What Makes Good Friday "Good"?

by Matthew Lautz

 

Hint:  It’s not the crucifixion.

Ever wonder why we call the day Jesus died “Good Friday”? What’s so good about the day a Jewish carpenter from first century Palestine was executed by Rome?

CRUCIFIXION IS ANYTHING BUT GOOD

The death of Jesus was certainly not “good”. It was terrible. Horrific. The Romans were professional killers and torturers, and they had good reason. In order to maintain control and power, the Romans wanted to come up with a punishment for criminals and rebels that would be the ultimate deterrent. The result of their brainstorming was crucifixion. 

The guilty person would be beaten into critical condition and then nailed or tied up on a wooden cross or post. Over many, many hours and often days, the person’s body weight would slowly incapacitate their ability to breathe. With their arms often coming out of joint and their legs weakening, or sometimes broken, the person would loose all strength to support themselves. As gravity wore them down, they would eventually suffocate.

There was nothing “good” about the death of Jesus. He endured the most painful of deaths at the hands of a tyrant empire. He was betrayed and abandoned by his closet friends and followers. And worse than all of that, he was forsaken by God.

There is nothing “good” to see in this day. It was a dark day, ending in earthquakes and blackouts. There is no benefit in the death of Jesus.

WHAT ABOUT FORGIVENESS?

Now if you’re a Christian you might say, “But his death is about the forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that what’s good?”

Yes that’s a fair point. Jesus did say that he shed his blood for the forgiveness of sins. But here’s the follow-up question: What good is forgiveness to the dead?

The dead don’t need forgiveness. Only the living can benefit from being forgiven. If Jesus died to forgive us our sins and stayed dead, then Good Friday doesn’t do anybody any good.

The only reason Good Friday is good, the only reason that forgiveness does us any good, is because of what came next in the story.

THE RESURRECTION MAKES IT GOOD

If Jesus stayed dead then there would be no Christianity. There would be no Easter. There would be no Christmas. Frankly, there would be no Western civilization, meaning no democracy, no human rights, no school system, and no United States (think about that!).

A lot of our lives as we know it hinge on one real historical event happening some two thousand years ago, and it’s what makes Good Friday “good”.

Jesus rising from the dead on the third day, what we call Easter Sunday, is the light that covers the darkness of his death, turning what was evil into something "good".  Because he rose, because he actually, historically, physically came back to life, his death was not a loss but rather a victory. He conquered death! The resurrection makes his death a good thing.

The sacrifice for human sin was paid in death, but the promise of new life was fulfilled in resurrection. What this means is that we can actually have a life to be forgiven. Remember, forgiveness only matters to the living.

HIS NEW LIFE IS OUR NEW LIFE

The good news is that anyone, no matter who you are or what you’ve done, can be forgiven by God and receive new life with Him. The reason that’s true is because a Jewish carpenter named Jesus, who was God with skin on, gave his life on this day, this Good Friday, and then three days later came back to life.

Why is Good Friday “good”? Because death was not the end of Jesus and it doesn’t have to be our end either.

So give thanks today for the sacrifice of Jesus. Remember the torture and suffering of the cross. But don’t loose sight of the real reason we remember the cross…

…because three days later the tomb was empty.

 

Michael Phelps Isn't Fully Michael Phelps

By Matthew Lautz

“With humans it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  Matthew 19:26

I was watching an interview with Michael Phelps the other day where he was talking about his experience going through rehab.  Michael Phelps, if you don’t know, is the most decorated olympian of all time, having earned 22 medals in three olympics.  But he’s also known for struggling with drugs and alcohol, and having been suspended from competition in 2014-15.  As a result, Phelps spent a number of weeks in a drug treatment program in the middle of the Arizona desert. 

And now he’s back and ready for Rio, which kicks off this weekend.  Phelps will be the U.S. team’s flag-bearer during the opening ceremony on Friday, with his likely dominance in the pool to follow. 

But during that interview, I was most struck when he said that he wasn’t operating at 100 percent when he won all those medals.  The most decorated olympian in history saying that he wasn’t 100 percent when he won.  He talked about all the distractions and things in his life that took his focus away.  Imagine if he was 100 percent.  Would 22 medals be 25?  Maybe all 22 would be gold?

Michael Phelps knew that he had failed to live up to his potential.  Why?  Because he got in the way of himself.  In a way, this is what sin is.  Sin keeps us from living up to our full potential.

