The Cross is Still There

By Scott Armstrong

Along with the rest of the world I watched yesterday as the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France went up in flames.  The unspeakable tragedy became clear as its famous spire tumbled to the ground below. Millions of people correctly lamented such a horrendous loss and attempts to raise funds in order to refurbish the cathedral are thankfully bearing fruit, although the overall cost of renovation will be astronomical.

Amidst the wreckage, photos began to show the impact of the fire.  One in particular, by Reuters’ Philippe Wojazer, hit home with many of us.  It shows the altar inside Notre Dame, with smoke still rising from its ruins.  But, as many pointed out on Twitter and elsewhere, the viewer’s eyes are not drawn at first to the orange-red embers of the ashes. The preeminent symbol rising from the wreckage is a golden cross.  After all the devastation and loss, the cross is still there.

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I am not the first one to write about this symbolism and I will assuredly not be the last. But the fact that this occurs during Holy Week is not lost on many of us.  In a world that proclaims in Europe and elsewhere that Christianity is outdated and nothing more than a fond relic, followers of Christ proclaim this week and always that Jesus’ death on the cross is still effective to change lives. In fact, we proclaim that God is still at work in a burning world.

Or do we?

Every year I call our people to reflect on our Lord’s journey to the cross during Lent. And every year I receive criticism from different leaders and church members.  “Lent is Catholic, not Evangelical!” “We celebrate a risen Lord; stop promoting empty traditions!” I know some of this is cultural according to the countries where I minister, and I don’t want to diminish that.  But I refuse to allow myself or my family to gloss over Good Friday in order to get to Easter.

Thus, especially during Lent, I have preached many times on the subject of the cross and Christ’s sacrifice.  On some occasions, I have had Christians come up to me afterwards and say, “Why do you preach on the cross? The cross is no more; what matters is the empty tomb.” Now I am clearly a proponent of preaching and living the reality of the Resurrection! However, there is no empty tomb without the cross.  There is no crown of glory without first a crown of thorns.

Although focusing on a symbol of ancient capital punishment makes us uncomfortable, the truth remains.  The cross is still there, whether we like it or not.

Perhaps this is why the apostle Paul said that Christ crucified is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  In the midst of rubble, this representation of death declares life to us.  In the midst of destruction, this symbol of scorn and ridicule brings hope.

This week, as we join Jesus in his journey through Gethsemane and Golgotha and then, yes, the Easter garden, perhaps an image from a smoldering Notre Dame could assist us.

Though some say it’s obsolete,

Though others feel awkward talking about it,

The cross is still there.

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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.

WEF and the Mesoamerica Region

A week ago I was in Panama City for our Regional Advisory Committee meetings.  One of the things that came up several times during the four days was our response as a region in giving to the World Evangelism Fund. The World Evangelism Fund (WEF) supports nearly 700 Nazarene missionaries and the work of the Church in 162 nations around the world.  WEF is the foundational funding arm of missions in our denomination.  In future articles, we will explain further what WEF is and how it began, as well as share promotional resources for the Thanksgiving Offering, one of our most significant annual methods of raising WEF support.

For the last decade, the goal set by our leaders has been for every local Nazarene church to give 5.5% of their overall tithes and offerings to WEF.  As our General Superintendents often say, the goal is not equal amount of giving (in total money raised per church), but equal sacrifice.  Imagine what could be done if all 26,000 Nazarene congregations in every one of those 162 countries supported by giving in this way.  Our reach would be exponential!

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I have been encouraged to hear that in the previous years we have seen 100% involvement in WEF by the USA/Canada Districts.  That is incredible!  Praise the Lord!  But here’s the kick in the gut: in our Mesoamerica Region we are seeing only 37% involvement.  In other words, roughly one out of every three churches in the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America is giving ANYTHING to the World Evangelism Fund. We’re not saying that almost two-thirds aren’t giving a full 5.5% of their income.  We’re saying that almost two-thirds aren’t giving a single peso, or dollar, or gourde. And guess what? Outside of the USA and Canada, that 37% involvement is the highest of all other regions!

I don’t mean to drown you in statistics, but I want to put this another way:

  • 200 local churches around the world provide 70% of WEF.
  • 6,000 local churches provide the rest of WEF.
  • 20,000 local churches do not provide any WEF.

Gulp.

I cannot speak for other regions, but in our RAC meetings we united as leaders from all around Mesoamerica to commit to do our part.  Our regional goal by 2030 is to get to $1.5 million dollars given to WEF. If we do so, that is predicted to be even a bit higher than 5.5% (currently we are giving 2.7%).  Would you pray with us that we would reach this goal? We want to generously give to others just as others have generously lavished through the years on us.

I loved what Dr. Gustavo Crocker said several months ago: “Before 1990, the missions motto was, ‘The West to the rest.’ But now we have a new motto: ‘The best to the rest.’” It truly does not matter where you come from; God is calling missionaries from everywhere to everywhere.

