Have We Given Up on Jesus?

Icon_second_comingWhy is Christmas so overblown?

Maybe it’s because we’ve given up on the Second Coming of Christ.

I hadn’t thought about that before yesterday, but as I was looking at all the references to the Second Coming in the New Testament (some 57 of them) I was reminded of those funeral services I’ve been to where people want to “celebrate the life” of the deceased rather than “mourn the death.” They want to focus on the positive, that is, and so they focus on all the happy memories of a well-lived life.

That’s not a bad thing to do, but we Christians believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe that death is not the end of life, but in so many ways only the beginning. The old preachers had a way of pointing us forward—toward that hope—and not only back.

I think the old preachers used to do that with the Second Coming, too (and I mean the really old preachers, like Paul, and Peter, and some of those others whose writings ended up in the New Testament). Some of them were so excited about the return of Christ that they didn’t spend much time “celebrating his life.”

They just kept watching the skies.

But that was 2,000 years ago, when it was a little easier to believe that “this Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Now we are almost embarrassed to mention it.  It’s been too long.  Surely, if he were coming, he would have come by now.  And so, instead of looking forward to the Second Coming, we look back to the first one, and celebrate it as if it were all we would ever have.

Have we given up on Jesus?  Do we no longer believe that one of these days he will come back, and the Kingdom of this world will become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever (Hallelujah!  Hallelujah!)?  Is that why we go crazy at Christmas, and rush around buying presents for each other?  Is that why we crank up the Christmas carols and talk about Santa Claus coming to town?

I preached at First African Baptist Church yesterday and ended with a true story about a P.O.W. who came home after seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp to find his wife waiting for him.  Although friends and relatives had suggested that he might never come back, and that she probably ought to move on with her life, she had never given up.  He had told her he would come home and she believed him.

She was there waiting for him when he got off the plane.

He said later that she wasn’t the same girl he married; she was no longer a blushing teenage bride.  In the time he had been away she had become a strong, confident, capable woman.

She’d had to.

New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann used to say that this period between Christ’s ascension and his return is “the Church’s time.”  It’s our time to fulfill the commission Christ gave us, and to do everything in our power to bring heaven to earth.  But Jesus himself said he was going to come back some day.  When he does I hope he will find what that prisoner of war found:

1. That his bride has waited for him, and,
2. That she has become strong, confident, and capable.

KOH2RVA: Day 214

dandelion_blowing_in_wind_1Yesterday I shared the prayer requests of church planters Jeremy and Monica, as they anticipated a gathering where they could talk to some “religiously curious” people about Jesus.  Jeremy’s report on that gathering, below, sounds like something right out of the Book of Acts (if Acts had been written by a hip twenty-something living in Richmond, Virginia, in 2013). Take a look:

Thank you for your prayers! Sometimes I laugh at how the Lord does things – He can be sovereignly and graciously eccentric (His ways are NOT our ways!). His love is spectacular to behold and to flesh out towards others! Here are the results of our faith talk gathering this past weekend:

It was so cool! (1) While the gathering was small, a larger number of people have now entered into deeper dialogue concerning Jesus. (2) One girl expressed that she wants to understand the Bible and find purpose in life. She is not connected to any church at the moment, and doesn’t know fully what it means to be a follower of Jesus, but the conversation is in motion and we will be following up with her! (3) One friend (who knows Jesus, and came to our gathering) expressed to us that he wanted to know more about sharing his faith with others. During this meeting he was actually a vital part of sharing Christ!!! He did an excellent job in opening up and sharing about his walk with the Lord. We were extremely blessed to have him on our team.

BUT IT GETS BETTER! After the gathering was over, one girl stopped by (she was not originally at the gathering). She opened up to us claiming that her “religious experience” was dismal. She’s been distanced from Jesus because of her lack of understanding. She claimed that no one can know anything spiritually, but yet she is searching with deep emotion. So we TOTALLY declared that Jesus is making HIS KINGDOM available to HER! It was SO COOL! The Holy Spirit moved and she was like, “dude, I TOTALLY GET IT!” We shared the gospel with her but there is still a hangup in her heart towards jumping in towards being a Jesus follower. She told us she is super interested in having more conversations like this and feels a deep need for more! PRAISE THE LORD for what He is doing in her life!!!

