Unconditional

“Unconditional” is a term you’re likely to hear if you hang out with evangelicals often enough. Specifically in reference to God’s unconditional love for us. And thank God for this. If his love were conditional, we’d all be in big trouble. At the end of the day, we’ve all turned away from God in countless ways both big and small. If God would have waited for us to get things right (and made his love conditional), history would never have seen Jesus come to alleviate our debt of sin, selfishness, and rebellion on the cross. We wouldn’t have the invitation, through Jesus, to recover our true identities and purpose  before God and to ultimately see death overturned and all of creation renewed.

In light of God’s unconditional love, there are some common responses that people fall in to depending on your personality and religious background. Lots of people are quite nonchalant about the whole thing. After all, it’s unconditional, right? We don’t need to make a big fuss. We just receive and enjoy. In fact, many branches of the Christian family tree even discourage any real response to what God has done thinking that a genuine response somehow negates the unconditional-ness.

Others of us respond with a steady dose of good ole religion. Church every Sunday. Obligatory prayers before dinner and bedtime. Programming the Christian radio station into the presets of our vehicles.

Finally, there are those of us that are the grand gesture types. In response to God’s love, we instinctively want to offer something big in response. We attend Bible school. We look to go into ministry. We seek out an opportunity for overseas missions.

At any given moment, any of these responses may be just right and perfectly appropriate. There’s a time to rest in what God has done. There’s a time to reorder our daily and weekly way of life as followers of Christ. And there’s a time to take the big steps of faith that potentially turn our lives upside down. And at any given moment, any of these responses might be all wrong.  Following Jesus is extremely dynamic. There’s some truth to the overused cliche that Christianity is about relationship more than religion.

Fortunately, there’s a way to sort out what’s appropriate and when. There’s a simple response to God’s unconditional love that is affirmed over and over again through the scriptures. The way God would have us respond to his unconditional love is unconditional surrender and obedience. In other words, we embrace Jesus as our Lord and King. We unconditionally embrace his reign and thereby become fit and active in his kingdom.

Lack of our own unconditional embrace of his lordship inevitably leads to trouble. We’re at risk of being the rich ruler who turned away (Luke 18). Our own agendas and desires may disqualify us even after pursuing Jesus with a declared interest to follow (Luke 9). We might be baffled when Jesus sends us in an unexpected direction (Mark 5).

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.      – Jesus (Luke 9:23-24)

“Taking us our cross” is Jesus’ way of describing our unconditional response to him. These are some of his most often quoted words. If we can embrace them, we’ll find ourselves surprisingly free. We’ll find ourselves free to embrace everything he has done for us. We’ll find ourselves taking pleasure in a regular lifestyle of church, prayer, study, and devotion. And we’ll readily take the big steps of faith as he prompts us and gives us opportunity.

 

 

Be Different

Hebrews 12 is a great passage. It is loaded with principles that, if lived out, amount to living a great life before God and others.

Of the many things that could be highlighted from this passage, there is a little statement about halfway through that I’ve been particular fond of for some time:

See that no one is…unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:16)

This verse references a story from the Old Testament found in Genesis 25. It’s only a few verses, so I’ll share them here to catch all of us up on the story.

Once when Jacob (Esau’s brother) was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!” Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright now.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me now.” So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank an rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Genesis 25:29-34)

In Jewish culture back in those days, the firstborn son held a prominent place in the family and received a greater inheritance than any of the other siblings. This was Esau’s lot in life. This was his identity and destiny. He was to carry on the family name and receive not only his father’s blessing, but the greatest portion of the family inheritance.

This identity is what he traded away for a bowl of soup. He scorned his future inheritance for immediate gratification. He traded his destiny to satisfy a compulsive desire.

It’s been a while, but as parents, we hear this type of statement from time to time. When the kids want a snack and dinner isn’t quite ready… “But I’ll die if I don’t eat right now.” The same type of response occasionally surfaces when it’s time to do chores or homework.

Unfortunately, many of us never learn to deny our impulses. The world exhibits the consequences every day. Adulterous affairs resulting from a desire to “just do it” without any thought or restraint resulting in the trading away of family and character, often at incredible financial, relational, and personal cost. There are countless financial and physical manifestations as well from embezzlement to obesity – still resulting from the same inability to resist a momentary compulsion.

Unfortunately, this is “normal.” It’s how people behave. It’s everywhere in our culture from advertising to the compulsive commentary so infamous on social media. But in the face of this normalcy, the author of Hebrews calls us to be different.

We’re called to be set apart. We’re called to remember our identity and destiny as human beings created in God’s image. We’re called to deny destructive impulses because we’re a people created to reflect God’s goodness and character in everything we do. We’re invited to remember that we were created by God to share in his governance of all creation. We’re invited to remember that we’ll ultimate give an account for the way we live and what we do with our lives.

We were created for much more than normal. Never forget that. Never forget the story that we’re a part of. God created this whole thing. He created us to have a role in it – to reflect him, to take care of things, and to be a blessing in everything we do. This is our identity. Let’s learn to live accordingly.

 

 

Allegiance

The 4th of July brings to light the significance of what is perhaps my favorite parable (Luke 19). To understand the connection, let’s remember exactly how different this day would have been back in 1776.

As the ink was drying on the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War was just around the corner. Whether willingly or reluctantly, every citizen was thrust onto the horns of a dilemma:

  1.  Take up arms as citizens of the new nation and simultaneously condemn themselves as traitors against Britain.
  2. Take up arms on behalf of the “homeland” (Britain) and fight to quell the rebellion. (Be traitors against America.)
  3. Play it safe by avoiding allegiance to either country in order to await the end result of the war before deciding. (Be condemned as cowards regardless of who won the war.)