And that also means that everywhere has the privilege of sending and supporting missionaries financially. In the Church of the Nazarene, the World Evangelism Fund is the primary way we do that.  WEF has been an amazing and successful missions strategy to reach the nations.  Now we as the nations have the honor of giving back in order to see astonishing global impact.

But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving” (2 Cor. 8:7).

Living Simply so that Others may Simply Live

And he told them this parable: The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

Have you ever been outside your country? Have you ever visited some of the poorest of the poor in another country or in the inner-cities of your own country? If you have seen the reality of poverty in our world today, like I have, you will view this passage differently.

I have to be honest.  Years ago, I read these verses in Luke and thought other people were the greedy ones.  Some of Jesus’ parables are confusing, but this one he explains right off the bat in verse 15.  The whole point of telling a story about a rich guy who keeps all his “grain and goods” to himself is to warn us against all kinds of greed.  And a while back I always thought that meant others.  I am not really rich, right? I don’t have to worry about this.

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Now I am convinced this rich fool is me—and maybe you. I have seen up close too many people who are suffering from poverty, disease, disasters, and bloody warfare, that I cannot pretend anymore.  How can you or I say that we are not greedy if we eat three enormous meals a day while a third of the world’s population starves? How can we live in our huge, comfortable houses while billions have nothing? I ate an ice-cream cone last week that cost as much as a farmer in some of our countries makes in a week to feed his family.  

So what are we going to do about it? We can continue as rich fools or we can begin to live more simply so that others may simply live.  We can store our possessions or learn to share and sacrifice in order to truly change the world.

“Watch out!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Reflecting on Passion After the World Cup

By Scott Armstrong

Many readers of this site know that my family and I were able to attend the World Cup in Russia this past month.  It was a remarkable time and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  Perhaps the thing I remember most is the passion that so many people had for their countries and for football/soccer.

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I saw it in the literally tens of thousands of Mexicans and Colombians that traveled, dressed up, and chanted for their teams at all times of the day or night. I saw it when the host team, Russia, unexpectedly beat Spain in the Round of 16, and the Moscow streets erupted in joy.

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But perhaps I did not personally experience the many levels of passion at the World Cup more so than in the two games we were able to go to.  Before the first game, June 26, we were caught up in the fervor of the Danish fans who filled the Metro stations and the streets chanting and singing for their team and country.  Sadly, the passion they and their French counterparts showed before and during the game was not shared by their national teams.  France v. Denmark has been widely recognized as the worst game of the tournament.

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We knew something was wrong when the lineups came out and hardly any of the stars were starting.  No Pogba or Mbappe?!  Not even Lloris or Umtiti?! Well, at least the subs will play their hearts out, right? Nope.  Both teams knew that they just needed a tie to go through to the next round.  So, they played like it was a scrimmage.  No urgency.  No one trying too much.  All of the neutral fans grew restless and even angry throughout the two hours.  We paid money for this? We came all this way to watch this charade?!

Did you know that the word “passion” originates from the Latin word “passio” which is closely related to the Greek root “path” meaning “to suffer”? By the time the game ended 0-0, the entire stadium was raining down boos on the teams for such a disgraceful performance. It is truly hard to explain how disappointed we all were.  I actually started to cry because I was so sad our family had chosen to go to THAT of all games.  Bleck.

But all was not lost.  The final game we attended was July 3 in Moscow.  Round of 16 – Colombia v. England.  I kid you not: I gathered my family together before we headed to the stadium and prayed that God would give us a great game.  I did not care what the outcome was: I just wanted it to be memorable.

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And boy was it!   Controversy was constant with a penalty being awarded and both teams pushing and jockeying for position at every free kick.  Yerri Mina, a Colombian defender, tied the game up 1-1 in stoppage time at the end of the second half while the stadium full of mostly Colombian supporters went wild.  Then, it went to penalties, where England has a history of crashing and burning.  But not today, folks! Nearly three hours after the first kick, England buried their final penalty and proceeded to the next round while both fans and the team exuberantly rejoiced.  It was a phenomenal game and the most energy I have ever experienced at a soccer game by far (and I’ve been to dozens in many different countries!).

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I should add that, as we got ready for penalties and the supporters of each team were cheering and hugging and even praying, I started to cry again.  But this time it was out of unbridled happiness that we had gotten to be a part of an event like that.

What was the difference between the two games? Essentially one thing: passion.

I know the circumstances dictate that there is less to play for at certain times in the tournament.  But this is the World Cup.  If you are going to step on the field, you should give it your all.

This is a belief that propels me in my daily life and guides me in my spiritual walk. If it is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.  Live passionately, and especially let the source of that passion be more than football or food or movies or your job or even your family.

The only wellspring of passion that will never run dry or disappoint is Jesus Christ. He offers abundant life (Jn. 10:10) and glorious salvation (Jn. 3:16).  In my case, he has put a calling on my life to preach – and do so cross-culturally – so that I cannot hold it in; like Jeremiah, it is a fire in my bones (Jer. 20:9).

Anyone who has met me knows that I am passionate about futbol.  But I pray that everyone knows I am even more passionate about Christ and his mission.  He, after all, gave himself for us on the cross in what has become known as – you guessed it – the Passion.

