New Life Presbyterian Church of La Mesa – Pastor Brian’s Blog
New Life Presbyterian Church exists to glorify and exalt God by: faithfully proclaiming His Word, making disciples, impacting the culture, nurturing the love and fellowship of the saints, and developing passion for Christ.
Living in a post-Christian world means that often our cultural calendars are in conflict with the church calendar. One such example of this happens every year after Thanksgiving. After Thanksgiving most Americans begin to celebrate Christmas or the Christmas season as it is often called. You hear familiar carols in the mall, sales and advertising are in full swing, and gatherings of friends and families and co-workers abound. Then December 26 comes and all the decorations and Christmas talk are put away until next year. This is how we generally celebrate Christmas in our culture.
This is not how the church celebrates Christmas. Christmas on the church calendar begins December 25 and runs for 12 days after that. Think here, “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me…” Now you know where the 12 Days of Christmas came from – the church calendar. During Advent, we anticipate Christmas, we expect it, hope for it, long for it, then we realize it and celebrate it, but only after it comes. Easter is the same way. We prepare during Lent and then Easter comes and we celebrate it on that day and then for the next 50 days after it.
It’s funny how our cultural calendar and our church calendar are so different. The culture celebrates Christmas in a way the church doesn’t recognize and vice versa. What is not funny is how we are better versed in our cultural practices and calendars than we are in our church calendars and historic Christian practices. What is not funny is how our faith is often more shaped by our cultural calendars than by our church calendar.
During Advent we anticipate Christmas…and celebrate it, but only after it comes.
I offer no suggestions whatsoever about what to do about this. It’s a difficult thing, because, as I have written and talked about elsewhere we are citizens both of our culture and of the Church. One thing I think we can take away from this is that clearly our culture has drifted away from the church’s calendar. We are no longer a culture that takes historic Christian practices seriously.
The colors of the seasons tell us something about the difference between Advent and Christmas. You have noticed that our bulletins are blue. Sometimes Advent is celebrated with the color of purple. That’s fine. We have chosen blue to set Advent apart from Lent. But that purple is used in some communions as it is used during Lent reminds us that Advent is a time of preparation and expectation and repentance. The colors of Christmas are either gold or white, regal colors rich with celebration.
All of this to say, Advent is not Christmas or the Christmas season. That’s still a couple of weeks away. Advent is Advent.
Happy New Year! This is the first Sunday in Advent, which is regarded by Western Christianity as the beginning of the liturgical year. Sometimes Christians mistakenly think of Advent as being synonymous with the birth of Christ or with Christmas. But it really isn’t. In fact, Advent’s primary focus is on what we usually call the second coming of Christ. It’s for this reason that you will find the lectionary readings of the church focusing on this topic, this year.
I like what Laurence Stookey says about this, “What may seem to be an anomaly is a very important theological point: The beginning of the liturgical year takes our thinking to the very end of things.” (Christ’s Time for the Church, 121)
This is important because beginning at the end equips us to make sense of the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry. Stookey again,
Only this focus on the central purpose of God in history can keep the story of Jesus from falling into superstitious or almost magical understandings that often afflict the Christian community, on the one hand, or into trivialization and irrelevance that characterize secular interpretations, on the other hand. (p. 122)
Because Advent focuses on the end and because it focuses on God setting all things right, Advent is a time for repentance and preparation. A friend of mine is the pastor of an Orthodox Presbyterian congregation. In his church, Advent is the time they kneel during the prayer of confession as a sign of contrition, humility, and repentance. They stand for Christmas as a sign of celebration. I like that.
Advent is a time for a new beginning, a time to be turned from spiritual indifference and lethargy; and a time to do business with God, as they say. It’s a time to join the church in praying,
Merciful God, who sent your messengers, the prophets, to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
So, Happy New Year!
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints. (1 Thessalonians 3:11-13)
Even for Paul there was mystery in the Christian faith, especially when it came to the work of Christ on behalf of his church. Speaking in the context of marriage he would say, this mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church (Eph. 5:32). The preface to his summary of the rudimentary facts of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension reads like this: Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness (1 Tim. 3:16). Christianity is not in opposition to a healthy and vigorous life of the mind; nor is it in opposition to mystery. It is opposed to stupidity and ignorance on the one hand and to rationalism on the other. When we come to the topic of the Eucharist we come to a topic of great mystery. Perhaps this is why the New Testament writers consider the Lord’s Supper from so many different angles. There are at least five of them.