Then our neighbor (who also wasn’t at the gathering) invited all three of us to come up for an unexpected dinner. We went up and GOD WAS AT WORK! Other neighbors were up there and everyone started talking more about what it means to walk by faith. Another man in our building is a believer, and he was present and contributed greatly by planting many seeds of truth. One young lady (who we never met before) was up there and she opened up about serious issues in her spiritual walk and was listening to Monica share the gospel while I was sharing with another young lady about how we need Jesus to bring light and healing to our insecurities and fears. Meanwhile the other believing man was also sharing – it was as if the Holy Spirit was bouncing off the walls in that room, because there was a sweet team effort going on in sharing the glory of Christ! Hahaha, it was incredible!

What a great day! For those of you praying for us, please mark this past weekend as a turning point: there is now a growing multiplicity of Jesus conversations throughout our building, neighborhood and city! People are walking beyond the superficial relationships into realms of understanding more about JESUS! Praise the Lord!

Peace and grace to you all! Jeremy and Monica

PS – that other guy, is putting on an ice cream night for our building this weekend, so pray for more opportunities to share Jesus! It is great having another believer in our building working with us for the purpose of reaching those who are lost!

I love the way these two are letting themselves be used, and by the way they marvel every time God does something through them.  I wonder what God might do through us today if we let him have his way?  Would the Kingdom of Heaven come a little bit closer to Richmond, Virginia?

KOH2RVA: Day 172

Ralph in the Philippines

Ralph Starling is Minister of Christian Invitation at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, and one of those people who genuinely loves others and wants them to know the life-giving and life-changing love of Christ.  I want you to read what he says about radical hospitality, and his plans to teach a class this spring that will train ordinary people to offer the extraordinary welcome of Christ to others.  Ralph never wants to hear Jesus say, “I was a stranger, and you didn’t welcome me” (Matt. 25:43). 

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Welcome to The School of Radical Hospitality!

You may have noticed that Spring is just around the corner. Major League baseball players have already gathered to practice: batting, catching pop-flies, fielding ground balls, throwing, and running the bases. Players that repeat these fundamental practices know that these exercises will help improve their game. The same is true for congregations. Growing churches are constantly learning.

This Spring our church is offering our own version of spring training–The School of Radical Hospitality. This four-week class offers basic spiritual practices for everyone: pastors and staff, leaders and volunteers, members, and even guests. The School of Radical Hospitality will challenge us to be shaped and formed in the image of Christ. We practice hospitality by seeing the good in other people and accepting them just as Christ has accepted us. St. Augustine challenges all followers of Christ by saying, “Have Christian eyes.” He admonishes us to see others through the eyes of Christ. Amazing things will happen if we become available to others, radically available.

So, what is radical hospitality? Writer and pastor Robert Schnase expresses it this way: “Radical means ‘arising from the source’ and describes practices that are rooted in the life of Christ and that radiate into the lives of others. By radical, don’t think wild-eyed, out of control, or in your face. Instead, imagine people offering the absolute utmost of themselves, their creativity, their abilities, and their energy to offer the gracious invitation and reception of Christ to others.”

The School of Radical Hospitality is inviting our people to open their hearts and minds to new learning and possibilities for our church. It is our desire to love the people Jesus loves. Imagine what would happen if people took Jesus’ words seriously. We would change our behavior toward strangers if we lived as if we really believed this!

Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).

“Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).

The disciples often drew boundaries and distinctions that kept people at a distance from Jesus, reminding Jesus that some of those people were too young, too sick, too sinful, too old, too Roman, too blind, or too Gentile to deserve his attention. Jesus teaches, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:3). In every instance, Jesus radically challenges the disciples’ expectations by over-stepping the boundaries to invite people in. Hospitality has us seeing people as Jesus sees them and seeing Jesus in the people God brings before us.

There are a thousand ways to practice hospitality. We show hospitality to others when we receive them as guests. We can receive people in this way everyday, every hour, and wherever we are. Early Church Father Benedict of Nursia (6th century) believed that the key to hospitality is the recognition of Christ in each guest or visitor. “See Christ in others, be Christ to others.”

If you are ready for a new adventure in learning to love people like Jesus, then join us for spring training in the School of Radical Hospitality. Let’s welcome all God’s children to the body of Christ!

To register for this class contact Ralph Starling at 804-358-5458 ext.134, or email him at Starling@fbcrichmond.org.

Welcome to the School of Radical Hospitality!

Ralph Starling

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About The School:

• Classes begin at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 7 through Sunday, April 28
• Resource book: Radical Hospitality: Benedict’s Way of Love, by Lonni Collins & Father Daniel Homan, Paraclete Press (books available one week before classes)
• Special weekly Hospitality homework assignments
• Special guests
• Brochures available at the kiosks at First Baptist Church, or can be mailed to you upon request.

