cultural differences, theological disputes, bitterness, and preferences. We pray for our eyes to be opened to see the needs, joys, and potential of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

But we don't want to just see our family. We want to engage them with love. We can't be afraid to step out and make amends or to begin a new friendship. We know sometimes we are going to feel alone. We know our efforts can be misinterpreted, ignored, or scoffed at. But our prayer is that God would help us endure, with courage and peace, knowing He is calling us to this oneness, and has already done the work of ultimately binding us together in Him.

Jon Foreman writes, “We struggle better than we salsa. The habit of the fight seems easy to explain: Dominance is easier to achieve than friendship; consumption is easier than love; and objectification is easier than empathy… all too often I’m distracted by the fight: sidelined by the little battles along the way.”

We are so easily distracted; we so often trade the eternal for the temporal. Love isn’t about agreeing with everything someone says. It’s not about a relationship status or mutual friends. Love isn’t a feeling or emotion. It’s a choice, a commitment, a change.

Jesus told us to love the poor, the lost, the sick, and the disenfranchised. But also he said the world is going to know we belong to him because we love one another. That should change everything about how we interact with others in the Church. In Christ, love is the essence of family. The Church is family.

"By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

–John 13:35

We get some excellent descriptions of love throughout the Bible. Paul’s now famous lines in 1 Corinthians 13 are a good place to start. Love is patient, kind, doesn’t envy, isn’t selfish or egotistical, rejoices in truth, and more. But that's not all. The pages of Scripture practically leak love. Here are a few other passages that remind us how to love our Family:

"By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?"

–1 John 3:16-17

"Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

–Romans 12:9-12

"And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'"

– Matthew 22:37-28

God is love (1 John 4:7-10). Without His love for us, we wouldn’t have a clue as to what it means to love. But He proved His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We know we fail at loving like He does, but we also know He gives us the inspiration and ability to love. We do love Him, even though we fail. And we want to love one another, even though we fail.

Let us love with abandon, without boundaries or conditions. Let us not just say we love, but let us show love to our brothers and sisters with our actions and our lives. Let us love those in the world, but let us also love one another with a ferocity that makes the world take notice. Let's ask God to teach us to love like He loves-- with the sacrificial, deep, eternal love that He lavishes so freely on us.

 

(Post adapted with permission from related posts on LauraCoulterwrites.com.)

Off the Sidelines

It all started with a question. “What’s your burden?” and at first I didn’t have an answer and then it clicked. Men! If men could get it all together the world would change immediately. That’s what popped into my head then and what continues to sit in the corners of my mind now. After I was asked this question and gave my answer, I was invited to come to a men’s group that was going to start meeting on Tuesday mornings. The next Tuesday I woke up ready to attend this meeting, not knowing what it was really about or how it would go down. When I got there at 5 am I found out that we were going to be going through this six week series called 33 The Series.

This six week session became a game changer in my life. It was the first time that the Gospel was brought down to the ground level of my life, not as a Christian but as a man that was a Christian. It was like I was in the fight of my life and never knew it, until during these six weeks, the question was asked: “How many men in here either don’t have a father or your father was there but very ineffective?” That day there were about ten guys in the room and all ten raised their hand. At that very moment a bomb went off in my head. I finally realized that I wasn’t the only one and that this thing might be at epidemic proportions. It was totally mind-blowing to me that it was unanimous, ten out of ten guys had a bad outlook of the man who is supposed to mean the most to us, Daddy! Every boy longs for his daddy to be his superhero, but for every boy in the room, this superhero never showed up. Wow!

I really felt like I could no longer sit on the sidelines. The Gospel had been made real in my life and now I know my true burden. I must do something, but what? I felt like God wanted me to take some men through 33 The Series. Why not use that to help some other men? I was frozen with fear and the thought of “I’m not qualified.” Who was I to take some guys through this? I don’t know that Bible like that and I’m not a pastor. So for months, I did nothing.

I produce a comedy show called Hollalujah that we have been putting on for three years now. We draw a nice crowd of about 500 every third Friday of the month. I often invite people from Blueprint out to come and enjoy. This one particular time I gave out some free tickets and it was one of the largest groups from Blueprint we’d ever had (I don’t think it says anything about them being cheap, just that they like free stuff). It also just so happens that Muche Ukegbu also came to his first Hollalujah experience that day. At this point, Muche had become my mentor and sounding board about everything that I didn’t understand about this newfound walk with Jesus that had engulfed my life.

