Choosing to Live in Easter

Scott Armstrong

Lent and Holy Week have been pretty important in my life and my spiritual walk through the years.  And there is nothing better than when the fasting and solemnity they bring finally culminates in the massive outburst of joy at Easter.  Christ is risen! There is no better celebration than Easter!

Or at least there should be.

In many cultures, churches see a bump in attendance at Easter and everyone dresses up. The music is lively and high-quality. There are years that even the sun seems to shine brighter on Easter!

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This past Easter did not exactly look like that in the church my wife and I pastor. We serve as missionaries in Dominican Republic and are volunteering as pastors of a small church plant in a dusty neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.  We had been talking up our Holy Week services for many weeks, especially Easter.  We had prepped our leadership team for the important day, and the celebration was ready!

Or so we thought.

We arrived early and I had forgotten the keys to the little, concrete building. Normally that’s not a problem. But today the other two laypeople who always get there early to clean and set up were not there.  After a few phone calls and our 15-year old running a couple blocks to get the key, we found ourselves sweeping and wiping off chairs five minutes before the start of service.

Not that there were a bunch of people awkwardly waiting to get in.  Holy Week is vacation week in much of Latin America and half of our congregation was out of town.  When you are a church of 45, that gets noticed easily.  By the time the service started, we were mostly kids and a few sleepy adults.  Jesus is alive! But are we?!

The leader we are training to be the future pastor preached well, but it had more to do with Father’s Day than Easter.  Father’s Day is in two months.

Maybe you are better than me.  Maybe you don’t let any of this stuff get to you. But I found it distracting and disheartening.  What a downer!  This is supposed to be Easter, people!

To be honest, I was in a slumber, and it was of my own doing.  I needed a Resurrection as much as anybody.

We began to read from the passage in Luke.

“They found the stone rolled away from the tomb…”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here; he is risen!”

With each familiar phrase, my eyes started to open in wonder to all God was doing in our midst.

The sixth-grade girl I was sharing my Bible with was following along in silent interest. She had not even wanted to read anythingwhen we met her in Sunday School two years ago.

The university student leading worship was doing a tremendous job.  He truly believes what he’s saying and singing!

Hey, that’s the fourth time in a row that José has come; God must really be doing something in his life.

The evidence of life was all around me.  Low attendance? Fidgety little kids? Off-topic message? Who cares?!  Christ busted out of the tomb and that changes everything!

Next week I can guarantee you that there are going to be lots of things that go wrong before, during, and after our services.  But I will choose to live in the reality of Easter.  All that stuff is inconsequential compared to our risen Lord triumphing over death, hell, and the grave!

Will you join me this week? Lent and Holy Week have come and gone.  But Easter remains.  Why would you keep looking for the living among the dead?

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What is Legalism?

By Edgar Hernandez

Imagine you are in an enormous house.  Some of the people who live there hear well and others are deaf. Everyone is together, and it is not obvious which is which at first glance.  In one room there is a man sitting down, and you notice he is tapping a rhythm with his feet and his fingers.  You know what is happening.  He is listening to music and obviously enjoying it.  His whole body is reacting to what his ears perceive.

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Soon, one of the deaf men opens the door and comes into the room.  When he sees the other man, he greets him and thinks, “This guy is really enjoying life. I will try to do the same thing.” The deaf man sits by the first man and begins to imitate him.  With a little practice, the deaf man keeps nearly the same rhythm.  He smiles and thinks, “This isn’t very fun, but I guess it’s fine.”

Then a third man enters the room and sees the two men apparently doing the same thing. Is there any difference between them? Of course there is!  The actions of the first man are a natural response to the music he hears, but the deaf man is merely imitating the outside behavior even though he cannot hear a single note. This is the difference between true Christianity and legalism.

When we understand the Christian life in the way God desires, our attitudes and actions are a response to the “music” of love we hear. The music is the relationship of trust we have with God who lives in us, and who we are learning to love more and more each day.   Nevertheless, legalists do not care if you are deaf to the grace and love of God.  What they value most is if you snap your fingers and move your feet just like everyone else.

The Dual Dangers of Legalism and “Traditionalism”

Our Mesoamerica Genesis office is working diligently on assisting churches that exist in large urban areas to become healthy and missional.  One of the first steps in doing so is to take a church health survey in order to discover strengths and weaknesses.  It’s a brave task to undergo actually.  No one wants to find out they are sick, or even worse, dying.

One of the biggest reasons we have found for lack of health in congregations is a combination of legalism and worship of tradition.  Having order and obeying the laws of God are quite important to be sure.  But if we allow our adherence to rule-following to get in the way of mission and loving the world around us, we’ve missed the mark. Tradition is a wonderful thing, and celebrating our rich heritage is a must as Christians.  But if we think the methods from decades ago are holy in and of themselves, we are in dangerous territory.