KOH2RVA: Day 90

SONY DSCI had lunch with Ralph Starling on Tuesday, and we talked about an idea that’s been brewing between us in the last few months.

Ralph is Associate Pastor for Christian Invitation at First Baptist Church. In the old days his position might have been called, “Minister of Outreach and Evangelism,” and we might have expected him to stand on the corner of Monument and Boulevard handing out gospel tracts and doing anything else he could to convert people to Christianity.

But that’s not really Ralph’s way.

More than 20 years ago Ralph pioneered the hugely successful Divorce Recovery Workshop here at First Baptist Church, which opens its doors to people going through unimaginable pain and helps them take the first steps toward “a future with hope.” Many of those people were so moved by the welcome they found here that they have made First Baptist their permanent church home. In his role as Minister of Christian Invitation Ralph has been going out into the community seeking the least, the last, and the lost, and bringing them back to church with him. It makes an enormous difference if those people get a warm welcome when they come, if they experience the love of Christ for themselves instead of only hearing someone else talk about it, and that’s why Ralph finds himself thinking so much about hospitality.

On Tuesday we talked about a “school of hospitality” that would function much like the Divorce Recovery Workshop—a series of Sunday night sessions where people from the Richmond area would learn how to share the love of Christ in their homes and in their churches. I suggested we call it, “The Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality,” and I was only half joking; there is something about the way he does it that the rest of us need to learn.

So, we talked about a session where we would focus on showing hospitality to the generations—how do you make people who are young, old, and in-between feel welcome? We talked about a session focused on people with disabilities. Two of our newest members at First Baptist are blind, and we’re having to learn how to anticipate and accommodate the needs they might have (I’ve been delighted to see Bill and Ruth Hodge taking Tammy and Stephanie around on the regular new member tour of the church facilities, arm-in-arm, narrating every step of the way). We talked about a session focused on “welcoming the stranger” (as Jesus puts it), thinking especially about refugees, international students, and people of other religions.

We were just getting warmed up when we had to head back to church for a meeting, but I hope you will keep your eyes and ears open for news about the Ralph Starling School of Radical Hospitality (or whatever we choose to call it) coming sometime this spring, while we are still on this year-long, every-member mission trip called KOH2RVA.

Can you imagine how heaven might come to earth for someone who visits our church or one of our homes and experiences the welcome of Christ himself?

Loving the World God Loves

Matthew 28:19-20 is often called the Great Commission, and most Baptists probably know it by heart.  As Jesus sends his followers into the world he says: “Go and make disiciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV).  But there is another commission in the Gospels that is also pretty great.  In John 20:21 Jesus tells his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

If that were the only commission we had we might spend more time asking, “How was Jesus sent?” and, “What was he sent to do?”  But as I thought about it recently I was reminded of the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  The word gave is not exactly the same as the word sent, not even in Greek, but the ideas are closely related.  God loved the world.  He loved it so much he gave/sent his one and only son.  When Jesus tells his disciples that he is sending them as he was sent we can assume that it is for a similar purpose—to love the world God loves.

I was thinking about this recently as I walked around the block I’ve “adopted” in the church neighborhood.  I was praying for the people who live inside those houses and apartments, but not sure I was making much of a difference.  If only one of them would come outside so that I could make a disciple out of him, so that I could baptize him in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teach him to obey all that Jesus commanded!  But no one did, leaving me with no alternative but to pray for those people.  As I passed a motorcycle parked outside an apartment I said, “Lord, bless whoever sits on that seat.”  As I passed a house with a porch swing I prayed, “And bless the one who swings on that swing.”  As I turned the corner and saw a half-open garage door I said, “And bless the one who comes in and out of that door.” 

As I made my way around the block I began to feel for those people I was praying for, those invisible people.  I wouldn’t say it was love I was feeling for them but it was something like it.  I was moving in the right direction.  And that’s when I began to think about John 3:16, and how God had given his one and only son because he loves the world, because he loves the person who sits on that motorcycle, and the one who swings on that porch swing, and the one who goes in and out of that garage door.  I made a connection in that moment, between John 3:16 and John 20:21, and it came out like this: “I’ve been sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves!”

I got so excited about it that when I went back to my office a little later I typed it in as my screen saver.  Now if my computer is inactive for more than a few minutes these words begin to scroll across the screeen: “Sent as Christ was sent to Love the world God loves.” 

