The Marks of Jesus

Walking direction on asphalt

A friend recently shared with me this quote from the sermons of Theodore Austin Sparks:

“Beloved, you and I will never come through to God’s eternally intended place for us in the heavenly Kingdom until everything of this earthly life has been smitten, has been smashed. We have got to be broken men and women on the side of this nature; we have got to know the meaning of the cross as planted right at the centre of this whole life of nature, to bring it to naught, so that we can do no more of ourselves, we cannot speak as out from ourselves, we cannot work as out from ourselves, we can do no more organising as of ourselves, we can run nothing as of ourselves, we are brought to the place where we know nothing as of ourselves — and we know it; and if there is to be anything, and if there is anything at all, it is the Lord only doing it — doing it at the time, and then usually leaving us empty and spent and helpless, until He comes along again. It is so different from this continuous, everlasting go, go, go of the flesh. “

There was a time, it seems like another life now, when I was the most organized person I knew. There was a time when I could manage, delegate, arrange and categorize people and things so that everything lined up in the kind of orderly fashion I needed. There was a time when I could speak knowledgeably on some subjects, and people nodded their heads and listened. There was a time when I, and others I thought knew about such things, considered all this as evidence of spiritual growth.

But the Cross!

If we are to go on any distance with Jesus, if we are sincere in our often voiced claims to ‘follow the Lamb wherever He goes’, the Cross is going to take a toll on us. It cannot be any other way. The Cross redeems, the Cross heals, the Cross deals with our sinful natures, the Cross reconciles us to God: all of these, yes.

But the Cross also separates.

When the Cross is applied to our lives to the measure that Austin-Sparks is referring to here, it will first separate us from the world. But the separation does not finish there.

Next it will separate us from ourselves – that is, our former selves. It will reveal to us the stark futility of everything we do or say that does not flow from ever increasing dependence on the Life of Christ within us. It will bring us to a place where our natural talents, knowledge and even our spiritual giftings become hindrances to us. We will find ourselves dysfunctional apart from that Life that is filling and flowing through us. We are being conveyed by the Spirit of God to a realm where “we can do no more of ourselves, we cannot speak as out from ourselves, we cannot work as out from ourselves, we can do no more organising as of ourselves, we can run nothing as of ourselves, we are brought to the place where we know nothing as of ourselves — and we know it.”

And as the process continues we will find ourselves separated even from those we love – family, friends, colleagues. The Cross will separate us from everything and everyone who is not absolutely intent on the same journey into the depths of Christ as we are.

I’m not speaking here of a separation that looks down on, disdains or fears others. That would not be of Christ. No, I am speaking of a separation that sets us apart in such a way that we no longer find satisfaction in the former conversations, activities, and friendships that we once considered were vital to life. It does not mean we don’t love others; in fact we love them better because we are learning to love through Christ rather than through our own motivation and need.

But still we are separated, set apart. We are tasting glorious and heavenly things, we are partaking of Christ Himself, and the former things no longer have the power to hold our attention or engage us as they did.

I wonder are you finding this to be true also? It is often a solitary life, this Christ journey. Yes, we belong to a corporate entity called ‘the church’, historically and practically, and we have genuine reasons to be with one another, sharing gifts, worship, fellowship and expressing Christ as His Body.

But the Cross!

Even among those who profess to follow Christ, we will be separated in ways we didn’t anticipate. That same Cross that brings together people from all tribes and tongues also leads them onto individual pathways that they may walk a journey with Christ only He and they alone can walk together. If we are to walk without hindrance with our fellow Christ followers, we must first walk with Jesus and His Cross in the ‘aloneness’ of His crucifixion journey. There the old life must, as Sparks puts it, be ‘smitten’ or ‘smashed’ completely. Without this process, we have done nothing more than join a club.

Authentic Christian fellowship is found only among those who are also experiencing crucifixion with Christ.

Nearing the end of his letter to the Christians at Galatia, Paul stated: From now on let no one trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ Were these marks, as some claim, literal stigmata – piercings in his hands and feet? Personally, I don’t believe so.

I believe Paul was referring metaphorically to a common practice of his time: slaves and soldiers were often ‘branded’ or ‘marked’ somewhere on their body with the name of their master or their military general. Some voluntarily chose this manner of ‘marking’ as a sign of loyalty. These days we may call such a mark a ‘tattoo’.

Paul understood, taught and daily lived the significance of the Cross. Jesus had called him a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel’ (Acts 9:15). In his journey with Christ Paul was shown many Heavenly mysteries, but He also had the Cross applied to His life in significant measure: ‘For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake’ (Acts 9:16). He experienced being separated because of the Cross, even from other respected apostles of his time.  Paul did literally bear the Name of Jesus in His earthly body as had been foretold.

But the Cross!

If we are truly going to be followers of Christ in this world that hates Him, we will have to be willing to carry the marks, or signature of the Lord Jesus, in our own bodies. Those invisible marks set us apart in heaven and on earth. They separate us from what has gone before in our lives on every level; they continually pull us deeper into Christ and further from all that is not Christ.

To bear the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ is no light thing. It is costly and the cost needs to be counted prior to the journey. If we are truly going to go ‘wherever He goes’, even beyond the clamoring crowds of popular Christianity, we will need to be willing to bear the sense of spiritual separation the Cross will impose on us.

The Crucified One has invited us into the fellowship of the crucified.

And yes my friends, the gate is narrow.

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2016 and beyond.   Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.

Related Article: And The Bride Wore…Scars?

Somewhere A Church

somewhereachurch

Heard the one about there being no perfect church? It goes like this: ‘Well, there’s no perfect church because churches are made up of imperfect people’, or words to that effect.  It’s one of those often repeated Christianese statements that have no basis in scripture but are frequently thrown around as if they do.