 

Undoubtedly, there were many reluctant decision makers in the days following July 4, 1776. Many people were going about their lives, doing their work, paying their taxes, and raising their families. Most weren’t politicians. Most weren’t soldiers. They were simply swept into something bigger than themselves. Many were forced to make a decision that they didn’t want to have to make.

This is exactly the scenario that Jesus describes in Luke 19 to help us understand the circumstances in which we’re living. He has declared (and revealed) himself to be the King over all creation – the heavens and the earth. The kingdom of God has come. However, his reign has not yet been fully implemented. And in the meantime, conflict is underway because many people are living in opposition to the King’s reign.

How we emerge into God’s story is determined by how we respond to Jesus’ claim of lordship in the meantime. We find ourselves (along with every person we’ll ever know) on the same horns of a dilemma faced by the first citizens of America back on July 4, 1776:

  1. We can be faithful to the King and live in faith and anticipation that he will indeed reign.
  2. We can be appalled that Jesus’ claims lordship over us and live in opposition to him.
  3. We can try to play it safe and simply go about our own business trying to offend neither Jesus nor his opponents.

The decision is inevitable. Our circumstances have been thrust upon us whether we like it or not. The only question is how we will respond and who we will be in God’s story.

One day, the decision will seem as obvious as it does for us today looking back on America’s Independence Day. Jesus will reign over all creation. Everything will be restored and renewed according to God’s eternal plans for his creation. God’s people will live eternally and immortally, reigning over creation and governing it according to God’s design. We will eternally celebrate what God has done and remember every step we took along the way to be faithful to him, living in response to his goodness and in anticipation of the New Creation.

 

Heirs

Today, let’s consider a couple of New Testament ideas that are sometimes familiar to Christians, but which are not often taken too seriously.

  1. The Church is a co-HEIR with Jesus Christ of the New Creation. The New Creation is our INHERITANCE in the Lord (Romans 8; Galatians 4; Ephesians 1; Titus 3).
  2. When God’s Kingdom culminates at Jesus’ return, we’ll be set in place to REIGN over it (2 Timothy 2; Revelation 5 & 22).

Imagine with me for a moment that you have the greatest, most compassionate, most brilliant uncle ever. From the day you were born, he’s been watching over you -– thrilled with every step you’ve taken and with every aspect of your development. Although he’s very modest and humble, this uncle happens to be the owner, president, and CEO of a multibillion-dollar company. And from the day you were born, he’s been grooming you and inviting you into his business that you might share in it with him. You are his heir. You are his apprentice.

How would life be different if it was shaped by such anticipation and knowledge? What hard decisions would you be free to make knowing this was your future? What circumstances would you now be empowered to endure as the heir to your uncle’s kingdom?

What if this scenario were true, except the reality was infinitely bigger? What if the Kingdom encompassed ALL of creation? What if you’d step into this inheritance for ETERNITY?

How would life be different…here? Now?

“…No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in [that city], and his servants will worship him.
They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:3-5).

This is the future of the Church. This is the anticipation of all those who live in faithful service of Jesus Christ. Though this scenario seems surreal, it is much easier to grasp with the whole biblical narrative in mind. God created humanity to govern creation on his behalf. Despite the initial catastrophe, Jesus put creation back on course. God’s plans will not be thwarted. Creation will be renewed and restored and God’s people will reign over the New Creation under Jesus Christ.

Romans 8:11-17.
Following Jesus and submitting to a life of discipleship is not some religious act. It is the only reasonable response once we understand what’s really unfolding around us. If we believe that things are coming to pass as indicated in the scriptures, embracing discipleship wholeheartedly and with great effort only makes sense.

As with everything in life worth doing, however, discipleship comes at a cost. This inheritance comes at a cost. We must lay aside our own ambitions and desires to be adopted into God’s family and to inherit the Kingdom. If we cling to our lives, we’ll lose them; but if we “lay down our lives” to live for Jesus Christ, only then do we truly find them (Mark 8:35). This was the way Jesus modeled and it is the way for his followers.

Jesus’ teaching. With this scenario in mind, many of Jesus’ parables and teachings make more sense. Jesus wasn’t making quaint, moral points. He was conveying a new reality of life because he was becoming King. He used various metaphors to reveal the true context of our lives and the corresponding invitation to take part in what was unfolding in and through him.

Count the cost. Throughout the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Jesus often reiterated that in order to follow him, people would have to “count the cost.” Christians sometimes interpret these passages as gloomy, depressing demands. They hear the message, “Give up everything you love and hold dear and live a deprived ‘Christian’ life. And when you die you can go to heaven.”

But this is a misinterpretation. To accurately “count the cost”, we must understand both the cost and the reward/benefit. We must know the story. We must know what God is up to. And then we must consider what price we would pay to be part of his eternal kingdom. To be clear, God’s promise is not death and clouds and harps and heavenly choirs. It’s much better than that. It’s far more audacious:

  • God’s promise to you is an inheritance in an eternal Kingdom.
  • God’s promise to you is immortality.
  • God’s promise to you is reigning with Jesus over the New Creation.

This is God’s invitation to you in and through Jesus Christ. So now –-

COUNT THE COST.

What’s this invitation worth to you?

What are you going to live for?

Who will you become in God’s story?

(Excerpt from Reimagining Discipleship)