First, we find the New Testament speaking of this covenant meal as a feast of thanksgiving. Even the word the church has chosen to use to refer to this meal bespeaks this. The word Eucharist is brought directly into English from the Greek word eucharisteo, which means “to give thanks.” Sure enough, then, we hear of the early church, And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46).
Second, the New Testament writers look upon this covenant meal as a meal of communion or fellowship. Hence this meal is often referred to simply as communion. It is interesting that many who refer to this meal as communion don’t believe that communion is actually taking place. Paul sees this as a meal of sharing (koinonia) in Christ’s blood and body (1 Cor. 10:16-17). This truly is a means by which God communicates his grace. Perhaps more than any place, here is the mystery.
Third, the Eucharist is viewed as a time to remember Christ and his work on our behalf. In fact, this is one of the more prominent aspects of the Supper.
Fourth, is the idea of sacrifice. Not the idea, of course, that Christ is somehow re-sacrificed during the Eucharist (interestingly enough, not even Catholics believe that, though uninformed and ignorant Protestants often accuse them of such teaching). Rather, during the communion meal we are reminded of Christ’s sacrifice, that he was both victim and priest—offered and offering (cf. Heb. 9:14).
Finally, there is the idea of presence. This is where the Reformed doctrine truly excels. Christ is spiritually present in the bread and the wine, so much so that Jesus had the audacity to use the word “is” in relation to them. I like to think of state of being verbs like equal signs. Just think of the sentence, “This is he.” Now replace the “is” with “=” and you got it. Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine.
All of this brings us to the profound mystery of this holy meal. All of this reminds us that the meal is really more relational than it is rational. We eat. We drink. And we enjoy. Thank you, Lord, for feeding us so richly.
You’ve heard it said before — especially those of you who cut your theological teeth on the Scofield Reference Bible — that in the New Testament God saves sinners by grace but in the Old Testament salvation is by works. Ironically, there is some truth to that. Just keep reading for a line or two more. Before the fall in the garden God related to Adam by way of a covenant of works.
To him was given the promise of eternal life as the reward for perfect obedience to the laws and commands of God. In this way God’s law was given for the justification of the righteous. God’s law can either justify or condemn. This, of course, is the problem after the fall. None are righteous, not even one and therefore God’s Law only condemns. When it speaks, we do not hear words of life but we tremble under it. Thus, as far as the rest of the Old Testament from Genesis 3 on is concerned salvation has to be by grace and the idea that it is by works is shown to be patently false and troubling to thoughtful Christians (Acts 15:24). This is the problem with Scofield’s statement and with those whose embrace this folk religion. For the unrighteous the law only offers condemnation. Enter God’s gracious dealing with humanity. Genesis 15:6, And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness, is fresh in our minds at this point. Genesis 15:6 is the foundational text Paul uses in Romans 4 and Galatians 3 to build his theological argument for the doctrine of justification by faith. Think about that for a moment. The New Testament writers use the Old Testament to support and explain their teaching. What this means is simple. The New Testament and the Old Testament are not radically different and discontinuous from one another. Rather, they demonstrate continuity. If there is any difference between the two it is in function and not substance. The Old Testament tells of God’s promises, the New Testament of God’s faithful fulfillment. When we take all of this together we can conclude with Buchanan,
Hence the careful study of the Law, as a covenant of works, is necessary at all times to the right understanding of the Gospel, as a covenant of grace: and it is peculiarly seasonable in the present age, when the eternal Law of God is supposed, by some, to have been abrogated, and, by others, to have been modified or relaxed. We must believe that the Law of God, in all its spirituality and extent, is still binding, if we are to feel our need of the Gospel of Christ; and we must be brought to tremble under ‘the revelation of wrath,’ if we are ever to obtain relief and comfort from ‘the revelation of righteousness’ (p. 24).
The New Testament is not at odds with the Old Testament. Instead the older serves the younger and the latter is built on the foundation of the former. This is the genius of reading the Bible covenantally, or in the way it was intended to be read: it makes sense, it fits and it brings great joy to the believing heart and trusting soul.