I don’t buy it.

I believe there is a perfect church. Here’s why.

This week I was preparing an article for another blogsite about a woman born 100 years before me, who died twenty years before I was born. She was a dedicated Christ follower who sacrificed a brilliant career, fame and wealth to pour out her life in His service in an unfamiliar, hostile land. And we connected. As I researched her life, which was very unlike my own, I sensed a depth of bond with her that I’ve seldom known with any other believer. Our connection was in the Holy Spirit.

How is it that Christ followers can be united across boundaries of time, geography and culture in this way? How is it my spirit leaps when I recognize the same Christ in another as dwells in me, even if we have never met, even if we have never heard each other’s voices or physically sat together to worship or talk over coffee? How is it I often feel more closely bonded to someone half a world away who has shared their hopes, fears, and faith with me through emails and blog posts, than with people I share the same history, culture and cafes with?

It’s because there is just one church (Ephesians 4:4).

It’s because this one church, this Body of Christ, is a spiritual entity. Its members have been baptized together into Christ by the Spirit of God, to whom boundaries of distance, time, language and culture are irrelevant (1 Cor. 12:13)

It’s because this same Spirit refuses to be confined within the multi-denominational structures, doctrinal boxes and brick and mortar walls that are popularly called ‘the church’ on this earth.

Somewhere a church exists in the Spirit whose members are united and bound together by the Spirit of God (Eph. 1:3). Somewhere a church exists in the Spirit that looks, loves and sounds just like Jesus Christ whose members are being continually conformed to His image by the Spirit of God (2 Cor. 3:18). Somewhere a church exists in the Spirit that is perfect because its members are perfected and sanctified by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 1:2; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:14).

And when we as disciples of any colour, gender or culture connect with another by the uniting power of the Holy Spirit, we have found that Somewhere Church.   Our membership in it is guaranteed not by signing a card or regular attendance but by our faith in Christ.

But I keep hitting up against a problem. The latest example of this problem occurred recently when a local pastor implied we (husband and I) should be attending his church. Bear in mind he has not met either of us, we have not been to his church and have no indication from God that we should do so. We had simply contacted him by phone in connection with a practical matter to assist a close relative who does go to that church.

The problem? The problem is an almost blind assumption that those of us who choose to opt out of traditional organized Christianity are somehow spiritually less than those who do. The problem is others automatically presuming they know better than I how, where, and when I should worship. And the problem is friendship offered not on the basis of faith in Christ, but on condition of conformity to another person’s specific Christian tribe.

Seriously, if someone truly believes that Christ cannot sustain me outside the walls of their own church setting, then even when that church is the biggest in town, their church is too small and their God is too inadequate.

I know, it’s easy to label Christians ‘backslidden’ when they are less than enthusiastic about church involvement, or dismiss them as those pesky ‘perfect church’ seekers: easier, that is, than deal with the uncomfortable fact that there may actually be something missing in our local church that people are desperately seeking. I can’t blame anyone who chooses to think that way: we’ve all known people who are serial complainers, who are always more focused on the problem than the solution. We’ve all breathed a secret sigh of relief when they move on in search of whatever it is that will satisfy them.

But the largest percentage of non-church-attending Christians are sincere Christ followers who are non-attenders because the hierarchical, controlling atmosphere of many local churches has become toxic to them. And for many, institutional Christianity has become irrelevant. They are searching for, and often finding, other ways to assemble together, deeper more authentic ways of connecting to fellow believers and more diverse expressions of corporate fellowship than traditional settings offer. They are following a living Christ they have not been able to find within the hyped or stifled environments of their local church experiences.

If my words offend you, that is certainly not my intention. I bless my Christian brothers and sisters who acknowledge there are serious problems in organized Christianity and have nevertheless chosen to serve Christ from inside the institution. I would never question your ability to hear for yourself where and how, or in what setting, you should express your Christian beliefs. But I would ask that the same level of respect be given to those of us who worship Christ outside the walls of the local church by choice because that’s where we believe He has led us.

For the record let me clear up a few general assumptions often made about we ‘outside’ Christians:

*We are not all wounded, angry and bitter. Each of us as individual believers, whether attending a local church or otherwise, is on a journey into wholeness in Jesus Christ. It’s true many do cease regular church attendance because they have been deeply wounded or spiritually abused, but many find their healing through following Christ outside the institution rather than inside it. Wounded, angry, bitter people are just as often present within the walls of local churches as outside them.

*We are not spiritually dysfunctional or less of a Christ follower because we no longer find the atmosphere of a local church relevant to our Christian walk and growth. You don’t have to be an active member of a local church for Christ to meet you, heal you and lead you. If this is something that is incomprehensible to some readers may I gently suggest you leave aside what you do not understand rather than judge it as aberrant. God does not need to fit into our understanding of Him or give account to us for how He works with His own.

*We have not ‘left’ the church. It is no more possible for us to leave the church than it is to shed our natural skin. If we are in Christ we are church. Period.

*Finally, we are not your mission field. It is not your God-given calling to get us back into your church just so you can feel better about us. The mission field is anyone outside Christ – let’s all focus our evangelism there.

I share as one who spent over forty years in organized Christianity before God called me to follow Jesus outside the local church system. It came as a surprise and has certainly not been an easy path, but I have no regrets. Bread for the Bride is primarily a ministry to my fellow ‘wilderness dwellers’ – those who for whatever reason have not found Christ in His fullness within the walls of organized Christianity, or who have not found the local church scene to be the safe, nurturing environment it should be. I could hardly minister to this ‘congregation in the wilderness’ in the small way that I do without walking alongside them.

