2012
April 10

NT Wright on the Resurrection

John Haralson

I closed my Easter sermon with a quote from NT Wright about the significance of the resurrection. Here is an extended excerpt from an another really great article he wrote several years ago.

The message of the Resurrection is that this present world matters; that the problems and pains of this present world matter; that the living God has made a decisive bridgehead into this present world with his healing and all-conquering love; and that, in the name of this strong love, all the evils, all the injustices, and all the pains of the present world must now be addressed with the news that healing, justice, and love have won the day. That's why we pray: "Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven." Make no bones about it: Easter Day was the first great answer to that prayer.

If Easter faith is simply about believing that God has a nice comfortable afterlife for some or all of us, then Christianity becomes a mere pie-in-the-sky religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is simply about believing that Jesus is risen in some "spiritual" sense, leaving his body in the tomb, then Christianity turns into a let-the-world-stew-in-its-own-juice religion, instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. If Easter faith is only about me, and perhaps you, finding a new dimension to our own personal spiritual lives in the here and now, then Christianity becomes simply a warmth-in-the-heart religion instead of a kingdom-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven religion. It becomes focused on me and my survival, my sense of God, my spirituality, rather than outwards on God and on God's world that still needs the kingdom message so badly.

But if Jesus Christ is truly risen from the dead, Christianity becomes what the New Testament insists that it is: good news for the whole world, news that warms our hearts precisely because it isn't just about warming hearts. The living God has in principle dealt with evil once and for all, and is now at work, by his own Spirit, to do for us and the whole world what he did for Jesus on that first Easter Day.

That is why we who celebrate Easter do so with material things: water in baptism and bread and wine at the Lord's Supper. Easter is about the living God claiming the world of space, time, and matter as his own. That is why Christians celebrate it with candles and flowers and incense and processions and banners and, above all, music: the world of creation has been reclaimed by the living and healing God. That is why we who celebrate Easter after a Lenten fast do so not with a guilty sense of going back to things that are tainted with sin, but with the joyful sense of celebrating the goodness of God's good creation in all its rich variety.

The full article is here.

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2012
April 03

Your Life Is a Good Story

John Haralson

One of the great things about the Bible is that it shows us many of the failures of God's people. In the pages of Scripture, we get to see Moses' sinful anger, Abraham's failure to protect Sarah (twice!), Peter's denial of Jesus, and David's abuse of power, just to name a few. This is encouraging because we know we are far from perfect. Seeing story after story of God's imperfect people inspires us to believe that God could use us in the world, even with our significant sins and struggles.

But there is a danger here we must recognize. Very often, we can view the Biblical characters primarily through their weaknesses. I have begun to realize that I do this all the time.

For example, take the Apostle Peter. When I think of Peter, where does my mind go? I think about all the boneheaded things he did in the Gospels. Most poignantly, I think about Peter's denial of Christ at a key moment.

Essentially, I often view Peter as a failure. In my imagination, he is someone who talks a big game, but cannot be relied upon in a crisis.

But this is not the full story on Peter. After the resurrection, God transformed Peter into a strong and faithful pastor. Throughout the book of Acts, Peter was the first man out of the helicopter, preaching the gospel in some very difficult situations. God had transformed him from a impulsive coward to a pillar of the new church. His character began to reflect the meaning of his name--Rock. He became steady and strong.

Was Peter a perfect man? Of course not. He still fell short as a transformed man. But, the point is this: God changed Peter in some very significant and beautiful ways.

So what difference does this make? I think it makes a substantial difference. If you're a Christian, and you primarily view people like Peter, Abraham, and David through their failures, you probably view yourself primarily through your failures as well. It is very possible that you aren't seeing the significant transformation that God is working in your life right now.

The upcoming Easter season is a good time for you to start thnking about some of the ways God has already changed you. Get input from people who know you best. Ask them how you have changed recently or over the past couple of years. What you're basically getting at is recognizing how has Jesus shared his resurrection life with you.

I am convinced that this kind of self-awareness is a key ingredient in a healthy Christian life. The resurrection of Jesus means that God is authoring a good story with your life. It is vital that we learn how to trace these redemptive storylines in our own lives.

He is risen!

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2012
March 14

The Beauty of Short Prayers

John Haralson

Like many of you, I am not satisfied with my prayer life. It’s not just that I don’t pray as much as I think I should. This is undoubtedly true. I also I don’t pray as much as I would like. I want to pray more, but often have trouble knowing where to start.

So a couple of weeks ago I picked up Jerram Barrs’ book on prayer called The Heart of Prayer—What Jesus Teaches Us.  For a long time, I have valued Jerram’s teaching because it is straightforward, clear and faithful to Scripture. This book is no exception. I have also found this book to be a great benefit to me in my own prayer life.

In the first chapter, Jerram writes about what we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer”. This prayer forms the foundation for Jesus’ teaching to his disciples about prayer. Jerram pointed out something really helpful. He said that if you say the prayer out loud from beginning to end, it takes about 15 seconds in its entirety. Fifteen seconds…that’s it.

When I think about a 15-second prayer, a lot of words come to mind: perfunctory, hypocritical and feeble are just a few of them. But, in Jesus’ eyes, a 15-second prayer is apparently OK. That’s because God accepts our prayers not because of their length, eloquence or emotional intensity. Rather, he accepts our prayers because of his love for us in Christ.

So don’t let the shortness of your prayers stop you from praying. God delights in hearing from you, even if it’s only for 15 seconds.

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2012
February 29

What Are you For?

John Haralson

One of the driving forces in Seattle is the desire to not “sell out”. Different cities have different strengths and weaknesses. In my opinion, one of the strengths of Seattle is its ability to question certain cultural norms like success, consumption and climbing the company ladder.

