I was blessed to attend the annual meeting of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (the NACCC) in San Diego last month. I took the San Joaquins train down there, going through Stockton and Bakersfield to connect with the Pacific Surfliner in Los Angeles. Coming back I took the Coast Starlight, which brought me into Chico in the early morning hours. It was a beautiful trip!
But I went for much more than the train trip. Our family of Congregationalists has about 330 churches nationally, in most but not all of the U.S. states. It’s good for us to gather, to fellowship, to trade ideas, to worship together, to learn from each other, to celebrate our common heritage, and to look forward to the exciting future that God has in store for us. With this recent trip I thought I would take this opportunity to share my view of denominations.
Back in Lent I preached a series of messages on becoming a Christian. This can be a sensitive issue. There are always some people who emphasize a specific set of hoops – and if you haven’t gone through them, maybe you’re not really a Christian. Sometimes this is because they’ve had strong experiences and they don’t want others to miss out. But other times it’s because they have a very narrow view of faith, or they’re just very controlling types of personalities.
On the other hand, I can certainly remember a time when I would’ve said I was Christian if I’d been asked. But it wasn’t really true. Yes, I went to a church, but I didn’t have any personal sense of faith. At the time I didn’t care much for the church, and I certainly didn’t have any relationship with God. That changed when I began praying as a teenager. I didn’t know much about God, Jesus, or the Bible, but I knew that God was there. I believed that Jesus was His son, and I wanted to get right with Him. From praying the Lord’s Prayer in church I understood to pray for forgiveness of sins. All this led to an experience of the Holy Spirit when I was about 13.
I think it helps to move from personal experience to look at what the Bible says about becoming a Christian. There are lots of passages that could be referenced. Drawing inspiration from one of my seminary textbooks (by James F. White, a Methodist author who taught on liturgy and worship at Notre Dame), I’m looking at five images from the New Testament…
It’s important to have some kind of ownership over your faith. Martin Luther once said, "Every man must do two things alone; he must do his own believing and his own dying." And James F. White has written: “No one is born a Christian. One becomes a Christian through becoming part of a community with a distinctive way of life involving definite ethical and creedal commitments. This change in our being is marked by sacraments, which proclaim what God is doing to bring us to faith.”
Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are common acts of faith in the church, but we can remember them in light of this famous quote from Billy Sunday: “Sitting in your church won’t make you into a Christian any more than sitting in your garage will make you into a car.” True faith is more than just a shallow level of institutional involvement. And it’s something that no one else can do for you. This is part of the reason why Congregational churches emphasize the right of individual interpretation of scripture (among other things). No one should just believe something because the pastor says it’s true. A sense of personal ownership with faith and conviction is important.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
“When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 ‘As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’ 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. 5 ‘But not during the feast,’ they said, ‘or there may be a riot among the people.’”
- Matthew 26:1-5
In preparing this message I remembered a thoughtful quote from Brennan Manning, from his book The Ragamuffin Gospel. “The choice usually presented to Christians is not between Jesus and Barabbas [referring to Matthew 27:15-26]. No one wants to appear an obvious murderer. The choice to be careful about is between Jesus and Caiaphas. And Caiaphas can fool us. He is a very ‘religious’ man.”
Life has unpleasant surprises in this category. Matthew 26:3-5 describe an assembly of religious leaders. I tend to think of that as a good thing. As long as God has been leading people, there have always been leadership offices of one kind or another. The priesthood from the Old Testament was distinct because it emphasized the mediatorial role of the clergy: These are the people you go to who will connect you with God. It is different in the new covenant, where we have what Protestant Christians call “the priesthood of all believers” Viz. we understand that we all have direct access to God through Jesus.
But either way there’s an air of godliness about it. And the gathering place was in the palace of Caiaphas. Those of us who watched Adam Hamilton’s 24 Hours That Changed the World might remember seeing this in the video. It was a well-fortified, elevated place. It’s easy to think of this as a good thing: religious leaders gathering to make godly plans, right?