Whether someone is actively engaged in a local church, or has been called to another expression of the Christ Life that is in them, should really not be an issue. If we are in Christ we are the Church. Our connection to one another as Christ’s Body is in the Spirit, not within temporary structures, shared traditions or specific sets of doctrines.

I read something this week by a great teacher from a former time, T. Austin Sparks, that articulates the true nature of the church far better than I can:

You can only really see what the Spirit presents when you occupy a heavenly position. To see the Lord and His Church, as we have it in Ephesians, you must be in the position that is there: “He hath raised us up together with Him and made us to sit in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus.” It was from that position that Paul gave us the revelation of Christ and His Body.’

I am beginning to see the Church as Jesus sees her, from a heavenly perspective. I am beginning to perceive that great crowd of witnesses from every age since Adam whose individual testimonies of the living Christ are the organic cells that make up the Body of Christ. And I am beginning to understand why buildings, creeds, traditions, doctrines and organisation can never equal or contain this spiritual ecclesia whose members can only ever be knitted and held together by the Spirit of God.

If you are one who chooses to worship Christ from within a local church congregation, be blessed, and welcome to the Church. If you are a fringe dweller, seeking to follow Christ but unsure where you fit in, be blessed, and welcome to the Church. If you are following Christ outside the traditional venues, again, be blessed, and welcome to the Church.

I’ll meet you in Church….Somewhere.

*The Persistent Purpose of God, Chapter 8 “The Glory and The Spirit”, T. Austin-Sparks 

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2016. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.

On The Crest Of The Kingdom

AdobeStock_DoorsSo…here we are. Seated in heavenly places as we simultaneously inhabit a world in which we are unwelcome strangers (Eph. 2:6; Phl. 3:20). Sometimes, no often, it seems impossible to reconcile both those truths. When we hit that wall of mental impossibility, we call it ‘mystery’.

But then there’s the tension: the daily spiritual, emotional, and physical tension of existing in two places at once. Because it’s absolutely true in Christ we have been raised into heavenly places. It’s just as true that in Christ we wearily make our way through the chaos of a hostile world alienated and rejected. Who can live like that? Apart from grace’s enablement, no-one.

And yet

An Unexpected Encounter

Mundanely shopping for odds and ends in a crowded outlet, I reached for an item at the same time as an elderly woman standing next to me. The incident led her to relate how she is suffering, how she wakes daily with painful hands and feet, how the doctors can’t help. I nodded my head sympathetically with the same sense of frustrated helplessness I’ve known in many other such encounters. Isn’t this where I’m supposed to lay hands on her, rebuke the swelling and the pain, and leave the woman and the startled onlookers glorifying Jesus and wanting more?

No, we both move on. But not before I have quietly reached out and gently touched her, and she barely noticing.

Now I wish I could tell you my lady was instantly healed and we held a glorious praise meeting there among the aisles of plastic ware, cotton balls and tooth brushes, surrounded by singing angels. That’s not what happened.

An Unexpected Conversation

A routine medical appointment to collect a needed prescription was not where I wanted to be that afternoon. Without trying I could think of at least ten other things I’d rather be doing. Necessary questions and answers concluded, I tucked the script into my bag, thanked the doctor and readied to leave.

But wait, could I tell her a little more about this, er what’s it called, ‘blog thing’, I do on the internet? How many people read it and how is it different to standing in front of a pulpit and just preaching out at people? Because it’s just that at church the other day they were saying sometimes people learn more about God in small groups than sitting in pews each week listening to a sermon and she was wondering, you see, if that might be true and …..

Her voice trailed off and my heart grieved for her. I recognised the spiritual hunger this woman of science was having difficulty articulating. We spoke for another few minutes, with me choosing my words carefully and inwardly praying for wisdom beyond myself. When someone has been sitting for a long time in semi-darkness, you don’t blast them with floodlights.

So I left her considering a simple question before she returned to her stethoscope and prescription pad, and I to those myriad of ‘other things’ waiting for me in the, ahem, real world.

I wish I could tell you that time stood still while we talked for hours about Jesus, agreed to meet regularly for prayer and I left my doctor friend filled with the Spirit and signed up to this blog. I really do. But that’s not what happened.

An Unexpected Message

Sometimes people write to me. Sometimes, unknown to them, I am struggling with the very same issues they’re struggling with.

The things I share on Bread for the Bride are always born from my own journey. Others may preach, teach, or write things they’ve ‘borrowed’ but not lived. Just for the record I am not familiar with that luxury. This blog ministry was established with the purpose of edifying, encouraging and exhorting Christ’s Bride. I cannot pass on that which I have not walked out. My fresh Bread gets baked in a furnace friends…..just sayin’.

The person who wrote to me shared how difficult it is to live as a Christian in this world, how very much they wanted to just withdraw and sit at the Father’s feet, secluded and hidden away.   Could I identify? If you read this, my email friend, the answer is yes, to the moon and back! I suspect my messenger was expressing something many Christ followers are wrestling with at this moment in history – that uncomfortable sense of spiritual tension mentioned already.

How do we deal with that? I wish I could give you a formula; I wish I could list you a ten point plan; I wish I could prophesy something pretty that would distract you for a few days (nah, on reflection, scrap that last wish).   But that’s not what’s happening. That’s not where the Spirit’s focused right now.

Each of the mini-events above occurred in the last week. And each speak of the invisible Kingdom currently unfolding in and around us. I believe we now stand poised on the crest of this glorious Kingdom. The Kingdom of God permeates the horizon lying before us for as far as our spiritual eyes can see…and beyond.

Now when He was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, He answered them and said, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” Luke 17:20-21

Despite the surrounding accumulated human stress constantly threatening to overcome us, despite the desperate longing to steal away with the Bridegroom and forget all about the crisis-torn world, despite the tension of existing both in heaven and on earth, do you too sense the expanding of this invisible Kingdom within us?