With the Reformation fresh in our minds I thought it would be good for us to consider a crucial element of the Reformation, namely the doctrine of justification. We will use Buchanan’s The Doctrine of Justification as our guide if you would like to follow/read along.
In the Word, sacraments, and prayer, we are brought back to the source of our life…
Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone (WSC 33). Speaking of this, Buchanan noted that this is “surprising, startling, and affecting us strangely, as if it were almost too good to be true (p. 2).
So important was this that Martin Luther described it as articulus stantis vel cadentis — the article of faith that decides whether the church is standing or falling (p. vii). As J.I. Packer notes, “By this he meant that…the church stands in the grace of God and is alive; but where it is neglected, overlaid, or denied…the church falls from grace and its life drains away, leaving it in a state of darkness and death” (vii).
He goes on. “The fullest statement of the gospel that the Bible contains is found in the epistle to the Romans, and Romans minus justification by faith would be like Hamlet without the Prince” (vii).
And again, “For the doctrine of justification by faith is like Atlas: it bears the world on its shoulders, the entire evangelical knowledge of saving grace” (viii).
In the rest of our space let’s ponder the quote from Packer a bit more and notice that the church falls from grace and its life is drained not only when justification by faith is denied, but also when it is overlaid and neglected. In most corners of the church, justification by faith is almost never flatly denied. Usually, however, it is overlaid with untold number of programs and tangential things. And very often it is simply neglected for something more relevant or faddish. It is not uncommon for us to hear from people who come to New Life that they had never heard of the doctrine of justification by faith before coming here. But we are not immune to the temptation to overlay this doctrine or neglect it for “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13).
The temptation will always be for us to do our part” and for us to begin “by the Spirit“and to be “perfected by the flesh” (Gal. 3:3). The only way this temptation will ever be overcome is by constant use of the ordinary means God has given to us – word, sacraments, and prayer. In these we are brought back to the source of our life, the living lord Jesus, and in him we find something “surprising, startling, and affecting us strangely, as if it were almost too good to be true.”
This week we raise and hopefully answer the question: Why do we pause to remember the Protestant Reformation each year? Let me suggest three reasons why. First, we do so to emphasize our catholicity. To answer the question like that is somewhat ironic because historically the Reformation was the watershed event that severed the Protestants from the Roman Catholics. By catholicity I don’t mean “Roman Catholic.” Rather, I mean, in the most rudimentary definition of the word, unity. That is what “catholic” means. When I became the pastor of New Life in October 2005, the Reformation service was one of the first things that I organized. Each year we host an evening worship service in which like-minded churches join together to celebrate their unity centered around the truths of the Reformation as codified in the reformed confessions and around the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The second reason we remember the Reformation is that we might emphasize our diversity. This takes place on at least two levels. The most obvious is that in so doing we make it clear that we are not Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. The next level is a bit more nuanced than, and equally ironic as, the first point. In so emphasizing the Reformation we emphasize on the one hand that we are a reformed congregation and that we are not Anglican, Lutheran or Anabaptist. The irony is that, to one degree or another, all of the above are products of the Reformation. Nevertheless, they are not reformed churches. Lutherans are Lutherans; Anglican are Anglicans; Anabaptists are, well, Evangelicals. Therefore, by remembering our history we are able to remember and appreciate the rich history and robust theological expression that our forefathers died to preserve.
Third, in remembering the Reformation we tie ourselves to a long tradition of the Christian faith, one that didn’t start with us. We might call this historicity. There is great comfort that can be drawn from this truth. Our church didn’t spring up last week, last year, last decade. Our pastor didn’t invent it. Instead we are tied to a great stream of faithful Christians, one whose theology we share. As such, we can derive great comfort from this for we know that it is bigger than us and it will not end with us. We are a part of something bigger than La Mesa; something bigger than San Diego; something bigger than the USA. We are part of the advance of the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth.
Therefore, as we remember the truths of the Reformation let us return thanks to God for his good mercy to us. Let us be humbled by the gospel. And let us stand as those who are just passing through. There were those before and there will be those afterward. In all this we pray that God would be receiving all the glory forever and ever. Amen.