It’s not exactly the Great Commission, but it’s a good one, isn’t it?  Loving the world God loves?  If I keep it up I may eventually meet the person who sits on that motorcycle seat.  He may come out of his apartment one day with his helmet in his hand, just as I’m walking past, and I’ll say, “Oh, there you are!  I’ve been praying for you.”  And he’ll say, “What?”  And then I’ll have to explain.

It will be embarrassing, but when I’m finished telling him that I’ve been sent as Christ was sent to love the world God loves, and that I’ve been praying for whoever it was that sat on that motorcycle seat, he might get an odd little smile on his face, and strap on his helmet, and ride off thinking about it.  But that might be the first step in the twenty or thirty steps it would take to make a disciple out of him.  And it would be for the right reason: not because I’m trying to recruit church members, but because I’m trying to love the world God loves.  And if he parks his motorcycle in front of the sanctuary one Sunday morning, and comes inside to take a closer look at this strange church where they pray for people they don’t even know, well,

That would be for the right reason too.

Emily the Episcopalian

I heard a story recently about a woman from another denomination who was visiting a Baptist church in the South.  Let’s call her Emily the Episcopalian.  She loved the church and wanted to join, but then she had a talk with the pastor.  What follows is a close approximation of that conversation. 

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Pastor, thank you for giving me a few minutes of your time.  I just wanted to tell you how much I am enjoying the church!  I’ve been visiting for about three months now and I’ve gotten such a warm welcome from your congregation.  I love the music and the message of your worship services.  I don’t think I’ve ever left here without feeling blessed by the experience.  I’ve even visited a Sunday school class where people did everything they could to make me feel at home.  So, I think I’m ready to join, and I just want to know how I should go about that.

Well, that’s wonderful, Emily!  And when it comes to joining, nothing could be easier.  If you’ll just come forward at the end of any worship service, when I give the invitation, I can introduce you to the congregation, they’ll lift their hands to “vote you in,” and then, as soon as possible, we can schedule your baptism. 

My baptism?

Right.   

But I’ve already been baptized.

Have you?

Yes.  When I was a baby.

Oh, right.  You grew up Episcopalian.  In the Baptist tradition we don’t really think of that as baptism.  The Greek word for baptize means literally “to dip,” or “immerse.”  That’s the way they did it in the New Testament and that’s the way we do it.  We baptize believers by immersion.  So, (smiling) let’s get that on the schedule as soon as possible.  You are a believer, aren’t you Emily?  

Of course.  I’ve been a believer for…thirty years. 

Great, then I’ll look forward to welcoming you whenever you choose to come down the aisle.

Um, Pastor?

Yes?

Are you telling me my baptism doesn’t count?

No, not at all, Emily!  I’m sure it was very meaningful for your parents and for the church.  But, see, you didn’t choose to be baptized, and in the Baptist tradition we think you need to make up your own mind about Jesus.

But I did make up my own mind about Jesus.  I was confirmed when I was twelve.  I stood before the church and claimed my baptism, professing my faith in Jesus as Lord.  Nobody made me do that.

That’s wonderful, Emily.  It really is.  And you’ll have a chance to profess your faith again when you are baptized.  That’s the way we do it here: you stand in the baptistry and I ask you if you want to follow Jesus.  You say “Yes” and then I dip you down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I don’t mean to argue, Pastor, but that sounds like what you do when you become a Christian, and I’m not becoming a Christian.  I’ve been a Christian for years.  It sounds as if you’re saying that doesn’t count either.

No, no!  That’s not what I’m saying at all!  Of course you’re a Christian.  There’s no question about that.  But if you want to be a member of a Baptist church you need to be baptized in the Baptist way. 

Why?

What do you mean, why?

Why doesn’t my baptism count?  Why doesn’t my Christian experience count?  I’m not moving from one religion to another, just from one church to another.  Why can’t I just transfer my membership?

That’s just not the way we do it, Emily.  We place a high value on believer’s baptism.  It’s the biblical way, and if you’re not willing to be baptized in the biblical way, well….

Wait a minute.  I’m confused.  I became a Christian in the Episcopal church.  Now I want to join a Baptist church.  But it sounds like you’re telling me I have to become a Christian all over again, in the Baptist way.  Not only that, you’re telling me the Baptist way is the “biblical” way, as if the Episcopal way were not.  I came into this meeting eager to join your church, but in the last few minutes you’ve told me my baptism doesn’t count, that I’m not a real Christian, and that my tradition is “unbliblical.”