I’m pretty certain this side of eternity I won’t know what happened to that elderly woman with her health problems. I don’t need to. I do know the Kingdom broke through when the Spirit led me to touch her. I may never again have a conversation with the doctor like the one we had this week. I don’t need to. I do know the Kingdom manifested right there in her office.

And I don’t have all the answers to the email message I received. I don’t need to. I do know my messenger is not alone in their struggle with living between heaven and earth, and that only the grace of God can sustain and enable us in this impossible place.

The Kingdom is not just coming. It. Is. Here.

And with each passing hour its presence is increasing within every Christ follower who seeks it first. It has come upon us, just as He said it would, by stealth. It has come without observation.

We cannot say ‘go there to see the Kingdom manifesting’. The Kingdom is not a place, it is a spiritual atmosphere. Ultimately it is the atmosphere of the King’s Presence. At the present time it is hidden from the world within His followers. The world may observe its effects, but it cannot observe the Kingdom.

A call has gone out from the Spirit summoning us out of this world to live and walk as the rightful inheritors of this unseen, immeasurable Kingdom now manifesting on earth (1 Thes. 2:12).

We read in Colossians 1:13 that the Father has ‘delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love’. The English phrase ‘conveyed us’ does not give the full picture. This word is the Greek ‘methistemi’, meaning to transfer, transpose, remove from one place to another, change a situation or place.

While there is certain tension in living in two places at once, there are also advantages. As the presence of the King increases in His followers, the Spirit can ‘transfer’ any of us at any time from the realm of this world into the hidden realm of the Kingdom. In the Kingdom there are no natural barriers. The Kingdom will manifest in the world around us as needed, whether that be through healing, conviction, revelation, salvation, miracles, or whatever else. And if the Spirit so chooses, no one but you and God need even know how it was done.

He can do this, and He is already doing this. Our part is to allow the Spirit to realign our finite minds with our new parameters and learn to recognize the manifestation of the Kingdom among us.

And please understand I am not advocating what is known as ‘dominionism’ or ‘kingdom now’ theology. I am speaking of the Kingdom of God coming within us without outward observation. The world will not see the full manifestation of Christ’s Kingdom until His return to rule and reign in Person.

My friend Becky Johnson quoted from T. Austin Sparks in a blog post this last week: “If we are called into the sphere of the works of God….we are going to be made the sermon, we are not going to preach a sermon.”

Many of us have struggled under a religious system where sermons were delivered by someone else and passively received by ourselves. That has changed. In the ways of the Kingdom, you and I are the sermon. God is preaching to the Universe, the angels, the principalities, creation and the world, through you, and He intends to be glorified through you, His living sermon.

We are emerging from many hundreds of years of religious tribalism, where our particular denominational brand of Christianity was our rallying point. That too has changed.

The tribal religious system of chiefs and workers is swiftly passing away. The Spirit Himself leads us under one banner, one Name, one faith: the Kingdom of God and His Christ (see Psalm 2:1-2; Rev. 11:15; Rev. 12:10). The kingdom of the defeated one and the kingdoms of the world are aligned together against this all-conquering, invading Kingdom in which we are now being seriously conscripted.

This is a momentous hour in the history of the King and His followers. We have reached the point where the rubber meets the road. This magnificent Kingdom is now advancing forcefully, more forcefully than ever before (Matt. 11:12). It is irrepressible, irresistible and completely unstoppable.

Don’t look back.

Do not fear little flock, for it is Your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. Luke 12:32

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2016 and beyond.  All rights reserved. Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.

No Fear? Part Two

dollarcrossPart Two of Two

Most of us know that Jesus told people not to have fear. Often. Recently I attempted to count how many times in the gospel accounts Jesus said ‘fear not’, ‘don’t be afraid’, or something along those lines. I gave up.

I had no difficulty counting how many times Jesus told people to fear, however.

Just. Once.

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. (Lk.12:4,5; see also Mat. 10:28)

There it is, right there in the middle of a conversation about Pharisees, secrets being shouted from rooftops and sparrows.

I love the habit Jesus has of inserting the deeply profound and mysterious into the basic conversations of life. My immediate somewhat impulsive response is: “Oh really Lord? I may inadvertently imitate a Pharisee some time, or be less than careful what I whisper. And I’m still wondering about God’s reluctance to forget a single sparrow. But being more afraid of God than someone who wants to do me serious harm? That’s a pretty big deal and You make it sound like something I need to remember if I want to avoid some fairly undesirable fallout. Umm…think I’m gonna need more than a little help here!”

Every message I’ve ever heard preached about fear reinforced that Christians aren’t supposed to be afraid. Of Anything. (Well, apart from women in tight skirts and bright lipstick….then you should run, right??) I mean, after sin, fear is just about the worst thing you can have going on. Fear is bad. Full. Stop. Some even say fear is sin. “Be bold, be strong, for the Lord Your God is with you!” isn’t meant to be just a happy-clappy chorus (or is it?)

Yet here’s Jesus telling us that the very One who has promised to do away with all fear, should Himself be feared. To add to the conundrum the Bible even says God takes pleasure in those who fear Him (Psalm 147:11).

So, how are we supposed to do this ‘fear God’ thing?

‘Tis grace that taught my heart to fear…..’ we sing…..regularly. Well, fortunately for us, this is where the grace comes in. Apart from grace we humans are incapable of fearing, or reverencing God, without also fearing God’s judgment.

There was quite a lot of God-fearing going on under the Old Covenant. Leaders and prophets alike exhorted the Israelites to fear God, but their fear was law-based. They lived with a dread that this sovereign, mysterious God might open up the ground to swallow them or suddenly strike them dead if they failed to obey Him. It was the kind of fear that caused worshipers to write:

My flesh trembles for fear of You, and I am afraid of Your judgments. (Ps. 119:120)

That was the age of law-inspired fear. Strangely, that fear didn’t prevent Israel falling into idolatry. However, it was the best God’s people had available to them, and it was certainly better than the lawlessness of the nations round about them.