But in this case they were discussing a deliberate act of cruelty. They were making plans to arrest Jesus – i.e. to take Him into custody. And they were making plans to have Him killed – this in order to get him out of the way.
And this was Jesus – not some mafia thug. This was the man who had healed the sick, fed the hungry masses, exorcised the demons, and taught a message of love for God and humankind. Why would they target Him?
Many reasons have been explored in both scripture and in history. One political variable that deserves mention was the tense relations between Rome and Israel at the time. Jerusalem had a reputation of a contentious populace. They were used to their own tradition of having an independent Davidic monarchy. They yearned for this freedom. So there was an independent streak rooted in popular sentiment that was dangerous. And it was close enough to the Palm Sunday parade. People loved Jesus; the religious leaders didn’t want some kind of backlash from them – and especially if it would trigger a crackdown from Rome. (And that’s exactly what happened in the year 70 A.D.). But at this stage there was some hesitation since all that was seen as avoidable. The text says that these men wanted to do it “in a sly way” or “with stealth”.
And that’s not much of a qualifier. Violence against Jesus was the ultimate goal. This was a conspiracy for an unreligious act by very religious people – a notion that is both surprising and tragic. It’s both sad and amazing when the people you expect to be doing good and right in the world are actually doing things that are evil.
Yet in the larger gospel narrative all of this is subsumed by the larger working of the will of God. This is one meaning of the grace of God: nothing catches Him by surprise. You and I may be stunned, but God has an eternal plan that’s always at work.
Jesus own words indicate that He saw what was coming. Matthew 26:1-2 are Jesus’ words at the conclusion of His final body of teaching. Back in chapter 23 He thoroughly denounced the Pharisees in a series of seven woes. Then in chapter 24 He gave his apocalyptic discourse, which segued into His three parables of judgment in chapter 25. A common theme in all of this is faithfulness in tribulation. What does this mean? We heed the warnings against hypocrisy. We keep our lamps lit. We persevere in trial. We do the works of righteousness, which include feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting prisoners and the sick, welcoming the stranger, etc. And we persist in faith even amidst trials until Jesus returns.
Then after all this Jesus gave a reminder to His disciples of what was to come. Previously (in 20:25-28) Jesus had contrasted this with the worldly tendencies for accumulating power: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26 It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many”.
So in Matthew 26:2 Jesus makes reference to the Passover. This was a festive Jewish holiday – sort of like the combined meaning of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 4th of July all put together. Like Thanksgiving, there was a feast – not with turkey and mashed potatoes, but with unleavened bread, roasted lamb, bitter herbs, and wine to drink. Like Christmas, there was lots of holiday travel, with pilgrims migrating into Jerusalem to celebrate. And like July 4th it was a day to remember national deliverance, looking back to the exodus from slavery in Egypt and the miracle that followed the anointing of the Hebrew homes with the blood of the paschal lamb. It was a celebration of their liberation from Egypt and their journey to the Promised Land.
One Passover tradition that still carries on is the singing of Hallel psalms, which are Psalms 113 through 118. (We read these psalms in worship back during Lent.) They give a sense of setting. It was a season of light, beauty, and all the festivity of a great holiday in a celebratory environment.
Yet in the midst of it there was this dark conspiracy against the Son of God. It involved violence; it involved plotting and trickery – and all by “good religious people”.
This all can be very confusing, but the key to understanding it is to know that the suffering has redemptive value. It was John the Baptist who used Passover language to point out that the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world (in John 1:29, 36). As it was in the Passover, where the lamb was slain, His blood was applied, and deliverance came by the grace of God – so it is with Jesus in the New Covenant. He’s the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This gives a better perspective on what Jesus endured.
