This blog is Part Two of It Matters Where You Start and the conclusion of the series, “Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry.” Although Part Two can stand on its own, it might be helpful to read Part One for greater context.
Thanks for joining me on this journey of reflections on ministry. I hope you discover them to be effective and fruitful in your ministry as a Christ-centered leader.
Another important thing I have learned over my years of ministry is people tend to put more faith in the Bible, the written word of God, than they do in Jesus, the living Word of God. Both are important, but one is a written document and the other is a living person.
The Word of God
It matters where you start. It is one thing to say, “The bible is the word of God” and go no farther, and it is another thing to say, “The Bible is the written word of God that shows us the living Word of God, the Word made flesh, Jesus.”
The distinction is subtle, but the difference is a matter of who or what you trust. As a Christ-centered leader, your life is transformed by God’s love in and through Jesus. Your response to God’s love is a response of faith. Where you place your faith impacts who you are as a leader. Who you are is how you lead.
As far back as I can remember, the Bible has been important to me. I learned a lot about the Bible and its importance through my formative years. From the influence of my grandmothers to the lessons of my fourth grade Sunday School teacher, to the devotions I led or experienced in youth fellowship, the bible became an anchor in my faith.
Faith in the Bible or Faith in Jesus?
I was in my first year in college when I experienced my initial crisis with the bible. Up to that point, my faith was anchored in the bible. In my freshman year, I had an “Introduction to the Bible” course. Without going into all the details, my faith was tested. Because I had put my faith in the bible, and not in Jesus, any questions of faith related to the bible, challenged my faith. With the assistance of a trusted friend and mentor, I came through my initial faith crisis. What I learned was, I had put more faith in the bible than I did in Jesus.
Let me say that in another way. Faith in Jesus and faith in the bible are not the same thing. The written word of God points us to the living word of God. Over my nearly 50 years of ministry, I have learned that most people conflate the two, the written word is not the living word. Jesus is the living word in the flesh. The Bible is the written word that points us to Jesus.
Living Word and Written Word
I am sure I have said more than enough to create some anxiety, so let’s move to our pattern of READ, REFLECT, REPOND, and RETURN to focus on the living Word as he is talked about in the written word.
Before we move to scripture, there are two things to keep in mind with each scripture reference and reflection. The first is context. Each gospel writer is addressing people in a specific context. So, we want to look at the scripture from the point of view of their context. The second is the understanding of “to believe.” The word believe in the scripture means to trust and obey. It is an action of trust and obedience as opposed to a passive acceptance of a list of beliefs.
All of that is to say, it matters where you start.
Read Matthew 28:18-20
16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The good news in Matthew is “God sent Jesus to teach us how to live before God.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, is to live a life of righteousness. When you read Matthew’s story of Jesus, righteousness is not the purity of living as much as living in right relationship with God, “Love the Lord your God…” and right relationship with others, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
When Jesus says, in what we know as the great commission, “teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you,” he is referring to living in a loving relationship, working for the well-being of, neighbor, stranger, and enemy. Jesus is referring to the way you make promises and commitments to the people around you. Jesus is referring to forgiving others as you have been forgiven.
Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew writes for a Hebrew Christian community. The people in his community know the Laws of God, but there has been a shift in their faith. They have placed their faith more in the Law than in the God who gave them the Law. So, you have Jesus teaching them, “You have heard that it was said…but I tell you…”
It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. To believe is an active response of trust and obedience in developing healthy relationships, working for the good of others, and living with integrity.
Read Mark 1:21-27
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22 They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority and not as the scribes. 23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be quiet and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He[a] commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
The good news in Mark’s Gospel is “God sent Jesus to oppose all the evil, suffering, and pain in the world.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, is to oppose the evil, suffering, and pain in your communities, neighborhoods, and the world at large. A close read of that scripture implies that there are opposing forces and views at work.
Mark is writing to a community whose life has been disrupted by persecution. He is offering hope in the midst of suffering and pain by telling stories of Jesus restoring relationships. When Jesus heals a man with leprosy, he is restoring the man to his family, to his community, to his synagogue, to his job. When Jesus encounters a man with demons in the cemetery, he frees the man from living life as if he were dead, trapped in the evil of his living.
Jesus in Mark’s Gospel
Over and over in Mark’s story, Jesus is facing and overcoming evil, suffering, and pain. Half of his story is about Jesus’ own suffering and death. The question is, “Did Jesus overcome the conflicting forces in the sanctuary?” Did he overcome evil, suffering, and pain?
It matters where you start. In the story, the unclean spirits know who Jesus is, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” There is no change of behavior. No love of neighbor or enemy. Just a disruption of the life of a man, who knows who Jesus is, but who does not live in trust and obedience.