But the law was an intermediary, a temporary provision, a method of moral instruction, until the grace that would come through Christ would be revealed (Gal. 3:19-25). The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Enter Jesus, bearer of a New Covenant. He didn’t just say we need to fear God. He said He would show us ‘whom you should fear’. The word means to ‘show by example’. Jesus demonstrated to us this God who desires to be feared, provided us with the grace to fear Him and taught us how to fear Him properly.

Without sin, Jesus had no need to fear God’s punishment. Yet He feared God.

…who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear… (Heb. 5:7)

In fact Isaiah prophesied that the Christ would actually delight in fearing God:

The Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon Him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD. His delight is in the fear of the LORD…. (Is. 11:2-3)

Jesus showed us a fear of God that was centered on New Covenant Spirit and truth worship, not Old Covenant fear of punishment. He provided us with the grace to reverence God for Who He is, not fear Him for what He may or may not do. Without that grace we are, all of us, too intelligent, too wise, too brave to fear God!

Evidence of the lack of the true fear of God is all around us. Some fear a god who delights in spreading terror, unjust punishment, and mass murder. That is not the God Christ reverenced. Some others who call themselves by the name of Christ fear a god who delights in a gospel of condemnation, hatred and hypocrisy. That is not the God Christ reverenced either.

It was not always so:

Then the churches throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied. (Acts 9:31)

The first Christ followers walked in both the fear of the Lord and the encouragement of the Holy Spirit. They reverenced God’s unmatched holiness while resting in the Spirit’s assurance that their sin had been fully accounted for.

If we try walking in the fear of the Lord any other way than with the comfort of the Spirit we will end up worshiping a false god. It is a rare and precious thing to walk in the fear of the Lord combined with the grace of the Holy Spirit’s assurance that, through Christ’s blood, we may run boldly into His awesome Presence without dying.

And it is a common and profoundly arrogant thing to believe we have no need to reverence this God who, being all powerful, could blow us away like the dust that we are, yet chooses instead to be Love to us. No human mind can understand such a God. No human mind should presume to undervalue such a God either.

The Bible hints that the fear of God and the glory of God go hand in hand (Lk. 5:26, 7:16, Acts 19:17). We pray fervently for the glory of God to manifest among us. Perhaps it doesn’t manifest as often as we wish because we prefer the glory without the fear.

No fear? No glory.

Lord, grant us the heritage of those who fear Your Name! (Psalm 61:5).

Related Post:  No Fear? Part One

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2015 and beyond.   Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.

The Sweet Sufficiency of Jesus

Dollarphotoclubvine

You know, the further I travel along this Christ-following journey, the more I’m persuaded there’s just one overwhelming priority for the Bride of Christ in this late hour.

There is no shortage of prophetic voices proclaiming numerous messages in the name of Christ: messages about the end times, spiritual warfare, cities and nations, world events, the economy, and other things that seek to occupy our minds and thoughts. But unless those prophetic messages have been received and wrestled with in the furnace of God’s consuming love they do little more than add more noise into the confusing chaos of the world around us.

Like many other Christ followers who watch and pray, I am aware of the signs of the times, the clash of the Kingdom of God with earthly kingdoms currently taking place. Beyond that watchfulness, though, there is an even deeper conviction that the Spirit is calling the Bride into one great and final commission – to be the bearers of Christ’s perfect love even as we walk among the bleeding ruins of this fallen humanity.

But how do we manifest to the world what we so often fail to manifest even to our fellow believers?

In His last hours with His disciples, Jesus steered the conversation to tell them He was about to leave them, and yet not leave them.

‘He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him. A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also. At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you.’

Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, ‘Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?’ (Jn. 14:19-22)

The question being asked by one of the disciples back then was obvious. Lord, how will this work? It’s still obvious. Lord, how does this work?

Earlier Jesus had given them the commandment to love one another in the exact same way He had loved them (Jn. 13:34). His commandment has not changed.  But then, as now, His followers struggled to love as He loves.

Like those first Christ followers, we are pre-disposed to legalism. Legalism is in our fallen nature as water is in the ocean. Our tendency to legalism is the fruit of the wrong tree. So when we read the word ‘commandment’ we immediately assume this is something we ourselves must fulfil if we are to please God.

Jesus knew about this.

He kept the conversation going. ‘Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.’ ( Jn. 15:4-5)

To paraphrase: This is how you do it, my friends. You abide in Me, because unless you do so, you can neither love one another nor do anything else for Me.

It’s a rather foreign concept to us, this ‘abiding’. This is a world where love affairs are carried on via Facebook, business deals can be sealed or lost on mobile phones, and our idea of how to conduct a relationship might be shaped by reality TV shows. In such a context ‘abide in Me’ sounds like something belonging to a long forgotten time when knights rode white horses and maidens played harpsichords.

Though we may understand ‘abiding’ in the more modern terms of ‘remain with’ or ‘live with’, the concept actually being conveyed here is somewhat deeper than just dwelling with someone. It means to ‘continue to be present’.   Not only does Jesus tell us we need to ‘continue to be present’ with Him, He commits Himself to ‘continue to be present’ with each one of us.

This is a two way deal. It is not simply about us, as branches, drawing from Christ, but about Christ, as the vine, the life source, connecting to us in such a way that His life force flows continually to us. This is something He has covenanted with us to do.

So Jesus was telling them: Forget about the way you’ve done things before. This is a new kind of commandment. You simply draw from Me and I will enable you to do that which I require of you.