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Jean David Larochelle’s book in Spanish, A Natural Development of Faith, has much to say about legalism and “traditionalism,” as he calls it:

“The message of the gospel is not negotiable. We do not doubt it. Every principle is eternal.  Every principle is immutable.  Every principle is spiritual and every principle is divine.  But strategies are not principles or doctrines. Neither are they eternal.  I say again, one of the greatest sins of the church is to try to win a postmodern generation with primitive strategies.”

The Good News is not good if it is not understandable. When we do not update our methods for different generations or cultures, we can be almost certain they will not understand them, let alone respond positively.  Grace is diluted by the importance we place on rules and tradition.

“Doctrinally, legalism and traditionalism can become positions essentially opposed to grace . . . God has given freedom to his church, but many continue tying it to legalism and traditionalism.”

In reference to the Pharisees in John 9 who questioned the blind man who received his sight, Larochelle continues, “It is sad to note that, for them, the day of rest had been given priority over the person. Things, interests and laws were a priority over the human person.  Nevertheless, Jesus also made them see that he was opposed to the foolish traditions and legalism they had invented in respect to the day of rest . . . They did not rejoice with the man. They saw humanity through eyes of judgment.”

In closing, the author invites us to evaluate ourselves. “Consider if you have legalistic, rigid attitudes or thoughts towards others or towards yourself.  In the story we are analyzing, which role would you like to take – that of the Pharisees or of Jesus? Which role have you played? Which would you like to play from now on?

These are essential questions for the whole church and for each Christian who desires to reflect the love of Christ in their society.

The Most Convincing Evidence

We have all come in contact with someone who has rejected Christianity primarily because of the unconvincing actions or even blatant hypocrisy of Christians. Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” That sentiment pains me, and it should sicken any of us who wear the name of Christ and claim to worship him.

At the same time, if lack of spiritual fruit in believers can turn away people from the Church, the opposite is also true: a contagious, authentic faith can prove compelling and irresistible to nonbelievers.

Take the following story as an example:

“One Sunday evening a drunk woman came to our church and was converted.  The co-pastor of the church went to visit her husband the following day and saw he was a very intelligent mechanic, but opposed to religion and very skeptical.  He was disgusted by his wife’s conversion and said he had no doubt that she would soon return to her old life.  

Six months later, the same man came to see the minister of the gospel, and was greatly perplexed by his own spiritual situation. He said, ‘I have read every book about the evidence of Christianity, and I’ve been able to resist every argument.  But in the last six months I’ve had an open book in my home that was impossible to refute in the person of my wife. I’ve come to the conclusion I must be wrong, and there must be a holy and divine power in this religion if it could take a drunk woman and change her into a holy, singing, friendly, patient and pious person like my wife is now.’”

Glory to God! Truly, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: The old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Cor. 5:17)

Jean David Larochelle wrote about this reality in his book The Natural Development of Faith:

“Truly the best books about Christianity have stories of the transformed lives of men and women in communion with Christ.  If we all gave our testimony of the work God has done in our lives, other people near us would also have many simple and some amazing stories of the power of God. More than that, if believers or those of us who profess to be disciples of Jesus would live integrated, transformed lives, it’s very possible there would be fewer doubters” (p. 56).

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It all brings us to the well-known question: If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you? In other words, would your colleagues, family members and neighbors say, without a doubt, you live like Jesus Christ?

 

Faith: It Isn’t An Insurance Policy

*A reflection from the book The Natural Development of Faith: A Personal Adventure With Jesus

By Jean David Larochelle

“There are some noxious beliefs, like: ‘If you are sick, it is because you don’t have faith,’ or ‘If you suffer poverty, you have not taken hold of the riches of the King.’  None of this could be further from the truth of the Word of God.  Faith from God’s perspective is not an insurance policy . . .

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To be a Christian does not exempt us from pain, crisis, illness, or loss, even to the point of death.  The Christian life is not a life of extraterrestrials.  Our world is a real one in which everything exists.  We do not fool people with a superficial gospel or Savior.  We offer a good, solid message, not a temporary and mental drug.  We offer ‘the whole will of God.’ (Acts 20:27)

Right now if you are passing through difficulty or everything is stacked against you, if you are at the point of losing hope because of a difficult or painful circumstance (because such moments will come as a part of life), I encourage you to see those difficult circumstances, if that’s what you are experiencing, as opportunities to take a step forward in your faith.  In general, difficult times do not come by chance or without purpose.  They are to grow and mature us in our faith.  That’s why, when everything seems lost and everyone abandons us, we are always left with Christ.  There are moments when every bit of hope is exhausted and you feel helpless to carry on, powerless to keep fighting, powerless to keep moving forward.  When you look to the heavens in search of relief from loneliness, rejection and abandonment. When all you want to do is cry. When you keep fighting but see that the odds are not in your favor. Know that God is with you and will reward perseverance and faithfulness.  Faith develops when circumstances are not in our favor.” (Larochelle, pg. 15-16, 33-34)

More Peaches, Better Peaches

By David Busic

A few months ago, I spent the afternoon with Junior and Jaci Rodrigues. They are Nazarene church planters who have helped to birth five congregations. Although they are both from Brazil, they have planted and are pastoring a church in Argentina. The city where their church is located is hard soil. It is the academic capital of the country and home to many universities. Being very secular and post-modern, the city is more aligned with North America and Western Europe than many other places in South America. A high percentage of the population are atheists and agnostics. They are the only evangelical church in their entire urban neighborhood.