At some point during the night of the show, I found Muche and asked how he was enjoying it. He said, “Dude, this is crazy. Let’s connect this week... seriously.”

I didn’t know what he wanted but I felt the need to make sure we connected. When we did, I clearly remember him saying: “Do you recognize that the room changes when you go on stage? These are the people you are suppose to be pastoring.”

He went on to explain that pastoring doesn’t always look like the pastor in the traditional sense, but these were that people that God placed me over. As he talked I could hear God say, “33-- do it” and a few months later I introduced the first volume of 33 at Hollalujah. That night we had 11 guys sign up. For six weeks I took eleven guys ranging in age from 27 to 57 through this series. These guys all came from different walks of life. We had elders of a church, college grads, former drug dealers, and former addicts all in one room listening to me help them understand how the Gospel applies in their life, right now. I went from “Why me?” to “Why not me?” The thing that I began to realize is that it wasn’t me. This thing was way bigger than me and I couldn’t do it anyway. I had to rely on Him.

We just finished Volume 2 of 33 The Series with a total of sixteen guys. My wife Jessica and I are also closing out a nine week Bible study on Mondays with people who had often crossed our paths and wanted to know more about this God that has changed our lives. This too has been an amazing time with people who don’t go to Blueprint but want to know more about Jesus Christ.

The funny part is, three years ago I wouldn’t have been this dude. I would never have jumped in. Today, I am truly learning to trust God. I have come to realize that when God gives me something it’s always bigger than I can handle. What’s becoming clearer each day is that He is not asking me to do it, He is asking me to believe and follow Him. Even though we have denied Him like Peter, He comes back, affirms us, and tells us to go tend His sheep.

John 21:15-19:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time,“Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”

It’s not for us to know. It's all about being willing to trust Him and just GO.

The Challenge of Cultural Christianity

A couple of years ago, my family and I moved to the Westside of Atlanta. Like most people, who look at our neighborhood from the outside looking in, we understood it to be a low income, primarily African American community that was also culturally and religiously diverse. So, we thought we were coming to reach the socially and economically depressed, under-resourced, unchurched people of our city.  As we began to engage our neighbors, we quickly realized that we would also be faced with the unique challenge of sharing Christ’s love with what could be classified as “Cultural Christians."  Now before I get into some of the evangelistic challenges I've faced reaching this particular sub-group, let me first start by giving a definition of a “Cultural Christian”.  I would define a cultural Christian as an individual who is doctrinally and relationally disconnected from the Christ of the Christian faith, yet “still significantly identifies with Christian culture due to family background, personal experiences, or the social and cultural environment in which they grew up” (Wikipedia).

The Hidden Communication Gap

One of the first and most apparent challenges I’ve faced living in this environment has been the communication barrier even with those who consider themselves Christians. In the past, my spiritual conversations with others went fairly well, at least from the standpoint that the listener left with a clear understanding of what was being said even if they disagreed with the content. This isn’t always the case with those living in my neighborhood.

I remember the first time I walked through the Scriptures with a 20-year-old young man who ”grew up in the church” and lived down the street from us. As we read through Colossians he had a number of difficulties both articulating and understanding certain words any 10 year old should be able to comprehend. At first, it caught me off guard, provoking feelings of insecurity around my own level of education and questions like:

How do I share in such a way as not to come off arrogant by my terminology and questions?

Is this even the best version of the Bible to be using right now?

How do I improve my skills of sharing truth in a way that anyone can understand?

Then my heart was grieved by how much this education gap affected my ability to effectively present God and his gospel to this young man. I left that conversation with of course more questions and as well a new perspective on the value of education and how important it is to solve this epidemic in communities like mine.

How do you convince someone who holds contradictory beliefs, that they indeed hold contradictory beliefs?

Since I first began learning about the community and culture of the Historic West End I have consistently encountered those who claim Christianity, yet don’t claim Christian beliefs or claim many others beliefs as well. Helping people see the contradictions evident in some of their beliefs has been the problem.

As a friend and I worked in my garden one day with a couple of young guys from down the street, one of them asked us about what it meant to have faith in God. I had previously ran into these two fellas on a prayer walk so this question was more of a follow up to what we had previously spoken to them about.  To take full advantage of the opportunity, we expounded more on the Gospel and what true belief looked like. This time, however, was very enlightening as we learned more about their story as well as some of their beliefs.