The disciples had a bit of identity confusion going on. I’ve suffered unnecessarily from the same identity confusion and I’d lay odds you probably have also. So Jesus spelled it out very plainly for them: He is the vine, we are the branches. Legalism deceives us into believing the opposite.

This is how legalism works: if I do this, this and this, and continue doing it, then I will bring forth fruit and I will please God. This faulty belief makes us the vine, not the branch.

This is how the New Covenant works: I am not the Vine, I am merely the branch, who can do nothing unless I am continually present in the Vine. The Vine has undertaken to provide all I need to bear fruit pleasing to God. He doesn’t ask me to be the Vine, He simply requires me to rest in the knowledge that He is the Vine and He is sufficient to make me fruitful.

Jesus shifted their focus from legalism to grace. He turned the order around. This loving one another in the same manner as He had loved them could only be manifested as they ‘continued to be present’ with Him, and He with them. And as we know, this new journey He was initiating for them would be a lifelong one.

So it is with us.

The truth is, if we haven’t already discovered it, we are utterly incapable of loving one another as Jesus loves us. So our usual solution is to try, and try harder, and fail, and beat ourselves up over it, and try harder again. Trust me, I am someone who has spent a good portion of my life perfecting the art of failing to love others as Jesus loves me.

Jesus knows about this too.

He is asking us, above all other ministry, above whatever other spiritual or secular responsibilities we may carry, to love as He loves – first with one another, then outflowing to the world around us.

As much as I want it to be otherwise, I confess I cannot love you as Christ loves you. But if I am sincere about following Him, there is something I can do about this conundrum. I can seek to abide, to be ‘continually present with Him’ and allow Him to be ‘continually present’ with me. But even that pursuit I can easily turn into law.   Everything that I read in the Bible, if I am not reading or hearing from a place of rest and revelation, I will read through the lens of law, for this is my default.

Jesus knows that apart from His being ‘continually present with us’ we are hard wired to law. This is why the Holy Spirit was sent to us – to make us gracekeepers instead of lawkeepers.

In His conversation with His disciples on that fateful night, Jesus answered the question hanging in the air. He revealed the way it works. It works because the commandment is fulfilled out of the abiding, not because the abiding is fulfilled out of the commandment. Please go back and read that last sentence again. Put simply, if we are to love as He desires us to love, we must first abide as He desires us to abide.

For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Jesus reversed the order. We will finally love as He loves when we ‘get it’ that He is our sufficiency. In. All. Things.

Love is our mission. Abiding is our modus operendi. The Spirit is our agency. Jesus is our sufficiency. We can do nothing else and we can do nothing otherwise.

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2015 and beyond.   Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.

The Insanity of The Kingdom

Jesus Writing on the sand with his finger

Recently a blogger friend, Becky Johnson, remarked in one of her posts I think this is normal to a life of faith – this feeling like we …. are doing something completely insane”

I think she’s on to something.

You don’t need to spend a lot of time reading the gospels before you realise the gap between Jesus and His listeners was gigantic. Take, for instance, the extraordinary discussion in John 6:24-66. The escalating tension almost jumps off the page and punches us in the face. How dare He tell them to eat His flesh and drink His blood! Who did He think they were, godless barbarians? And insisting He’d come from Heaven when everyone knew His parents were a local carpenter and his wife?

What on earth was this ridiculous talk of ‘feeding’ on Him? Was He mad? All they wanted was some kind of miracle to prove He was no ordinary man, possibly even the Messiah, and they’d be satisfied. Then they’d believe whatever He wanted them to believe. Even more so if He could repeat what He’d done just the previous day and provide free food, like Moses had done for Israel in the wilderness. Simple. Just show us the bread Jesus, and we’ll follow you anywhere. What was His problem?

But now He was pointing to Himself, saying ‘this is the Bread”. And if they would eat and drink His flesh and blood they could live forever. This was not the King they’d waited for after all, just another of those crazy prophets who never made any sense, or worse still a demoniac. And anyone who followed him might well be thought mad as well.

They were offended, big time – offended by this self-styled King and His questionable Kingdom. How could someone who spoke the same language as they did make such little sense? No, they would not follow this madman into the insanity of His so called Kingdom.  So – a crowd of them walked away profoundly disappointed, presumably to continue awaiting the arrival of the true King of Israel.

So, what, exactly is this Kingdom of God that so polarises people?  Is it now, is it future, or is it both? Is it a place, or is it a Presence? Can we hasten its appearance on earth, or not?

This post doesn’t set out to answer every question ever asked about the Kingdom: that would take a volume. But hopefully it may provide some basic perspectives on Kingdom life that will encourage each of us to dig deeper.

So let’s start with how the Kingdom looks in this world.

As we’ve seen, to world dwellers the Kingdom of God looks like it’s located somewhere between eccentric and insane. Consequently, world dwellers frequently find Kingdom dwellers and their King offensive in a way they can’t quite put their finger on. Put simply, the world is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God, does not recognise the authority of its King and considers all Kingdom dwellers delusional or worse.

Who can blame them? Kingdom dwellers talk about a Kingdom that’s invisible and pledge allegiance to a King who died in shame and agony who they say will return. Let’s face it, without the convicting agency of the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible for any of us to even see the Kingdom, let alone enter it (John 3:3-5).

This Kingdom’s King is unpredictable, with little regard for what passes as normal in this world. He has been known to fashion a whip to terrorise innocent shopkeepers. He claims to be the Son of God yet refuses to call legions of militant angels to save Him from execution. He says He rules a Kingdom but voluntarily acts like a slave and washes men’s dirty, smelly feet.