Think of this famous verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”

What does that mean?

It means that we haven’t lived up to our potential.  None of us have.  We have all fallen short.

I remember one summer in middle school I was trying out for a baseball team.  I don’t know what got into me, but during the tryout I was more confident on the field than I had ever been.  I was fielding balls, making throws, hitting the ball, and doing it better than anyone else.  The coach came up to me and was like, “Who are you?”, as if I had come out of nowhere?  That day I realized my potential.  I was a really good ball player.  But over the course of the season, my confidence wained.  I began missing ground balls and making bad throws.  I was inconsistent and error prone.  By the end of the season I was reduced to the role of pinch hitter, a substitute.  I had failed to live up to my potential.  I had fallen short.  I knew what I was capable of, but I just couldn’t rise to the level.

Do you know what human potential is?  Do you know what you are capable of?  I think we all get glimpses of it.  We see hints of our perfect selves.  We know of the goodness that is inside of us, that deep down we long to be good and not evil.  But at the same time, that perfection feels fully unattainable.  We can see it, but it’s just out of our reach.

But it’s not out of God’s reach.  God, who created us and gave us that potential, is able to help us live up to that potential.  That’s who Jesus was.  God came down as a man to demonstrate the full capacity of humanity.  Jesus is everything that we are capable of being.  The only difference is that while we fail, he succeeds.  Why?  

Because Jesus is God and is without sin.

Sin is what prevents us from being our utmost.  Sin was what kept Michael Phelps from being 100 percent Michael Phelps.  And it’s what keeps you from being 100 percent you.  But Jesus offers a solution.

Jesus says, “Put your faith in me, and my 100% will become your 100%.”  This is the gift of God’s grace.  Jesus’ realized potential becomes your realized potential.

If you know that there is a good and loving person inside of you that just can’t seem to break out, then the only way you can get there is through faith in Jesus, because for you it is impossible, but for God, nothing is impossible.

It's A Full Time Job

by Kevin Budd

My junior high gym teacher was a piece of work.  We were not quite into the age of sensitivity speech and concern for the self-esteem of the seventh grader that is expected of educators today. That was a good thing, because I don’t think Mr. Ludwig had the psychological make up to work well in such an environment. He would have needed a lawyer half way through the first day of school.  I remember on many occasions one or another of my class mates deciding he would help the instructor manage the class.  He would raise his hand and complain about a fellow student’s failure to stay on his assigned spot or some other minor infraction of the rules. Invariably, Mr. Ludwig would yell at the complainer, always addressing students by their last names and say,

”Peterson! You dunderhead! Why don’t you stop worrying about Ackerlund and pay attention to what you are supposed to be doing!  That will be a full time job!”

I always got a kick out of it, because I was reasonably good at following instructions, and I had not the slightest interest in drawing attention to myself by telling on someone else.  And, of course, harshness aside, keeping myself on track was a full time job. 

Some people are preoccupied with the failures of others and are distracted, or worse find excuses for their own failures, in the failures of others.  But what I want to think about with you for a few minutes today is another distraction that can fill up bandwidth better dedicated to what Jesus has called us to do and to become.  In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to squander our peace and joy worrying about things that are beyond our control—worrying about what is going to happen to us. He reminds us of the birds and the flowers, and the hair on our heads, and all the provision that God has made for us.  And then he says, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:32).” 

Paraphrased, I want to suggest that he is saying, “Don’t waste time and energy concerned about things you can’t control that might go wrong.  Trust God, who can control those things, to take care of you.  Instead, spend your time and energy becoming what God has called you to become, and doing what he has given you to do.”

Three simple suggested steps to respond to this very practical invitation from Jesus, if this speaks to you right now:

  1. Identify the distracting concern that is bigger than you can solve and open your hands in a simple prayer, calling on God to fix what you cannot.
  2. Identify a task or responsibility that God has given you to do right now. Identify something that is a step in the right direction to fulfill that responsibility, and do it.
  3. Identify a practice that at this point in your life serves as an invitation into the presence of God.  It could be time in your Bible, a prayer walk on the beach, a conversation with a brother or sister who helps to restore your hope, some time in silence, writing in your journal, writing a letter to Jesus (mail it if you want :0), an act of service for another that helps you connect with God, reading a book that somehow opens you to insight from God, etc.  After you identify a practice that has potential to be an invitation, Do it.