Another quote I found for this message is from Marva Dawn’s book Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God: "In faith, we believe that the terrors of Lent and of our lives are purifying terrors, confounding clauses in a covenant we may nonetheless trust. While they are washing all our certainties away, it is hard to believe they may also be cleansing us of our illusions, but that is the dare."
So we take this dare. One illusion is the cloak of religious respect and authority – as it was with Caiaphas. Another is the perceived infallibility of certain of Jesus’ disciples. And another is the supposed vanity of undeserved suffering. And that all is rooted in the myth of the ultimate dominance of evil and violence in the world – as if evil were ultimately greater than good.
But we take the dare. We believe in the atoning death of Jesus. And when we look on the cross we prepare to absorb a great act of violence that was (and is) surprising in so many ways. But it didn’t catch God by surprise.
I can’t remember who explained it to me, but I know it to be true: The opposite of love is not hatred. There’s too much emotion involved in hate. This is why couples can go from very emotional love to having great contempt. The opposite of love isn’t hate; the opposite of love is apathy.
And there’s a similar relationship between anguish and thanksgiving. It’s easy to think of them as opposites – since in anguish we’re suffering and we’re crying out to God. We’re asking for help. Or we’re lamenting our agony. We may be asking, “Why is this happening?” We may feel like God and life are against us.
With thanksgiving it can seem like the opposite. We’re thankful, grateful, and expressive of our gratitude. God and life seem to be on our side. Sometimes we’re relieved because of what we’ve been through. Other times we’re pouring out our hearts with thankful prayers and expressions to others, and/or we’re just going about life with a spirit of gratefulness. This is the opposite of anguish, right?
Not necessarily. I thought of this while I was studying Psalm 6:1-10. There the psalmist prayerfully contemplates his anguish. He feels like he’s under God’s wrath (6:1). He repeatedly asks for deliverance from his suffering (6:2-4). He yearns to be saved from death so that he can spend more time on this side of eternity praising God (6:5). He talks about crying himself into physical exhaustion (6:6-7) – and in doing so he illustrates the relationship between physical health and spiritual health. Often depression accompanies health problems.
But then, suddenly, the psalmist shifts his tone. He repeatedly says that he knows God has heard his prayers (6:8-9). The language follows his previous petitions. He had spoken of his terror and had asked God to turn to him (in 6:2-4), but now he envisions all his enemies turning away from him in retreat, in terror and disgrace (6:10).
This naturally begs the question: What caused this shift from anguish to thanksgiving? Was there a change in his circumstances? Probably not. Our circumstances aren’t as important as the attitude that we face them with. Our faith is in Jesus Christ, with the knowledge of His death and resurrection. These are the lenses we put on as we look over our circumstances. This can help us to face our anguish, and to come away with a spirit of thanksgiving.
The gospel message is that God is a God of great love. The Hebrew word used to describe it is “chesed” (in 6:4b). It’s one of those words with no single English equivalent, so it’s variously translated as love, mercy, steadfast love, unfailing love, or loyalty. The most famous rendering of it is in Psalm 23:6, which says, “Surely goodness and chesed will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” This is the anchor on which we all lean – and it’s true in all of life’s situations, whether they’re good or bad.
And just like the 23rd Psalm tells us, it’s a love that is eternal. So this can help us to understand Psalm 6:5, which says, “No one remembers you when he is dead. Who praises you from the grave?” This is a yearning to praise God on this side of eternity, which is a good thing. Paul had a similar thing in mind when he wrote in Philippians 1:21, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
So we look forward to our eternal home – to the house that has many mansions that Jesus goes to prepare for us (cf. John 14:2-3). But as long as we’re alive and breathing there is praise to give and there are reasons for us to be alive to God’s purposes. This is something to be thankful for – regardless of what kind of anguish we have to go through.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
The challenge of trying to learn from the Old Testament is that it can be hard to understand. The experiences and commands can seem antiquated, strange, particular, and hard to relate to. I remember reading it for the first time as a high school student and wondering, “What does this have to do with my life?”