He says God is His Father but lets lawbreakers off without punishment. He pays no respect to age-old traditions and seems to go out of His way to aggravate influential people. His followers have been known to sing and rejoice when thrown into the darkest of prisons, forgive those bent on killing them and weep and pray for their oppressors.

Some who seek the Kingdom wrongly believe they need to prove to the world the Kingdom exists. Some of them even think doing so is their life call. Other wiser Kingdom dwellers, knowing the Kingdom is about power more than words, prefer to demonstrate, not debate, the Kingdom.

So what is the Kingdom about then?

The Kingdom’s purpose is to manifest and rule on the earth under the authority of the King. To this end the Kingdom is currently at war, but not with the world dwellers.

Jesus came leading a Love invasion into the everyday realm of human beings, and brought His Kingdom with Him.  That Love invasion triggered a massive escalation in a spiritual conflict that existed before the creation of humanity. This conflict reaches into and manifests in all aspects of earthly life. It is presently raging more than at any time in history and will increase in even more intensity before King Jesus arrives to take up His earthly throne.

Wait, but the Kingdom is peaceful isn’t it? Yes and no. The Kingdom brings peace, but advances with force (Matt. 11:12). The force with which the Kingdom advances is neither military nor political. It is a divine, spiritual force that cannot be discerned by world dwellers.

Some believers wrongly believe they need to protect themselves and their families from the world. They build fortress like temples as bastions to keep out the world dwellers, who they suppose always prefer sin to holiness. Some think these fortresses are the Kingdom, but the Kingdom isn’t found within man-made walls, it is found within the Kingdom dwellers.   In reality it’s the Kingdom that’s on the offensive and the world that’s retreating.

The world does not invade the Kingdom – the Kingdom invades the world.

Sincere Kingdom dwellers refuse to be confined inside fortresses, but follow their King out of the temple onto the battlefields of humanity.   The battlefields are the streets, the cities, the fields, the houses, the meeting places, and the darkest places of the world. With them they bring the Love of the King, for which the world has no defence.

So how does the Kingdom advance?

Conflict involves weapons. The weapons the world uses to oppose the Kingdom include hate, deception, lust, confusion, accusation, unbelief, betrayal, violence, humanism, corruption, and human centred religion.

The world system is a spiritual entity that hates the Kingdom, despises its King and seeks to destroy all that the Kingdom represents. Those who dwell in the world system are slaves to it, but have been seduced into believing they are free and that the King wants to take away their freedom. Consequently the world and its dwellers hate, mock, persecute, harass, humiliate, imprison and kill Kingdom dwellers relentlessly. This spiritually motivated malevolence toward Kingdom dwellers will only increase until the King returns bodily to this realm to enforce His Kingdom’s rule in every corner of the earth.

The weapons of Kingdom dwellers, however, are forged by the Spirit of God. The King taught His citizens that the Kingdom can never take ground by using the same weapons as the world. He demonstrated a higher, more perfect kind of warfare and trains His kingdom dwellers in wielding spiritual, not man-made, weapons. These include faith and its twin, faithfulness, as well as humility, prayer, and the greatest weapon of all, Love.

The greatest evidence that the Kingdom is advancing on the earth is the presence of Kingdom Love. Wherever the Love of Christ is seen and experienced, even for a moment, His Kingdom is breaking through and the world is in retreat.

So surely this Kingdom must have some laws, otherwise how would it operate effectively?

There is just one law needed in the Kingdom of God. It is called the Law of the Spirit and it is known as Love. This law is administered by the Holy Spirit, who infuses Kingdom dwellers with the Love of Christ. Kingdom dwellers love all who the King loves.

This unearthly Love cannot be measured, nor can it be divided. It does, however, take most Kingdom dwellers a while to get the hang of it. But like riding a bicycle, once they learn how to lose themselves in this Love, they never forget. Even then, it’s not so much an achievement as it is an immersion. The deeper Kingdom dwellers immerse themselves into the Love of Christ, the deeper they love and the better they demonstrate the Kingdom.

Well there it is, my concise guide to the Kingdom. This Kingdom is indeed an unconventional place to live. From the outside looking in it appears to be madness. But from the inside it looks like Christ the King.

Perhaps you have some thoughts to share on the Kingdom of God? If so, I’d be happy to hear them….just leave them in the comment box at the bottom of this post.

Oh, and one last thing I should probably add about this mysterious, insane Kingdom:

The King wins.

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2015 and beyond.   Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.

Of Wolves and Kings

 

Dollarphotoclub_wolfsheepThe scene was somber. Weeping unashamedly each one in turn fell upon the apostle’s neck, covering his face with kisses, embracing him for what they now knew would be the last time.  Each of them feared for their spiritual father’s fate, but none could contend with his determination to go on. Regardless of whatever might await him, he would continue by sea to Jerusalem, for the Spirit compelled him.

With moistened eyes and heavy hearts they watched as the ship disappeared on the horizon, straining to follow the last glimpse of the beloved leader for as long as possible. Turning then, they set their faces for the journey home, each one pondering the apostle’s parting words and his warning of the serious challenges ahead (Acts 20:17-38).

Such was the final meeting between the apostle Paul and the leaders of the Ephesian church. Aware that he would not see them again in this life, Paul had tempered his final message to them with this warning:

For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. (Acts 20:29-31)

We’ve all heard about wolves in sheep’s clothing, haven’t we? Jesus said these would come into the church claiming to be believers but in reality they would be hungry wolves seeking to devour the sheep (Matt. 7:15). Oh, we keep a wary eye out for them and their cunning ways, herding our sheep into ever tighter compounds as we protect ourselves from the wolf ridden world outside.

But Paul’s warning was twofold. There would also be those rising up ‘from among yourselves’. They would be gifted communicators, using their oratory gifts to pervert the gospel and attract followers.