If you have not yet experienced that compelling, driving force in your life, allow the one, true Source of passion to instill his fire in you. You – and all those around you – will truly never be the same!

Face to Face with the Truth

By Hiram Vega

During his ministry on earth, Jesus impacted many lives.  One of them was the most powerful man present before his death: Pontius Pilate, representative of the Roman empire and governor of that region. Jesus was brought before Pilate by the religious authorities, to be judged by him, even though they had already determined the outcome of the trial. Pilate was a hardened ruler, accustomed to crushing rebellions in order to preserve his position and to maintain Roman rule. 

What, then, could be expected from Pilate agreeing to see Jesus? Most likely he would have considered his time too valuable to be spent judging a prisoner offering him little political capital, and he would quickly order him to be executed anyway. However, something remarkable took place: 

Pilate became so convinced of the innocence of Jesus that he declared him not guilty on three different occasions.

On the first occasion, “Pilate said to the chief priests, and to the people: I find no offense in this man” (Lk. 23:4).

On the second occasion, he said to them, “You brought me this man accused of inciting rebellion among the people, but it turns out that I have questioned him before you without finding him guilty of what you accuse him of” (Lk. 23:14-15).

And the third time, just before he was handed over to be crucified, he asked for water and washed his hands in front of the people. “‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. It is your responsibility!’” (Mt. 27:24).

He also tried to avoid condemning Jesus in different ways.

  • First, he sent him to Herod for him to be questioned (Lk. 23:5-12).
  • Second, he proposed to flog him instead of crucifying him (Lk. 23:16).
  • Then, in a third attempt to free Jesus, he appealed to the custom that during the Passover a prisoner would be released. It was to no avail since the crowd asked for Barabbas (Lk. 23:17-25).

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It is clear that Pilate knew that Jesus was not a normal prisoner, not even an ordinary person.

Pilate’s final words to Jesus come to us in the form of a question: “What is the truth?” Having asked that, he went out again to see the Jews. But he did not wait to hear the answer! 

Is it not incredible to be face to face with the truth and still not see it? The man who had the last chance to dialogue with the Truth, did not take time to hear Him. 

Today the same thing happens. Many people look forward to Holy Week with eagerness, not so much in order to experience the miracle celebrated during these days, but more so to escape the daily grind and take vacation. However, for each Pilate who chooses not to listen, there is another one who says yes. That is the Victory of the cross! 

Aware of this reality, let us not allow the disbelief or distraction of a few to deviate us from the mission.  Let us carry the message of truth to the multitudes who are longing to hear it and respond.

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Hiram Vega is a member of the Spanish Teaching and Preaching Team of Chase Oaks Church, Plano, TX.

Barabbas, the Son of the Father

By Hiram Vega

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the name Barabbas? You most likely remember a murderer who was released instead of crucified.  And you certainly remember that Jesus died in his place. This is very true.

After being arrested, Jesus faced several trials: one of them before King Herod, another one before the religious authorities, and also before the Roman authorities.

It is precisely in the trial before the Roman governor, Pilate, that the name of Barabbas appears. His name is mentioned in all four Gospels: Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:18-24; and John 18:40. And it is interesting to discover how the life of this dark character intersects with that of Jesus.

Jesus was standing before Pontius Pilate, who had already declared him innocent of anything worthy of death (Luke 23:15). Pilate knew that Jesus was being accused by the religious leaders because he was a threat to their power and privileges.  They felt that the crowds were siding with this new prophet. Pilate, strangely, sought a way to liberate Jesus and at the same time maintain the peace. Thus, he gave the crowd a choice: the release of Jesus or the release of Barabbas, a well-known rebel who had been imprisoned for insurrection and murder (Luke 23:19).

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The release of a Jewish prisoner was customary before the Feast of the Passover (Mark 15:6). The Roman governor would grant pardon to a criminal as an act of goodwill towards the Jews whom he ruled. The choice of Pilate before them could not have been clearer: a high-profile killer and inciter of violence who was unquestionably guilty, or a teacher and a miracle worker who was clearly innocent. The present crowd, spurred on by the religious leaders, chose Barabbas to be liberated.

Pilate did not expect this answer. He was looking to free the innocent. Even Pilate’s wife, intruding in a surprising way in an area that did not correspond to her, sent him a message: Do not have anything to do with this innocent man (Matthew 27:19). However, they did not know that the death of Jesus on the cross had already ben prophesied.

The appearance of Barabbas, which in Aramaic means the son of the Father, was to remind humanity that Jesus, the Son of God (the other son of the Father), had come to seek and save what had been lost – in this case you and me! – and He came to die on a cross to pay the price for our salvation and to reconcile us with the Father. What great news! However, today there are still millions of “Barabbases” who have not heard of the Son of the Father who came to die in their place. Today is the day to share this message with those who are far from the Father’s house.  Now is the moment we must show them that the price has already been paid and that it is time to go home.

Will you go? Will you tell them?

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Hiram Vega is a Member of the Spanish Teaching and Preaching Team of Chase Oaks Church, Plano, TX.