This is a good and healthy kind of questioning, because it is indeed possible to sell out. Jesus said quite famously, “For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself.” I think it is a manifestation of God’s common grace that many Seattleites are concerned about forfeiting our lives in the midst of some kind of quest for success.

But there is a potential downside to this virtue. The downside happens when we become driven chiefly by what we are against.  We don’t want to be like the red-state, big-box-retail, working-for-the-Man rest of the country—but at times all we seem to be able to think about is how we are different from “them”.

As human beings, we were created for a much broader purpose than this. It is not enough to know what you are against. It is also important to know what you are for.

True, in a fallen world, there are many things that need to be opposed and we should work towards eliminating. But, we also need to figure out what we are trying to create and foster. This is because as God’s image bearers in the world, he has given us the dignity of positively moving into the world to create and fill (Genesis 1). In a similar manner, Jesus has also launched the church in the world with a positive mission—to make disciples (Matthew 28). We must be attentive to the positive work to which we are called or we will ignore the dignity that God has given to us.

To be a Christian with this understanding of the world is a lot like remodeling a house. It is going to involve some demolition work. Some things are going to have to be rooted out and destroyed. At the same time, there is a positive vision towards which you are working. It won’t do merely to tear down old walls. A new structure must be put in their place.

So what are you living for?

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2012
January 31

Church Discipline

John Haralson

A recent situation at Mars Hill Church has sparked a pretty robust online debate over church discipline. This post is not about that situation. I don’t know enough about the particulars to speak about it—nor do I really think it is my place to do so. However, I do want use the opportunity to say a few things about church discipline.

Before I get to a few practical guidelines, I wanted to get two of my assumptions out on the table.

First, church discipline is really one of the thorniest aspects of congregational life. There is no "Handbook on Discipline" in the Bible. There are some general principles, a couple of examples, and that's about it. There are so many gaps that have to be prayerfully waded through. This creates tension and a good number of gray areas.

For example, should a matter be kept private (Matthew 18), or should it be made public (I Timothy 5)? Is the sinful behavior a "weakness" that needs to be covered in the name of love (I Peter 4), or is it something that needs to be confronted (Luke 17)? Add to this the sins and weaknesses of the people actually responsible for carrying out the discipline, and you have a pretty volatile cocktail on your hands (Note: For a more detailed discussion of the difficulty of church discipline, see Rob Rayburn's sermon here.)

Second, even though it is extremely difficult, church discipline is biblical and therefore a non-negotiable piece of of a congregation's life.  It's not the only non-negotiable piece of a congregation's life, but it is one of them. We need church discipline in order for churches to grow in their abilities to love God and neighbor. Church discipline is also a gift God has given us to fight hypocrisy in the church. This is very important both for the sake of our own personal integrity and also furthering the mission of the church. A church filled with hypocrisy is not going to be an effective light in the world.

So how can we approach church discipline in a way that is productive? This is by no means exhaustive, but I do think these guidelines will help us navigate through many of the challenges of church discipline.

1) Abusus non tollit usum. This is a great Latin phrase that literally translates, "Abuse does not remove use". It means that just because something can be done poorly and even abused, that doesn't mean that thing should never be used. For example, take alcohol. Can alcohol be abused? Absolutely. If abused, it can destroy your life. However, that is not a reason for alcohol never to be used. Rather, we have to learn to use it properly. When we do, it will be a great gift to us (Psalm 104).

The same is true for church discipline. Has it been abused by the church? Absolutely. Church history has several examples of heroes of the faith who have been excommunicated and even executed through the miscarriage of church discipline.

However, this does not mean we should never practice church discipline. Church discipline is really a profound gift God has given us because he wants us to grow in the faith. Sometimes, that means we need to be stopped in our tracks and told very lovingly but firmly that we are headed straight off a cliff. We need to be honest enough with ourselves to be able to say, "You know, I actually need to be under the spiritual leadership of people who are responsible for warning me when I am doing something stupid and destructive."

In other words, we have to understand that discipline is a form of love. This is often lost on us today, as we live in in a culture that prizes autonomy of the individual over all things. The Bible, however, teaches that anyone who merely affirms every single decision we make actually isn't our friend (Proverbs 27:9). Sometimes, a true friend will say hard things to us precisely because they love us. So it is with church discipline.

2) We need a court of appeal. Because church discipline is fraught with all kinds of difficulties, the people carrying out the discipline also need to be held accountable and have their decisions subject to review. In the Presbyterian denomination in which I serve, if an individual is disciplined by their congregation's leadership, that individual can appeal that decision to the regional governing body (i.e., the Presbytery). This keeps the congregational leadership in-check and is helps ensure a much better outcome in the difficult process of discipline.

I have seen this work in the real world. Several years ago, a church in our Presbytery excommunicated a family. The family believed they were wrongfully disciplined, so they appealed the decision. I was on a team of people that reviewed their case. We wound up ruling that the congregational leadership had been in error. We re-instated the family to their great relief and gratitude.

3) Trust the Lord. Most of you reading this blog are probably familiar with Jesus' words "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them". Christians often invoke this verse at the beginning of a small group Bible study or even at the beginning of a worship service. However, the context of this great promise is church discipline (go here for the full context). Jesus knows how hard it is to deal with sin. He knows that all parties involved in church discipline have blind spots, weaknesses, and limited perspectives. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus wades into this mess with us.

Lord, have mercy on the church.

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2012
January 05

Anxiety

Michael Subracko
Reflections on Matthew 6:25–33 Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not l ...

2011
December 08

The Tree of Life and My Suffering Friends

John Haralson

2011
December 01

Some Thoughts on Suffering

John Haralson

2011
October 27

Christianity Is a Fight

John Haralson

2011
October 20

Sinner or Saint?

John Haralson