Yet, over my years of ministry, I have experienced hundreds of people who have given hours upon hours of their lives to relieve pain and suffering, to work for mercy and justice. Again, with his response to the evil, suffering, and pain did Jesus win in the sanctuary that day?
The answer to the question is found in your own living, in your own heart. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. Your response of trust and obedience makes a difference in opposing the forces that separate people from God and one another. To believe is an active response of trust and obedience in developing healthy relationships, working to address evil, pain, and suffering in whatever form they present themselves.
Read Luke 4:14-21
14 Then Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding region. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The good news in Luke is “Jesus not only possessed the Holy Spirit but offers the Holy Spirit to his followers.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, to have the power to communicate across the barriers of race, nation, gender, and culture. When you read Lukes’s story of Jesus, you read stories of the Holy Spirit moving the church past theological, cultural, and marginal differences.
When Jesus says, “let the children come to me. Do not hinder them…” he is addressing the need in the church to accept persons who have little to offer, and who are not candidates for ministry. When he says, “If they are not against us, they are for us,” he is addressing the concern that there are persons outside of the group of disciples who are working for the good of others.
Jesus in Luke’s Gospel
Luke tells stories of Saul of Tarsus, who we might say was theological and religiously misaligned with the new community of Jesus followers, he is telling his community that Jesus is greater than the barriers of theology and religion. When he tells the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, he is telling his community that Jesus cares for those who have been pushed to the edges of society, cut off from the community of faith, and who are not taken seriously. When he tells the story of Simon Peter visiting Cornelius and his family, he is telling us that Jesus is greater than cultural norms and religious laws.
Luke helps his community understand that even Peter, the leader of the whole movement, had to learn that God does not create anyone to be profane. The power to overcome the barriers comes from the Spirit who is in Jesus, who is in the church, and in you as the followers of Jesus.
It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. God provides the power and insight to navigate the barriers that separate people from God and one another. To believe is an active response of trust and obedience in developing healthy relationships, working to overcome the barriers that separate us from one another, and living with integrity.
Read John 4:5-9
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.
The good news in John is “If you have seen Jesus, you have seen God.” So, to believe in Jesus, to trust and obey Jesus, is to trust and obey God. When Philip says, “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied,” he is speaking on behalf of all of us. humanity. Just show us God, that is all we need to trust and obey. Jesus responds by saying, “Have I been with you all this time and you still do not know me?”
John tells his followers that they see God at work in and through Jesus when he feeds 5000 people with loaves and fish, when he heals a woman pushing her way through the crowd, when he relieves a boy of seizures, when a man returns to his family after being healed of leprosy, when he washes their feet, and when he dies upon a cross. John’s good news is experienced in Jesus saying, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”
The implication is that the work of God is seen in the work of Jesus. The work of God’s love is seen in the way Jesus loves. If you have seen Jesus, you have seen God.
Then, as if to turn things around, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” In other words, to trust and obey Jesus is to live the life of Jesus, loving people the way Jesus has loved you.
It matters where you start. When you start with Jesus, people and relationships are a priority. To believe means you will be loving others through your feeding, healing, loving, and serving. To say you believe in Jesus is to love others the way God in Jesus has loved you by developing healthy relationships and living with integrity.
Over my years in ministry, I have learned that making assumptions is an essential part of leadership. But, when you fill in the gaps in your understanding with unchecked and unexamined assumptions, you set in motion a set of chain reactions of bad decisions and miscommunication.
Your unchecked assumptions pertain to the scriptures as well. I have experienced gifted leaders who have been fairly accurate in their assumptions. I have also experienced gifted leaders who have alienated themselves from the people they are serving because their assumptions were not accurate.
The tricky thing about assumptions, especially regarding the scripture, is that you don’t always know when you are relying on them. You are designed, as a human being, to develop shortcuts and to eliminate excess mental processing. The problem is that once your assumptions have been established in your mind, they tend to be enshrined in your heart, never to be questioned again.
When it comes to the interpretation and understanding of scripture, inaccurate assumptions are blind spots that lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings. When you place your faith in misconceptions and misunderstandings, you cause unnecessary pain and anxiety. The pain and anxiety can be cured through healthy self-awareness and a clearer focus on the living word, Jesus.
It matters where you start. As a Christ-centered leader, you start with Jesus. It is Jesus who makes you who you are, and who you are is how you lead.
Give God thanks for the people you met today. How did you experience placing your faith in Jesus? How did the scripture point to Jesus? In whom did you experience God’s love? With whom did you share God’s love? Who is helping you grow as a leader? What will you do differently tomorrow? Ask God to give you the faith to be the leader God has created you to be.
A Final Note
Again, thanks for the opportunity to share a few reflections on my years of ministry. As you already know, a few weeks of blogs does not reflect a lifetime of ministry, so watch for more reflections on ministry.