Sadly, Paul’s prophetic warning to the Ephesian elders is as relevant today as it has ever been.

While the church guards herself against the world, home grown wolves roam among us, drawing multitudes to themselves. Abandoning the leadership of the Holy Spirit, who alone embodies ‘all truth’, believers flock to drink in the latest utterances of celebrity ‘apostles’, ‘prophets’ and ‘pastors’. Every day, via conferences, internet, books and other media, itching Christian ears are tickled by smooth speakers whose intent is to make disciples for themselves.

The doctrines spread by these wolf-sheep are not Christ-centered, do not lead us in the way of Love, and are not born of the Spirit of God. They teach us to live in the kingdoms of men rather than seek the Kingdom of God. At their heart are some ‘perverse things’…..things that are contrary to Christ while claiming to be leading us to Christ.

Let’s not blame the world for the poisonous mixture now in our midst. We are not called to condemn the world; the world is already condemned (Jn 3:17).

It is we, the church, who have been content to simply fill pews and sit in enraptured obedience while our demi-gods build their ever expanding kingdoms. We may call these human idols apostle, prophet, senior pastor, bishop, reverend, priest or pope, but what we have really wanted is a king we can see, handle and adore. A king like us.

The ancient Israelites had the same desire. ‘Give us a flesh and blood king to rule over us” they cried out to God, “so we can be like the other nations’ (1 Sam. 8:4-22).

Recently I had a conversation with a fellow Christian that went along these lines:

Friend: ‘You must read so and so’s (contemporary theologian) works. He is so wonderful in the way he explains the Bible. I’ve read all his commentaries.’

Me: ‘I rarely read commentaries.  They don’t form my understanding of scripture.’

Friend: ‘Oh, but so and so’s different. When I’m reading his books it’s like having him in my own house. You should read them too.’

Me: ‘Why would I want him in my house?’

Friend: ‘Because reading his words feels like he’s following you around the house talking to you while you read.’

Me: ‘You mean like the Holy Spirit?’

The person I was talking with is a believer of many years and holds a Masters Degree in Theology.

Jesus did not leave His church defenceless. He sent the Holy Spirit to comfort, teach, reveal truth, and anoint her with supernatural power and spiritual gifts. He also gave her the people-gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers to serve, equip, edify and mature her (Eph. 4:11-16).

These ones are among us and always have been, but very often they do not look the way we think they should.

The hard working believer beside you riding the train to work could be a prophet. The Christ following lady at the supermarket checkout may be an apostle. That unshaven old man waiting at the bus stop could be an evangelist, a teacher or a shepherd. While the Israelites were fawning after a king who was tall, handsome and from a powerful family, God’s unknown, chosen king sat in a lonely field, as a lowly shepherd guarding his father’s sheep (1 Sam. 9:1-2).

Christ’s people-gifts don’t normally come wrapped in expensive suits and driving the latest model car. They don’t need fancy business cards or state of the art auditoriums and they would probably prefer to ride a donkey than sit in a limousine. You could be one of them. What? Haven’t been to seminary? You’re shy, awkward, a nobody? That sounds just like the raw material God prefers.

The Bride of Christ recognizes only one King. All others desiring her adoration are usurpers craving His crown. God ordained authority does not seek to stand out in the crowd celebrity-like. It looks like you, and me, and Mr and Mrs Blogs down the road.

When we come into Christ we are encouraged to no longer recognize anyone ‘according to the flesh’ (2 Cor. 5:16 NASB). That means how someone looks, where they come from, their academic credentials or their Bible-quoting should not impress us. Neither should their charismatic personality, their ability to gather a crowd or even their spiritual gifts.

When we elevate others in their flesh, no matter how spiritual they may appear to us, we diminish the call of God on our own lives.

We convince ourselves that we have no place of service in Christ’s Body because we could never do as well as the one we’ve elevated. The good news is we were never meant to be like someone else – we are to be conformed only to the image of Christ. Knowing each other after the Spirit is simply recognizing, receiving from and responding to Christ in one another.

John the Baptist did not recognize the One He had been waiting for among the crowd until the Spirit revealed Him (Jn. 1:33). ‘One stands among us whose sandal strap I am unworthy to even loose’ he told the Pharisees who were supposed to be watching for their Messiah. Regardless, Jesus insisted on submitting to John’s baptism (Matt. 3:14,15). In a beautiful act of mutual submission, Jesus recognized and honoured the Holy Spirit in John, and John complied and submitted to Jesus’ wish.

When we refuse the anointing and call of God upon us, no matter how inadequate we feel, we dishonor the Spirit.

It is no accident of chance that you and I are alive at this moment in history. Our Kingdom is not of this world. Because we belong to a King and a Kingdom that are outside the boundaries and systems of our surrounding world, we are always placed in a unique position to be part of the solution.

We are alive at such a time as this because our King has need of us for such a time as this! None of us were born simply to warm pews. None of us became Christ followers in order to help build and maintain the kingdoms of usurpers who seek the Bride for themselves.

Nor are we here to ‘tut tut’ and shake our fingers at the messed up world. We are here to get our hands in among the grime and the muck and demonstrate another, better way.

We are here as light among darkness.

We are here as healing among suffering.

We are here as a royal priesthood of lovers and peacemakers.

We are here as Lifebearers in the shadow of death.

We are here to be about our Father’s business, and His only.

Let’s each of us find out what that business is for us, and seek, together, to be the answer in a church and a world rapidly running out of answers.

For truly, there has never been such a time as this, and never will there be again.

© Cheryl McGrath, Bread for the Bride, 2015 and beyond.   Copyright Notice: Permission is granted to freely reproduce any Bread for the Bride articles in emails or internet blogs, unaltered, and providing this copyright notice is included.     To permanently display an article on any static website please contact me for permission.