I don’t believe that the Lord is calling us dunderheads.  But I do think that he could be saying, “Why are you worrying about the part of things that is in my control, and ignoring the part of things that I have given to you?” He promises to us that when we focus on following him, he will take care of the rest.  

 

 

Why The President Prayed For A New Heart

By Matthew Lautz

President Obama spoke today at the memorial service for the five officers killed last week in Dallas during a protest against police violence.  And whatever your attitude towards the president or towards the violence, we should pause and make note of the prayer for which the president called.  He said…

“I confess that sometimes I too experience doubt. I’ve been to too many of these things.  I’ve seen too many families go through this.  But then I am reminded of what the Lord tells Ezekiel.  ‘I will give you a new heart,’ the Lord says. ‘And put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.’  That’s what we must pray for.  Each of us.  A new heart.  Not a heart of stone.  But a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.”

I was genuinely surprised when I heard this.  Not that I doubt the faith of our president, but I am often cynical of religious language used in public discourse.  Too often politicians and other public figures throw around scripture like Pharisees.  But in the president’s use of Ezekiel, there was a genuine call for transformation of the heart of our nation.  This wasn’t a boast.  It was repentance.

The heart of our nation needs to be changed because every person has a heart that needs to be changed.  This isn’t judgement, it’s truth.  We are all living with hearts of prejudice and self-centeredness.  We guard what is ours and keep out those we don’t know.  This is human nature.

And this is what leads to our ruin.

Ezekiel called on the people of Israel to look inside themselves and see the evil that had taken over.  This is what the prophet does—reminds us of our sin.

So what is our sin?

We are proud.  We are vengeful.  We are murderous.  We are idolators.  We are adulterers.  We are coveters.  We are hostile.

We are bad neighbors.  

That’s our sin as people of this country.   We are bad neighbors.

Ok, so what does that mean?

In Luke 10, Jesus is asked what the definition of neighbor is.  In response, Jesus tells perhaps the most famous of his parables, “The Good Samaritan”.  We likely all know the story (otherwise read it here) about a man who is beaten, robbed, and left for dead only to be saved by the Samaritan man.  

This story presents us with an image of what Jesus means by neighbor.  And what is the answer?  It’s actually pretty simple.  In fact, he could have saved the trouble and just said, “Everyone is your neighbor.”  But instead he tells the story of a man who is helped by his enemy to show that the word neighbor draws a circumference around the whole human race.  Neighbor encapsulates everyone, he is telling us.  Even our enemies.  Especially our enemies.

So while I live in a duplex in San Jose, California, according to Jesus, an Islamic terrorist from Syria is my neighbor.  While I’m on the side of eradicating racial bigotry and prejudice from our culture, according to Jesus, the leader of the KKK is my neighbor.  While I am against abortion, according to Jesus, the nurses and doctors at Planned Parenthood are my neighbors.  While I am and will always be a Green Bay Packer fan, according to Jesus, people from Chicago are my neighbors.

The president is right.  As a nation we do need a new heart.  A person with a heart of stone is someone that calls other people their enemies.  A person with a heart of flesh is someone that calls other people their neighbors.

Jesus went to the cross, not for his enemies, but for his neighbors.  He died on the cross for us because he loves us.  And by his resurrection we can receive the same heart that he has.  By his power and grace we can receive his spirit so that we might stop looking at others as enemies or foreigners or aliens or criminals, and instead see others as neighbors, as friends.

So I pray, along with President Obama, that we would receive this new heart of flesh, this new Spirit, from the one who has offered it to us by dying on the cross.  I pray that we would stop being enemies.  I pray that we would start being neighbors.

In Jesus name I pray.

Amen.

 

When It Won't Add Up

By Kevin Budd

One of the most striking characteristics of the conversations and sayings of Jesus is the amount of explanation that he chooses NOT to provide. He is often referred to as a master teacher based on the frequency with which he used stories about common things in this world to illustrate and make clear deeper spiritual truth.  But sometimes he seems to intentionally obscure his meaning.  The interpretations of many parables are anything but clear, and have been the basis for differing opinions among Bible scholars for centuries. 


Sometimes clarity on a spiritual principle is of central importance.  But other times it seems that Jesus is primarily interested in securing a commitment to follow him that goes beyond what we can fully understand. 


