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Jesus: the unexpected Messiah

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Why didn’t Jesus go down in history as a failure? In fact, why did he go down in history at all?

He lived on earth at a time when his people were expecting a Messiah to deliver them from the Roman occupation. It seems there were many zealots and fanatics eager to appoint themselves to that position. Some even gained a following, but their efforts came to nothing. Most died unknown, and even those we know about are just footnotes in history. However, Jesus is not a footnote in history. He remains considered one of the most influential, if not the most influential, human being who has ever lived.

When he was crucified two thousand years ago, his followers were left in confusion. Most were expecting the Messiah to be a royal military leader who would overthrow the enemies of Israel and be honored by the Jewish religious leadership as king. This would be the proof of his Messiahship and this is what they expected Jesus would do.

Just a few days earlier, he had entered Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowds. At last, it seemed, he was going to make his move and lead them in a war of liberation against the Romans. Then he would establish his kingdom, restoring the fortunes of his people. Those who had followed him would be given key positions. But before the week was over he was dead – executed like a common criminal, rejected by the religious leaders and his followers went into hiding.

No one expected this to happen. Although there were different ideas among the Jews about what the Messiah would do, there were some common themes. Being crucified was not one of them. In fact, coming to such an end would have been high on the list of events proving someone was not the Messiah. So why did his followers continue to believe in a Messiah who, instead of leading them to victory, only seemed to have brought ignominy and suffering on himself?

Let’s look at it from the disciples’ point of view. Clearly, Jesus did not fulfill any of those common expectations for the Jews of his day. Instead of routing the Romans, he came as the Prince of Peace, not even carrying a weapon. He was born in a borrowed stable and buried in a borrowed tomb. He was executed in mid-life by a method reserved for slaves and common criminals. So, why would his followers maintain that he was the Messiah? Why would they not just cut their losses after his death and move on? Why would they even be willing to be killed themselves for this Messiah?

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains it well:

There were, to be sure, ways of coping with the death of a teacher, or even a leader. The picture of Socrates was available, in the wider world, as a model of unjust death nobly borne. The category of “martyr” was available, within Judaism, for someone who stood up to pagans… The category of failed but still revered Messiah, however, did not exist. A Messiah who died at the hands of the pagans, instead of winning [God’s] battle against them, was a deceiver… Why then did people go on talking about Jesus of Nazareth, except as a remarkable but tragic memory? The obvious answer is that… Jesus was raised from the dead (N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1996, p. 658).

Suffering would not have been necessary for the kind of Messiah the people of his time were expecting. He could have lived to a ripe old age, and then have been enshrined in legend and history like David, Joshua, or Gideon. Even if he had lost his life in a struggle against the Romans, he could have had a place of honor. But to live in relative obscurity and then die in disgrace – what kind of a Messiah is that?

But Jesus was so much more than a military hero. He had come, not just to deliver Israel from the Romans, but to rescue all humanity from captivity to evil and death and reconcile humanity to God. And to do that, he had to suffer and die. On the very day that Jesus rose from the dead, he spoke of himself saying, “Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26 NASB).

The full glory of the Messiah is seen on the cross. This was an important point that Jesus’ disciples had missed until after his resurrection. Many still miss this point today. The glory of Jesus as our Savior was not shown only through his power and resurrection, though it could have been. His glory certainly was not shown through any status or position he had on earth. Rather, his glory was also shown in the incredible suffering he willingly endured as an expression of his immeasurable love for those he came to save.

As Paul wrote to the church at Philippi:

[Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8).

After his resurrection, the full realization of who Jesus was, and what he had come to do began to sink in. As his followers absorbed the wonder, grace and glory of both his crucifixion and his resurrection they were transformed. Led by the Holy Spirit, only then did they began to fulfill his “Great Commission,” taking his message of forgiveness of sin, victory over evil and death, and of salvation to the whole world. Convinced of the truth and reality of who Jesus was and what he had accomplished, not even the suffering of hardships, persecution and, for some, execution could stop their proclamation reaching “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” And we today are the beneficiaries of their mission and ministry that was handed on to others who were also faithful channels of God’s own reconciling and renewing work down through the generations.

As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 5:14-15:

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.

In this season of Easter continuing on to Pentecost, let’s take time to renew our own sense of wonder and commitment, as we each do our part in carrying on the Great Commission. It is a message this world needs. It has been well said, “he may not have been the Messiah all had hoped for, but he is indeed the Messiah of great hope for all.”

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For a song about the cross, composed by GCI member Deborah Glenister, see the YouTube video at http://youtu.be/3vVRVbUSt7g

A message for Holy Week

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

There was something about the regional conference we held last month in Vancouver, WA that made it the best one I ever attended in that region (others mentioned similar impressions).

