Preachers often take a passage like John 18.15-18, 25-27 and tell us, “Don’t do that!” They’re right, of course, but how can we put a positive spin on this? What lesson can we learn from Peter’s denial that will encourage us in our faith? Listen, or watch, and find out.
The Internet erupted with praise and emotion as the world received news on Wednesday morning this week of the death of Billy Graham. Though I never met him personally, or even heard him speak in person, I am feeling a certain sadness about it.
I’m not sad for him, though – he was 99 years old when he died, and he was confident of his eternal destiny. In fact, he once said (borrowing from D.L. Moody), “Someday you will read or hear that Billy Graham is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than I am now. I will have just changed my address. I will have gone into the presence of God.”
What saddens me is that with the passing of Billy Graham, we have seen the end of an era. When Billy Graham preached at crusades, God worked in mighty ways. Graham’s ministry led thousands upon thousands of people to embrace faith in Christ. And his connections with local churches at those crusades meant there was meaningful follow-up that took place so that these new believers could connect with faith communities that would strengthen their newfound walk with the Lord.
In a post-war, still-Christian western world, that approach worked. But in a post-modern, post-Christian western world, it does not work as well. Still, Graham’s passion for evangelism has inspired millions of Christ-followers to share their faith, in helpful and appropriate ways, with their friends. Evangelism today happens more effectively from neighbour to neighbour.
God has not given me the gift to be able to preach with the evangelistic fervour of Billy Graham, but that does not stop me from proclaiming Christ, crucified, risen and ascended, both from the pulpit and from the front porch. While I may not have a gift for evangelism, I have a heart for it – as should each of us. Why not step out in faith and share your love for Jesus with a neighbour this weekend? Don’t be afraid of the response; if you get questions for which you have no answers, your friend will be patient as you seek out answers.
Many have imitated Billy Graham, but none has been so used of God in mass evangelism. I recommend that you read his autobiography (available here) to get his own take on his life as an evangelist. Unlike so many who crave the spotlight, Graham remained a humble man of God his whole life.
There’s such good news to share – how can we keep from sharing it? Billy Graham shared it in word and in deed…and so can we.
“Well done, good and faithful servant…enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25.21, RSV).
The English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) wrote prolifically, and focused frequently on her vibrant faith. An Oxford Movement Anglican, she often structured her poetry around the Christian year.
Here is one of her poems for Lent, the season which, this year, began on Wednesday of this week.
It is good to be last not first,
Pending the present distress;
It is good to hunger and thirst,
So it be for righteousness.
It is good to spend and be spent,
It is good to watch and to pray:
Life and Death make a goodly Lent
So it leads us to Easter Day.
What strikes me about that poem is the very last line. It reminds us of the purpose of Lent. It is not an end in itself, nor is it some sort of religious diet or austerity plan. It is a means to an end. Lent is designed to prepare us for Easter.
Just as a measured celebration of Advent makes Christmas more special, so too does Lent, celebrated appropriately, make Easter more meaningful. By “celebrated appropriately”, one could mean any number of things, but at the very least, it means remembering that there are but 40 days in Lent: Sundays are not included. Each Sunday remains a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. There is no reason to hide our ‘alleluias’ on those Sundays, because each Lord’s Day is a reminder that the Lord is risen.
So, be last and not first; hunger and thirst; spend and be spent – as long as it leads to Easter Day. The story ends well, indeed, victoriously! Keep that end in mind, however you choose to celebrate Lent.
“But thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15.57, NLT).
For Christians in many traditions, this coming Wednesday marks a special day: it will be Ash Wednesday. And if you notice the calendar, it falls this year on February 14, which is also widely celebrated in western culture at Valentine’s Day.
When you were a kid, maybe your experience was a bit like mine. My mother had me write out Valentines for each of my classmates. After all, it was the right thing to do. But did you feel, well, awkward about some of them? Like they were going to be received as pregnant with meaning when they weren’t?
Love, as they say, is a many-splendoured thing. And it is multi-faceted, like a beautiful diamond. It can be possible to read too much – or too little – into an expression of human love. A Valentine can be an expression of single-minded devotion, or it can be simply conforming to a cultural tradition.
Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of Lent, a 40-day (note that Sundays are not included, since each Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection!) period of penitence and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is a whole season that prepares us to receive the greatest gift of love – the greatest Valentine – ever offered. There is nothing ambiguous about this Valentine. Jesus only has one meaning for it – selfless, life-giving love.
You don’t need to celebrate Lent to value what Jesus has done for us. But many people find it a helpful time to awaken their awareness of what God is doing in their lives.
This coming Wednesday, whether you receive the imposition of ashes or not, understand that the greatest Valentine you will ever receive has paid the price for your sins, has paved the way for eternal life to be yours.
“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (Jesus, John 15.14-15a, NLT).
This Sunday at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, I’m going to talk about a term that gets tossed around a lot – often with scorn attached – in the church and in the world. It’s the term “born again”.
In the sense in which Christians use it, the term appears just in one place in the New Testament: the story of Jesus’ encounter at night with Nicodemus in John 3. Nicodemus confides that everybody who has been eyeing his ministry knows he has come from God. Then Jesus tells him, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3.3, NLT).
Well, that kind of came out of left field, didn’t it, Jesus? After receiving such a high compliment from such a high-ranking Jewish official, one would think he would demurely blush and say, “Aw, shucks” or something. But not Jesus. He jumps right into the challenge of the Kingdom: to see it, you must be born again.
What did he mean by that?
As I noted, the term is fraught with baggage both inside and outside the church, and it’s often negative. But the term that John uses for “again” in John 3.3 – anōthen – has a couple of similar meanings. It can mean ‘again’, ‘from the very beginning’, or ‘for a long time’; or, as John tends to use it most, ‘from above’. Some translations of the Bible have started using ‘from above’, because it is a correct translation, and perhaps also to try to steer away from the negative baggage that ‘again’ has caused over the year.
But they really all point to the same thing: there must be some sort of new, supernatural birth that takes place in our lives before we can see the Kingdom of God.
Many well-meaning followers of Jesus have hammered away at this verse over the years as an antidote to the milquetoast teaching (or lack thereof) that suggests, “All you have to do is be good, and God will have you.”
I’m still not sure, after 30 years in this business, where people came up with that notion, but it sure wasn’t from the Bible, that’s for sure.
No, at some point in our lives – and it’s never too late! – each of us needs to come to terms with the reality that Jesus’ death and resurrection were not just historical events, but that they were accomplished for me. For each of us. And when God pours down his grace on us to enable us to make that confession of faith, something new happens inside us, and we experience new birth. We are born from above. We are born again.
It doesn’t have to have a dramatic testimony attached to it. Instead of a Damascus Road experience, it can be an Emmaus Road experience. Each must lead to the same conclusion, though: at some point, we ceased living under our own strength and gave over the throne of our hearts to Jesus. When you do, some people will label you as “one of those born again Christians.” And when they do, you can give humble praise to the One who died and rose again for you, and who changes you within by the Holy Spirit.
It’s not about pride – far from it. But you don’t need to be ashamed of the Name.
P.S.: If you’re interested in integrating your faith and your work, consider coming to St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton for a simulcast retreat called “Work as Worship” on Friday, February 23 from 8:30 to 3:30. Lunch is provided in the $25 registration cost. Learn more by clicking here.