Consider the things he says about discipleship, or following him.  In John 6:53, he says that ““Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” He never explains this to be a metaphor but he lets people walk away who clearly have misunderstood.  The end of Luke 9 is filled with what seem to be extreme calls for commitment, without explanation.  He tells a potential follower who says he needs to go bury his father to “Let the dead bury the dead . . . “ and to someone who wants to tell his family he is leaving, he says “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”  He states in Luke 14 that no one can be a disciple unless you “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life.”  He even tells them that they must “carry their cross and follow” if they want to be a disciple. He says this well before he has been crucified, and his meaning was almost certainly unintelligible to his hearers.  In these texts, and others like them, Jesus seems to be addressing the question of complete surrender to him, not complete understanding of the specifics about which he was teaching.


I believe in God because I do not believe that there is any possible explanation for the universe as we find it apart from a Creator.  And I believe that Jesus is the Son of God and offered himself to pay for our sins because I believe that if there is a Creator, then he would reach out to us, and Jesus seems clearly to be the most likely one sent from the Creator.  So I am not suggesting that reason and evidence and understanding are not important.  I would not be a Christian if I had not concluded that these things are in fact true, reasonable, and are the best explanation of the facts.    


Reason, and understanding, and explanations are important.  But they are not enough. A transforming relationship with God requires more than that. Having weighed the evidence and decided that Jesus is who claimed to be, we are then called upon to accept whatever he says as absolutely true, whether we understand it or not.  He said that God loves the world enough to send his only Son.  He said that God knows how to give good gifts.  He said that the Scriptures are true in everything they say.  He said that God is good.  He said that nothing is impossible for God.  So we are expected as followers of Jesus to believe all those things.  And if something happens that we cannot square with the things he said, we are to assume that there is something that we do not yet fully understand.  Sometimes Jesus wants us to follow him, even when we do not understand what he is doing.  It is not very surprising that our little brains cannot not add up all of the actions of a God who is everywhere throughout all time past and future, knows all things without learning them, and has no limits on his power.  How could it be otherwise.   

To conclude, following Jesus will always involve following when I am not sure where we are going.  Trusting him will always include accepting some things I do not understand. It has never been any other way for any follower of Jesus. If we love him, then we will trust him.  And it is when we love and trust him that he can truly change our hearts.   

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another: What If That's A Good Thing?

By Kevin Budd

It seems to me that if I could have my way, I would like my life to be trouble free.  I welcome challenges, like learning a new skill, or thinking through a different way of understanding something.  But I really don’t want any real problems.  Uncertain situations or circumstances that involve the possibility of real pain, significant loss, genuine confusion, actual hopelessness, discouragement, fear, sadness.  I work pretty hard to avoid as many of these things as possible.  And I work inside to keep myself convinced that I am never in any real danger from any real thing. Like I said, I prefer a trouble free existence.  

But it turns out that that is not the life that the Lord has planned for any of us.  And that is for good reason. 

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble.” 

And he got more specific saying, ““Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.”  I am a subscriber to both Terminix and ADT, in the hopes that the moths, vermin, and thieves will leave me alone.  But none of those things is really fool proof.  And, of course, even if you manage to avoid one set of problems—if it's not one thing, it’s another.   

But my real point here is not that the world is dangerous, or even that we have to expect that at various points significant things are going to go wrong.  I am wanting to assert the truly nutty thing, that though it is good to seek to avoid problems, and though we would like to steer clear of them altogether, we are actually better off with things the way they are.  If we could be fully confident that disaster would never befall us; if we could find a way to avoid times of pain, and loss, and hopelessness; I suspect that we would likely not turn to God at all.  And that would be the greatest disaster.  That would be the loss from which we could not recover.  That might leave us more comfortable, at least for a season, but we would in fact be truly hopeless.  A French mystic once wrote: “O my brethren and friends, what a horrible thing it is to draw one’s life from God and yet not to love him!” And so it is.  In more ways than the seemingly safe and apparently self-sufficient can begin to imagine.