It’s a very old practice for the minister to ask parents or sponsors bringing an infant to be baptized what the child’s name is. Specifically, “What is the Christian name of this child?” To us modern westerners it sounds strange. Is the minister that disconnected that he doesn’t even know the child’s name? We tend to ascribe a name at birth. I have a hunch they did the same thing in the early centuries of the church and in Israel as well. But the formal naming of the child was tied to circumcision in the Old Testament (Luke 1:59) and to baptism when it replaced circumcision in the New Testament. Evidence suggests that adult converts often changed their names at baptism. What this suggests, then, is that for Christians baptism is the beginning. It all starts here, in the water. Here the child begins his earthly journey. Here she is named. As one author has put it, “All baptisms are infant baptisms.” And the reason for this is that, “Baptism sets a new trajectory, initiates a new beginning, but every beginning is the beginning of something.”
At baptism, the baptized puts on Christ.
When the child is named at baptism, usually her first and sometimes middle name are given. Never is the last name given. And there are pragmatic reasons for that. Everyone knows that the child gets the last name of the parents, so it’s already known even if it has never been uttered. But in a way the baptized also receive a new last name as well. Paul says in Galatians 3:27-29,
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, theirs according to promise.”
At baptism the baptized puts on Christ. What an image! Put on Christ like one puts on a jacket or a robe. Covered and clothed in Christ. At baptism social, racial, and even gender distinctions are obliterated because one’s identity is now that of being in Christ. And at baptism we become heirs of Abraham and to his promises. At baptism our parents give us first and middle names and God gives us the last name. We assume the last name Abrahamson. To quote the author from whom I drew that name,
Abrahamson becomes the surname of every baptized child, and our identity becomes bound up with membership in this new family just as our identity is bound up with the surname inherited from our parents…
You’re probably like me in that when you meet someone with the same last name you have you spend some time trying to figure out if you might be related—unless your name is Smith or Jones. I called a store recently and they asked for my last name. Some woman I had never heard of was in their system with the same last name. I began to wonder if she perhaps married a cousin or if there was a connection I didn’t know about. Were we related? We do share the same last name and all.
In the waters of baptism, we become relatives. We take on the same last name and are claimed by the same spiritual Father and mother. In these waters children become children of God and And in these waters you, too, are reminded of your name and that you have been named and of the one who named you. Here we are reminded that we, too, are children of God and children of the church; and here we are reminded that all of the baptized—even the least among us—are our siblings. These waters are the thread that unites the church. Here there is neither Jew or Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The recent NFL controversy—which is spreading to other venues too—concerning the appropriate posture during the national anthem got my mind running in so many different directions.
First, there is the liturgical path I went down. We are liturgical beings and therefore we need structure and order and routine. It’s just what we do. It’s who we are. It’s all around us if we will look around and see. We need it. We crave it. As such the national anthem serves as the liturgical call to worship of all American sporting events. Very interesting, to me at least.
Rather than merely parroting some words passed down through the generations,our confession of faith is a pledge of allegiance to king Jesus.
Second, I got thinking about the nature of this national anthem itself—this cultural call to worship—and what protests to it signified. Far more than a set of beliefs one is called upon to affirm intellectually, the protests to the national anthem reveal that the American anthem signaling the beginning of the contest is actually a declaration of allegiance to the country. As one stands at attention, with hand over heart, one is not just listening to a song but pledging allegiance to the nation the song represents. And hence the protests— “I won’t pledge allegiance to this nation”—and the response to the protests— “how dare they not pledge their allegiance to this nation?”
From here my mind was drawn back to an interesting book I had read some time ago by Mark Bates: Salvation by Allegiance Alone: Rethinking Faith, Works, and the Gospel of Jesus the King. Those reading the book from a reformed perspective will find plenty to quibble over, but they will also find some very interesting insights and provocative suggestions. One such suggestions has to do with the use of the Apostles’ Creed in worship services.
I have written about the use of creeds generally and about the use and meaning of the Apostles’ Creed specifically elsewhere. When I have done so I have usually done so from the perspective of a confession. In other words, this document is an expression of what I believe to be true. These are the facts of Christianity to be affirmed. And that’s good and right.