While they affirmed several Christian truths they also explained how they believed in reincarnation. For them, death was merely a steppingstone into another life as something else, “probably as an animal or another person” they said. They also mentioned their uncertainty about whether this life was actually real or simply just a dream or figment of our own imaginations.

I could go on and on but soon I realized that over the span of the 19 years they had been alive, they had grown up with Christian principles but had been polluted by everything and anything else that sounded good. This amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought seems to be very rampant in our context. No matter how much money people may have or their ethnicity this train of thinking is what I have repeatedly run into time and time again.

Despite the many challenges, The Lord is gracious and faithful. In continuing to walk with folks, I’ve learned that a lot of my time is spent merely listening to them, asking questions and carefully trusting the Holy Spirit to speak to people's hearts not their intellects and to peel away layer after layer of deceptions and lies through his Word. My only hope is that the Lord would ultimately open their eyes to see him for who He really is (2 Cor. 4:4-6).

Not By Accident

As my wife and I made the decision to stay another two years and serve in Atlanta, we found ourselves in a sticky situation with the Decatur church plant happening. We live approximately .9 miles from downtown Decatur and approximately 4.3 miles from the Old Fourth Ward campus. The East Atlanta missional community that we were a part of was slowly shifting to Grant Park. People were buying homes in that area and moving out of the latter. We had been at our current home for 4 years. Although we were renting it, some of our fondest memories in Atlanta were there.  In a time of infertility the Lord had graciously granted us our wildest dreams; not one but two daughters. We saw small groups become missional communities, three months of sharing the gospel with the door-to-door Mormons, various conversations with neighbors, seeing a friend leave the faith [still praying], and watching friends grow in the faith, among other things.

It was a difficult decision but we knew that we wanted to be more intentional with our missional community and as close as we could be to the main campus. The only problem was that rent would double while our income wouldn’t. We began to pray that the Lord would provide after each promising Craig’s List ad resulted in a dead end. Four months later, one of those dead Craig’s List ads called us back and told us it was back on the market. Did I mention this place was perfect? Things moved quickly and before we knew it, we found out we were moving, packed, moved, rented our old house, found a roommate [thus reducing rent to a more manageable rate] within 6 days. Did I mention we didn’t rent a U-haul? 40 or so trips later, we regretted it.

As we moved into our new community, I became increasingly aware of all the garage doors and how difficult it would be to meet our neighbors. Three weeks later, we still hadn’t met anyone. Finally, one day our neighbor came out on his balcony and met my wife. They chatted, our girls said “hi” and we didn’t hear from him again. A few days later, he emerged and I was able to meet him. We small talked, his wife came out. They were smart; real smart. World travelers. She is an economist and he does something with corporations to help them work more effectively. I told him I was a pastor and we also were wedding photographers as well.

“We should have you over for dessert some time,” he quipped.

“We would love that,” I responded.

[Side note; worst place to leave a conversation. Nothing is set in stone, meaning it will never happen. Especially if garage doors are involved.]

“How does tomorrow night at 7:30 look for you?” I asked.

We came back inside and laughed. Ironic that I had been studying Acts 17 all week? Ironic that I had read sermons, articles, and commentary about sharing the gospel with intellectuals. No. We prayed for them and secured a babysitter for the following evening.

We prayed again the next day and then again before we went. We had a great time. We talked about everything: North Korea, religion, mysticism, the Czech Republic, communism, capitalism, consumer debt, community, and a lot of other things.

We weaved pieces of our faith throughout the conversation. I was surprised at how how easy it was  and how comfortable we were. We saw the Lord answer prayer and it was amazing. Where is the relationship going? I don't know. All I can do is keep praying for them. It was so incredible to see how the Lord had been preparing my heart all week for this one situation. It stirred our faith and confirmed just how much God had sovereignly set up the details.

Don't overlook the details and how our sovereign King will use them. Continue to pray to be a part of what he is doing around you and don't be too busy to make time for any adventures he may throw your way.

Before we went to our neighbors', our prayer sounded like this;

“God, you are sovereign. It’s not by accident that you have set this up. Give us grace and courage to be bold and consistent. Please empower us with your Holy Spirit. We rely solely on you. We are not looking for results. We pray that you would draw _____ & ______ to yourself and show them their need for you. We can’t do this and we need your help. Help us to be who ____ & _______ need us to be in order to see you.  We are honored that you would bring us along side your work and ask that we would be faithful. “