So here’s a suggestion: Go ahead and try to reduce the likelihood of pain and loss and sadness.  Only a fool would not.  But also, always remember that,  “If it is not one thing, it’s another” ought not to be a statement of resigned complaint or hopeless despair, but rather of gratitude for the tough-minded grace of God. He knows that above all we need to be living from a place of confidence and trust in him.  That is where we are designed to be.  It is from that place that we can truly thrive.  Of course we want to thank God for his mercy and goodness and protection that sustains our lives every day.  But we also want to always remember that he will be enough even when in his wisdom he lets something through the wall of protection he provides.  And anything that reminds us of our vulnerability can help us rely a little more fully on him, if we will receive it as a indication of his grace.  

 

 

Strength In Numbers

By Matthew Lautz

This week the Warriors are on their way to claiming back to back NBA championships.  After embarrassing Lebron James and the Cavs with a 33 point win, the Warriors are at a point of serious consideration for being the best NBA team in history.  Since winning 73 games this season, which is the most ever, the Warriors have been the heavy favorites coming into the 2016 playoffs.  And while they are comfortably ahead 2 games here down the stretch of the finals, the playoffs have been anything but comfortable.  They have been gruesome and daunting, to say the least.  This team has had to fight every battle to win this war.  And what’s most amazing is that they are doing it virtually without their star MVP, Steph Curry, who during the regular season shattered the three point record with 403 made shots behind the arch, which is over a hundred more than the previous record, which was held by none other than Steph Curry from the previous year.  

What’s carried this team so far, and what is allowing them to dominate their Finals’ opponent, the Cleveland Cavaliers, is the fact that they are stronger together than they are individually.  The team’s motto this year has been “Strength In Numbers”.  Anyone going to a playoff game this year will have been given a t-shirt with this mantra on it, symbolizing the value of having a team made up of many members working together to achieve victory.  Whether it’s Klay Thompson, or Draymond Green, or Andre Iguodala, or Andrew Bogut, or Shaun Livingston—this team has had to rely on everyone to rise up and make a difference.  And it’s worked.  If this team was only about its star player, it would have lost in the first round of the playoffs.  But because of its reliance on everyone to participate and contribute, it has been able to do the unimaginable.

And the same is true for the church. 

It’s often believed that the church is built around it’s star players—priests, pastors, reverends, worship leaders, elders, cardinals, etc (if we can consider them star players).  But the truth is that this is not God’s plan for his church.  God has designed his church as a level playing field, where everyone is expected to contribute.  The church is a priesthood of all believers, meaning that anyone who has given their life to Jesus is a needed and useful player in the game.

IN THIS TEAM, EVERYONE MATTERS

1 Peter 2:5 says that we are living stones being built up into a spiritual house, where the presence of God will dwell.  If you think about a brick house, is there a brick that is more important than the others?  Could you say that this brick on the eastern wall is more important than that brick on the western wall?  Every person matters in the house of God.  Every person is essential to his plan to build his church.  

And yet, we also know that one stone bears the weight of all the other stones in the house.  One stone sets the reference point for all the other stones.  The cornerstone is the first stone.  It sets the foundation, and so its angles and measurements must be perfect.  If the cornerstone is off, then all the other stones will be misaligned.  The apostle Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that Jesus is this perfect cornerstone, and “in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”  God’s church is a structure designed to house his Spirit.  It’s made up of living stones, people made alive in Jesus.  And it’s built up, one stone at a time.  No stone is without purpose or designation.  Every stone matters in the house of God.

AND THERE WILL BE A LOT OF STONES

When God made his original promise to Abraham, God told him, “I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore.”  God was making a claim, not for the biological family of Abraham, but for the faith family of Abraham.  And later in the story of this faith family, through the prophet Hosea in the Old Testament, God says, “Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘children of the living God.’

God’s promise to make a faith family as numerous as the sand on the beach and the stars in the sky culminates with the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Now those that believe in Jesus become part of that faith family that was promised to Abraham thousands of years ago, grafted in like a branch to a tree.  1 Peter 2:10 uses the words of Hosea when describing the church of Jesus, connecting the family promised to Abraham with the family built upon the living cornerstone of Jesus: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.”  

The church of Jesus Christ, which God is building into a dwelling place for his Spirit, is a house of many stones—countless stones.  And each stone is valuable and precious to God.  Each stone matters and was placed with purpose and care.  God didn’t make us to be a team that just watches our star player dominate the game (like some Northern Ohio teams we know).  God made us so that every person has a role on the team and is expected to contribute.  We are a team as vast as the stars, as numerous as the sand in the oceans.  We are God’s team, God’s house, God’s family.

And there is strength in our numbers.