Mark Bates, however, encourages us to take the use of the Apostles’ Creed a step further and think of the creed and use the creed in a manner something akin to a Christian pledge of allegiance, “…the creed is not a mere statement of common belief but is the allegiance-demanding good news” (p. 211). To that end his suggestion:
Each week children in the United States place their hand over their hearts, face the flag, and pledge allegiance. Other countries have similar allegiance ceremonies—and all of us who participated in such ceremonies as children…can attest to their power for creating and maintaining loyalty. The Apostles’ Creed needs to be mobilized so that it functions like a flag pledge—to become the Christian pledge of allegiance for the universal church (p. 210).
Rather than merely parroting some words passed down through the generations, our confession of faith is a pledge of allegiance to king Jesus. This is what we believe. This is what we live for. This is what we die for. This is what we stand for. Used in this way, the Apostles’ Creed has the power to create and maintain loyalty to King Jesus and promote unity among his followers.
Every Sunday we gather for worship because we believe God will do exactly what He promised. He calls us together every week promising to cleanse us from our sins, speak to us in His word, hear our prayers and praises, feed us at His table, and send us out into the world under His blessing. As we gather, God renews His covenant with us so that we may live each day in communion with Him and with one another. Because we trust His promises, we come together expectantly looking to our Triune God to work on and in us that we might work for Him.
In his book Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross, Doug Jones suggests that one of the ways of the cross—that is of following Jesus—is the “Way of Community.” He suggests that,
The way of the cross thrives only in a dedicated body of believers, not heroic individuals. Jesus has delegated his mission on earth to his body, the church, the center of worship and effective ceremony. The way of the cross fails if it is not lived in community. It is not designed for loners. Jesus’ way assumes a community of love and commitment and burden bearing. It requires sacrifice and self-detail out of love for others in the body. The way of the cross is deeply communal because, in the end, it seeks to incarnate the love and loyalty of Father, Son, and Spirit on earth. The way of the cross seeks to make Trinity here and now. That is God’s mission for us.
As we gather, God renews His covenant with us so that we may live each day in communion with Him and with one another.
Along with Jones, we also recognize the importance of community for the life of the Christian and the strength of the church. And we recognize that there are many ways to foster that community. To that end, this morning is our annual Community Fair, a time for you to be made aware of what is going on around here at New Life and, more importantly, a time for you to throw yourself into the life of this community. We have many opportunities and we have many needs. As you go through the Fellowship Hall today, you will find small groups, Bible studies, prayer meetings, outreach, service, and fellowship represented.
Please prayerfully consider where you might involve yourself.
To be sure, Romans 1:18-32 is about God’s wrath. Paul leads out with that in 1:18, connecting it to what has already been highlighted about God’s righteousness being extended in the gospel of Christ. The reason we desperately need God’s righteousness is because we are sorely lacking in the righteousness department and “because (for) wrath is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (1:18). That stipulated, an equally important theme in Romans 1:18-32 is worship. Summed up in 1:24-25: Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their heart…because they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the creator, who is blessed forever!” Amen. And again in 1:21: “They did not honor him.” And 1:23: “and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images.” And 1:28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up…”
Worship, serve, honor, glory, acknowledge. All of these are different ways to speak of worshipping God, or in this case, the lack thereof. So, this passage is about wrath and worship, a wrath revealed against a bastardized form of worship, a bastardized form of worship summed up in holy Scripture by the word idolatry. You can see how easily Exodus 20:3-6 runs through this passage.
You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Equally interesting is the way this passage highlights the way worship—in the case here, false worship, but the same principle holds true for right worship—makes us, forms us, shapes us. To borrow a phrase from Greg Beale: We resemble what we revere, and this is true for either ruin—as is the case in Romans 1—or restoration—as is the case with the gospel. It’s something closely akin to what the Psalmist says,
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them (Psalm 115:4-8; cf. Ps. 135:18)
And once we begin to see the presence of idolatry here and remember that idolatry is the “essence of sin” (Beale) we can begin to understand the picture Paul is painting here. God’s wrath is being revealed here and now against a malfunction in the worship of him and the way
his wrath is revealed is in the malfunctioning of other relationships, including things like homosexuality and lesbianism, and disobedience to parents, to name a few. To quote Greg Beale one last time, “…the idol worshippers’ unnatural relationships with others resemble their unnatural relationship with God.”
Romans 1 offers us a fitting reminder that we become what we worship.