But that’s an interpretational hurdle that can be cleared. All of the Bible is relevant in some way or another. So when I was studying for a sermon series on the 11th chapter of the book of Numbers in the Old Testament I found plenty of relevant themes: e.g. gratitude, the work of the Holy Spirit, God’s help with our burdens, the power of intercessory prayer, etc.
A key theme in all of it is trusting in God and in His plan for us. God called the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. For both them and us there’s the temptation to yearn for something other than where God has called you. This can happen any time our patience is tested. For the Israelites it was with their food supply and the lack of variety on the menu. Their sin of yearning for Egypt was really a form of rejecting God (11:20). And Moses, in the meantime, was frustrated with the burden of leading the nation (11:11-15). God responded to both of these needs.
This was directly relevant to us at the stage of life we were in last year. Hillary and I took a step forward in faith to make the move to Paradise. We put our house on market. Hillary resigned her job (and with it the health insurance). Moving almost always puts your life into an upheaval – and there’s a lot on the line. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made. I can think of three times now where I’ve absorbed an overall pay cut to go where God wanted me to go. And it can take a while for things to develop. Our house in Kansas lingered on market longer than we expected it to. Hillary kept putting out resumes, trying to find the right job. And we went searching for the right home to live in.
We just had to persist – being confident that God brought us here for a reason. And eventually things began to take shape. We moved into our new home in Magalia just a little over a year ago. And a couple months later our house in Kansas was officially sold and handed over to its new owner. And Hillary has been working at her job in the library at Chico State University for almost a year now.
I’ve learned to hold dear the expression I learned from a pastor several years ago: “Where God guides, He provides.” The challenge is always to trust Him in these transitional stages – to not look back to Egypt, but to look ahead to the Promised Land. This can be difficult because nostalgia can be soothing as well as deceptive. It’s always easy to compare the best of a previous era with the worst of today. That kind of mentality would send people back into the years of the Great Depression and World War II, or (in the case of the Israelites) into episodes of slavery and hard labor in Egypt (11:5-6).
But God has put us in the present place and era. And the cross of Jesus is a constant reminder of the redemptive value of suffering. God doesn’t always make things quick, easy, or painless. But then the resurrection gives us an even greater reminder that the Good Lord sees us through to another day. And so we pray each week, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We pray and we trust.
During Lent I studied Paul’s letter to the Colossians closely. I would read two or three verses each night before bedtime, and then think about them meditatively. Sometimes people get confused about meditation, as if it were just something for Eastern religions and new agers. But Rick Warren has said that if you can worry, you can meditate. Worry is essentially focused meditation on a problem.
One positive thing for us is to meditate on what’s good in the Christian life. Paul does this in his writing. Colossians 1:15-19 for example is what I would call a Christological mediation. In other words, Paul is meditating on the person of Christ: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”
It’s similar in Colossians 2:9 where Paul begins with a short Christological meditation: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” But that immediately leads into an extended soteriological meditation in Colossians 2:10-15. It’s a deep line of thought about the doctrinal truth of Christian salvation -- a very dense, rich text filled with powerful images of what God has done in and for us. These images include filling, burial and resurrection, death and life, circumcision and baptism, debt cancellation, etc.
Think about this for yourself: How often do you meditate on your salvation? Or, on God’s acts of deliverance in your life? And how does this effect your overall demeanor?
As Paul was writing his meditation developed out of his concern for them. He warned them against delusion from sweet-spoken arguments (2:4). He warned about worldly human traditions, which he labelled as philosophy and empty deceit. This is not according to Christ, and therefore is a form of captivity – like being hunted down as prey (2:8).