The church building is in a semi-commercial neighborhood with many apartments and small houses close by. They were able to purchase it for a good price because for many years it was an illegal abortion clinic. The proprietor of the clinic died in the clinic and was not found for several months. Thus, many in the neighborhood believe the building is cursed. The church meets on the first floor and the Rodrigues’ live on the second floor with their two children. The congregation is growing and is having a Kingdom impact among their neighbors.

The back area of their small building opens up into a little courtyard. There is a peach tree there that had never produced fruit before. However, shortly after they moved in, the peach tree suddenly began producing peaches. Lots and lots of peaches! So many, in fact, that they could hardly keep them off the ground, and a number of peaches began to fall into their neighbor’s back yard area. One day their neighbor came by to pay them a visit. Jaci invited her in and said “I’m sure you’re here because of the peaches falling into your yard. We are so very sorry. We will be happy to come and clean them up for you.”

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The neighbor woman replied: “I am here about the peaches, but not because I am upset. I am curious and have a question. For the last 20 years, I have lived next door. This house has been an abortion clinic and that peach tree has been dead. It has produced no fruit — not a single peach. But when you moved in with your church it suddenly came alive and became fruitful. I want to know what happened? Did you put a spell on that tree?”

Jaci was surprised but prepared. “No,” she said, “There is no spell. All I can tell you is that this was a dark place of death, but now it is a shining place of light and life. I guess that is why God is blessing our peach tree!”

Their neighbor was intrigued and began to attend their church. Today she is a new Christian and growing in her faith.       

This amazing story reminds me of what Jesus said to His disciples about missional fruitfulness: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing . . . [but] if you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:5, 7 NIV).

Pastor Junior and Jaci Rodrigues are remaining in, relying on, and abiding with Jesus. Christ in them is bringing light and life to dark places. It was my privilege to ordain them as elders in the Church of the Nazarene.

In the inaugural chapel sermon for Nazarene Theological Seminary, General Superintendent J. B. Chapman challenged the faculty and students with a clear mission: “More preachers — better preachers.” I have always liked that phrase. I would like to suggest a small twist to the phrase and turn it into a prayer. What if all of our missional outposts, every local church, had a similar refrain: “More peaches — better peaches.”

More fruit — better fruit. May it be so for all of us.

At Arm’s Length: A Lenten Reflection

In this season of Lent, I have been reflecting on a haunting phrase: “at a distance.” Doesn’t seem too scary or even noteworthy, right? Why would I say it is haunting?

It was the night of Jesus’ betrayal, the night before he would be crucified. Feet have been washed, Passover has been served, and the soldiers have taken Jesus away from the garden. The disciples have fled – well, sort of. All three writers of the synoptic gospels make it a point to tell us that one of Jesus’ chosen three, the man whose preaching would convert 3,000 in a day and who would become the pillar of the early church, followed Jesus “at a distance” (Mt. 26:58; Mk. 14:54; Lk. 22:54).

We often lambaste Peter, especially when he denies his Lord and calls down curses on himself.  Thank goodness we are not like him, right?

On closer examination, during this season of Lent, we realize that our discipleship looks a lot like Maundy Thursday Peter.  Joan Chittister says, “We believe, yes, but often only remotely, only intellectually.  We follow Jesus, of course, but, if truth were known, more likely at arm’s length, at a nice, antiseptic distance.  Imperturbably.  Our commitment is not the kind of commitment that jeopardizes our jobs or our relationships or our social standings.”

Ouch.

If we are honest with ourselves, we love the part of following Jesus that deals with multitudes being fed and blind men receiving sight.  Even the creative sermons and lessons Jesus teaches inspire and challenge us.  But that self-denial part? Not as popular nowadays.

Could it be that we are profoundly terrified of suffering? Chittister maintains that “when we refuse to suffer, we refuse to grow…Suffering is a stepping-stone to maturity. It moves us beyond fantasy to facts.”

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I don’t know about you, but I would many times rather take the shortcut to spiritual maturity instead of slogging painfully through trials and hurts. But that shortcut does not exist. And Lent reminds us of that. In this season we realize, along with Chittister, that we are ascetics. Thus, “we must be prepared to give up some things if we intend to get things that are even more important.”

With Jesus being interrogated, whipped, and nailed to a cross, Peter was still not ready to follow him there. The sacrifice was too great. The suffering too heinous.  It was better to follow Jesus at a distance.

Perhaps in these days being haunted by that phrase is not a bad thing. Perhaps we, too, will examine ourselves and choose growth instead of ease, intimacy instead of distance.