No, no!  I’m not saying that at all! 

Well, that’s how it sounds to me (she gets up to go).  Thank you for your time, Pastor.  I’ll have to think about this.  But, honestly?  I’m not nearly as excited as I was about joining.  In fact (she pauses), I think I just made up my mind.

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This is what happens when real people encounter a membership requirement that treats their previous Christian experience as if it were no experience at all.  I post this example because it is so similar to some of the conversations I’ve had with people from other denominations when I explain to them the current membership requirement of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  They can’t understand why their Christianity isn’t “good enough,” or why their baptism “doesn’t count.”  Although I assure them that it’s not like that at all, many of them decide not to return. 

I’m still hoping that we can come to that place where we welcome committed Christians from other denominations without asking them to start all over again.  I think there is a way to honor their baptism, honor their previous Christian experience, and then “immerse” them in the Baptist tradition.  Who knows what kind of Baptist Emily might become if we simply welcomed her with open arms, as if she were—in fact—our sister in Christ?

Because—in fact—she is.

The Baptist Mother Teresa

LeenaWe had the privilege of hearing Leena Lavanya last night at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Leena is from Narasaraopet, Andhra Pradesh, India, where she works with lepers, AIDS orphans, prostitutes, and others who rank among the poorest of the poor.  She has been called “the Baptist Mother Teresa” and is this year’s winner of the Baptist World Alliance’s prestigious Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award.

Leena was raised by Christian grandparents (her grandfather was a seminary professor and one-time vice-presisdent of the Baptist World Alliance).  When she was in her early twenties she won a scholarship to attend the Baptist Youth World Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she was challenged by noted speaker Tony Campolo to dedicate her life to Christian service.  “He talked about that hymn ‘I Surrender All,'” she said.  “But he told us, ‘We don’t surrender all.  We surrender a dollar, a pound, a rupee.'”  In that moment Leena decided that she would surrender herself completely to Christ. 

And then she began to tell us what happens when you do that.

It started when she found herself seated beside a prostitute on a bus.  She struck up a conversation with the woman and eventually told her, “You should give up your prostitution.  You should start a new life.”   “Fine!” the woman answered.  “If you will feed the eight people in my family I will start a new life.”  And so Leena and her grandparents gave up breakfast for three months, saved the money, and bought this woman a sewing machine.  Then they spent six months teaching her how to use it.  Now the woman owns her own small business.

Leena talked about finding a boy crying by the side of the road.  His family had learned that he was HIV positive and put him out of the house.  “They had a nice barn,” Leena said.  “Their animals were well-kept.  But they put their son out of the house!”  She had to do something.  And so she found a place for this boy to live, and then discovered that there were others like him.  Now there are twenty boys living in an orphanage run by her ministry, Serve Trust.

One of the most touching stories she told last night was about her work with “leprous people.”  She said these people lie under trees outside the towns and villages.  No one will touch them; no one will take care of them.  But she had surrendered all to Jesus, and Jesus ministered to lepers.  And so, approaching them hesitantly, she began to talk to these people.   She began to feel compassion for them.  Before long she was caring for them, even dressing their sores.  “Why are you doing this?” one man asked her.  “Because of Jesus,” she answered, cheerfully.  “Who is Jesus?” he asked, and she began to tell him.  When she finished he told her through tears that he wanted this Jesus in his life.

But he also wanted to be baptized, and since Leena is not a pastor she asked the pastor of the local church to baptize the man.  The pastor came and had a look at him, but eventually shook his head and walked away.  The man was very sick, almost at the point of death.  How would they get him into the baptistery?  So, Leena began to tell him that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to be baptized.  Look at the thief on the cross!  Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”  But the man still wanted to be baptized.  He pleaded with her.  Finally, Leena said, “I dragged him over to a water spigot, turned it on, and as the water poured over his head I said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”

He died a month later.

She went on and on like that last night, telling one story after another about seeing human need, feeling the pain of others, and doing something about it.  Her organization, Serve Trust Ministries, operates a home for the aged, a home for lepers, homes for HIV/AIDS-infected children and adults, and an HIV/AIDS counseling center.  She has been instrumental in starting more than 40 Baptist churches in the villages surrounding her hometown of Narasaraopet.  And yet she retains the bubbling enthusiasm of the young woman who went to a Baptist Youth Conference in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago.  When she finished speaking last night I stepped to the podium and said:

“Now I think we know the difference between surrendering some and surrendering all.”