I was still thinking about the conference when I boarded the plane for home. As always, I wondered who would sit next to me. It was a short flight, on a regional jet with two seats on each side of a narrow aisle. If you have an aisle seat, as I did, everyone boarding after you gets to bump you with their arms, hips, cabin baggage and whatever! It is best to stay alert until everyone is seated. So much for the “glamor” of travel!

A fellow carrying a big screen TV squeezed by and then came a young woman who looked like Miss America. But they kept going. Then I saw the young man who was to be my seat mate. Actually, I smelled him before I saw him. “Oh no!” I thought, but tried to resist the urge to judge. The flight attendant gave me a look, wondering how I was going to react. I kept the consummate poker face. He certainly was not the guy I would have chosen to sit with. But I could not help thinking that Jesus would probably have chosen someone like him.

As it turned out, despite his lack of familiarity with personal hygiene, he was a really nice fellow. He was a graduate student who worked with computers for a hotel chain. He told me he had been on vacation. Then he told me (in some detail) of the women he had met (I won’t share the details here). You should have seen the look on his face when I told him what I did for a living!

We chatted and drank a beer together on the short flight back to southern California. As we prepared to land, he told me I was the kind of person he would like to hang out with. I took that as a compliment.

A verse came to mind as I considered this encounter with a challenging though pleasant fellow human. As you may recall, Jesus’ enemies criticized him for the company he kept. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” they said (Luke 15:2). I confess that I have come to rather enjoy this kind of opportunity. I think of it as a “Jesus moment.”

Jesus eats with “sinners”

In Jesus’ day, the people you chose to be seen with, and especially to eat with, established a “pecking order” of righteousness. The self-righteous religious leaders would have probably classified my travel companion as a common and unclean “sinner.” But not Jesus! He sought out the people others rejected. He broke down artificial barriers that would keep him from connecting with those who by the Spirit were open to receiving from him new life.

When Jesus ate with the common, unclean and immoral, he had a way of making them sense the forgiveness and acceptance he offered them. In response, many of these “least” were motivated to receive his forgiveness by repenting and changing for the better. Remember how the despised tax collector, Zacchaeus, decided to mend his ways after Jesus had selected his home as a place to eat? (Luke 19:1-10). There were many incidents in Jesus’ life where he chose the company of social outcasts. I could picture him pointing to the seat next to my odiferous and libidinous companion and asking, “May I sit here?”

It was not that Jesus exalted immorality above morality or failure above success. He was willing to take his message of forgiveness and reconciliation to the rich and influential as well as to the poor and downtrodden. Here is another story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus accepted an invitation to a meal with one of the top religious leaders:

One time when Jesus went for a Sabbath meal with one of the top leaders of the Pharisees, all the guests had their eyes on him, watching his every move. Right before him there was a man hugely swollen in his joints. So Jesus asked the religion scholars and Pharisees present, “Is it permitted to heal on the Sabbath? Yes or no?” They were silent. So he took the man, healed him, and sent him on his way (Luke 14:1-6, The Message Bible).

The prim and proper guests were outraged, since they were not at all ready to repent and receive anything from Jesus. So Jesus could only show them the way forward by exposing their pride and hypocrisy and instructing them to try a whole different way of relating to others:

“The next time you put on a dinner” he told his host, “don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people” (vv. 12–14).

Since they wouldn’t repent and receive from Jesus now, he opens the door to them for doing so in the future.

I realize that social convention and custom have their place, but I more strongly identify with Jesus’ behavior that deemphasized the significance of social barriers when it comes to extending God’s own hospitality to others. All such distinctions, categories, evaluations and pigeonholes should be left behind when we dine with Jesus.

Surely we should keep this in mind during Holy Week when we will partake of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus welcomes his dinner companions into a new family – the household and family of God. There, as the Apostle Paul says, we enter into our new life of communion in Christ. Jesus invites us all to his table. And as we gather ’round for that meal, we are reminded of the future Messianic banquet which will host those from every land, nation and people. Then, we will celebrate the coming of his Kingdom in fullness, the first course of a banquet that never ends.

The mood of Holy Week, including our time at the Lord’s Table, is one of holiness, joy, confidence and hope as Easter approaches, when we will celebrate the resurrection of our Lord and King. Let’s enjoy it, wherever and whoever we are, being especially ready to welcome the stranger as Christ himself has welcomed us.

With love, in Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

The written word reveals the Living Word

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In our Statement of Beliefs, in the section concerning the Bible, we say this:

The Holy Scriptures are by God’s grace sanctified to serve as his inspired Word and faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the gospel. They are the fully reliable record of God’s revelation to humanity culminating in his self-revelation in the incarnate Son. As such, the Holy Scriptures are foundational to the church and infallible in all matters of faith and salvation.