This made me think of two Eastertide messages I preached recently from Matthew 27:62-66 and 28:11-15. The Pharisees and chief priests (who were Sadducees) collaborated with Pontius Pilate under the pretense of preventing deception, which is a good motive. Trying to stop a lie or keep a rumor at bay is a good thing. The trouble comes when someone believes that a lie is the truth and the truth is a lie. That stands to corrupt the whole sequence of actions that follow. And this is what happened with these men. Clearly they thought that Jesus was an imposter. They remembered Him alluding to His future resurrection (back in Matthew 12:40), and they wanted to prevent it from emerging. So they arranged for guards at the tomb (27:65-66). But what they got instead was firsthand testimony (28:11) of the angelic event that happened at the grave (in 28:2-7). This they tried to suppress with a conspiracy of bribery and deceit (28:12-15). So even though they began with a mission to prevent deception, in the end they were held captive by a lie.
Jesus said famously in John 8:31b-32, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Lies can pursue us like prey; they can take people captive and lead them away from Christ. But the resurrectional truth of Jesus is freeing. It leads into encouragement in a family of faith knit together by love, bringing all the riches of assurance of understanding in the knowledge of Christ (Colossians 2:2-3), and into a walk with Jesus – being built up and established in him, and abounding in thanksgiving (2:6-7).
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I remember meeting a young woman in a college Christian fellowship group who admitted that she didn’t go to church. She explained: “I know why I go to campus fellowship. And I used to go to church, but I didn’t know why I was going. So I stopped.” This led one of the campus ministers to try and instruct her on the reasons why a person should go to church. I’m not sure how successful he was.
But here’s one way to think of it: When I go to the barber, I go to get a good haircut. It’s nice if I have a good conversation with the barber, or if there’s a good TV program on while I’m waiting. But those aren’t the reasons I go. I go to get my hair done right (with what little hair I have left).
Likewise, when it comes to church we shouldn’t confuse the fringe benefits with the real reason. Paul in Romans 12:1 tells us that “your spiritual act of worship” is “to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” In attending worship we offer ourselves to God, so it’s more about what we give than what we get.
I remember hearing a campus minister talk about this verse, and it got my attention. At the time I was a young man considering my options. I had been raised as a Methodist, but I was wondering: Is Methodism really the denomination I should be in? Do I really agree with their doctrines? I was in a critiquing and evaluating frame-of-mind, so it struck me the wrong way when he said, “If you hear someone say they don’t like the preaching, tell them to offer their body as a living sacrifice.”
I didn’t like that initially, but of course today I’m a preacher and it resonates more. If we focus on ourselves then we’re putting the cart before the horse. Enjoyment and personal benefit are fine when they happen, but that’s not the reason we came. We came to offer ourselves to the Lord. So it’s not about what we gain but what we give. Any benefit we get (and there are plenty of benefits) is a bonus, but it’s not the main point.
It took me awhile to learn this. It helped when I met a man who told me about a time in his life when he was active in a church where the preaching was dull, the music was lethargic, the people were rude, and even the coffee was bad. Why would someone go to a church like that? His answer was this: God wanted him there. He had a deep-felt sense that he needed to be there for someone else. So that’s where he went.
I have another friend who is a retired rescue mission chaplain. He told me once that he talked to people and asked them why they didn’t go to church. If they said “I’m not getting anything out of it,” he would respond by asking, “What are you giving?”
in my present congregation, Craig Memorial Congregational Church, there are lots things we love about our church family. I’ve spent the last year listening to church members and asking the question, “What do we do well?” The answers I’ve heard have been along these lines…
I love the people. We’re such a friendly church.
I love it when I hear an inspiring message. It gets the week started the right way.
I really love the music. Our organ and choir sound so good. It’s uplifting to me.
I really love the teaching. I’ve learned so much about the Bible.
The building is so beautiful. It makes me feel so warm and alive.
There’s plenty for us to delight in here, but none of these are the biblical reasons for worship. We come to offer ourselves to the Lord. And then He takes it from there.
God bless you,
Pastor Andrew McHenry
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals. Opinions are my own and are not necessarily those of organizations I have been with.