This is a carefully worded statement, and we took a lot of time to formulate it. It is important in what it does not say as much as in what it does. You see, although as Christians we must take the Bible very seriously, it is also possible to get into trouble by regarding it as more than what it is. It seems that we know that the Bible is not equal to God even when we sometimes mistakenly behave or speak as if this were the case. No one prays to their Bible or believes the Bible will forgive their sin or raise them from the dead. But there have been some well-intended theologians who have regarded the words of the Bible as the highest or most direct revelation from God – in effect worshipping Father, Son and Holy Scriptures. This error even has its own name – bibliolatry.

This was the problem the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had. Jesus told them, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life” (John 5:39-40).

Notice that Jesus did not say that the written scriptures give life. Regarding the scriptures, of themselves, in this way, misses the point. Scripture testifies to the truth and reality of God’s Word becoming incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. The scriptures point to Jesus who is himself the resurrection and the life. This truth was something the religious leaders refused to accept, and so their whole understanding went awry, leading them to reject Jesus as their Messiah. Like many people today, they didn’t comprehend the distinction between the Bible as the written revelation that prepares us for and directs us to Jesus himself, who alone is the personal self-revelation of God.

I realize that statement may raise eyebrows in some circles. Some may worry that it downplays the importance of the Bible. But it does nothing of the kind. Rather, it properly relates the two different forms of revelation. I have tried to explain it in sermons by saying that Jesus is the Living Word and the Bible is the written word. The written word conveys life to us only because its author (the Living Word) is personally present by the Spirit and speaks again to our very spirits when we read and listen to it.

In the Bible, the Living Word is revealed using human language, expressed in multiple literary genres (poetry, prose, etc.), from within various historical and cultural contexts. The Bible tells the story of how God has worked in human history, most especially in ancient Israel, preparing them (and us) to recognize and receive in faith the salvation accomplished on earth by God’s Son, the Living Word.

Thinking along these lines, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Reflections on the Bible). Indeed, the Bible is the only ancient book you can read where the author is still alive and with you, opening and guiding you to faithful understanding and holy communion with him.

This is the glorious purpose for the Bible and we err in trying to make it serve other ends. But we also err by not receiving it in faith for all that it is, namely, a God-inspired gift given to reveal a perfect God (and his perfect plan) even while using a limited, human media.

The apostle Paul, who knew the scriptures inside out, spent much time in his letters explaining how what we call the Old Testament needed to be interpreted in the light of Jesus, even if that meant jettisoning some “carved in stone” ideas that people held about Scripture. Ironically, many today still approach the Bible without giving due consideration to the nature of language, the importance of historical context and the particular reason the various authors wrote what they did.

We should not demand that the Bible serve purposes and function in ways that it does not claim for itself. We do not thereby honor Scripture even if we assert that by doing so we are giving it some kind of greater “perfection.” Examples of this kind of mistake would be turning the Bible into a textbook of science or history, or regarding it as a handbook of instruction about every aspect of human existence.

Let us value the Bible for what it is – a unique, reliable and authoritative guide that, as Paul wrote to Timothy, can make us “wise unto salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15). How marvelous that God can use human language, with all its limitations, to give us an authentic revelation of his Son! Without the risen Lord, the Bible would be just another ancient book and could not lead us to eternal life. But since this written word belongs to and faithfully serves the Living Word, as we hear it proclaimed we are led to the Savior in whom we put our faith, hope and love.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Reaching out with the gospel

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

What is the best, most effective way to share the gospel with others? This is a question our church has been discussing as long as I can remember. And I think I can say with some confidence that we have tried just about everything except the Goodyear blimp.

We have published millions of magazines and booklets, used radio and network television, launched evangelistic personal campaigns – and in recent years we have experimented with web casts and other types of social media.

Which of these has been the most effective? It’s very hard to quantify the results. Some work for a time, and then the novelty wears off. Others seem to be effective, until we add up the cost. Then there are those methods which generate a huge initial response, but very little actual returns. Like the Plain Truth Newsstand programs. Or the advertisements we put in the Reader’s Digest about forty years ago. Believe it or not, our offices still get the occasional request for literature from those.

But is there one method that is the most effective? Yes there is.

Many of you will remember Ed Stetzer who was a guest speaker at our International Conference two years ago in Orlando. Ed is a missiologist and the president of LifeWay Research, and he provided us with a helpful, humorous and colorful presentation on evangelism. He noted that while driving down the interstate, especially in the “Bible belt” in the USA, you will come across some interesting billboards and marquees, set up by well-meaning religious organizations that seem to have more enthusiasm than theological insight and marketing savvy. Here are two examples:

Like me, you probably wonder what made them think that messages like these would turn people to the gospel. As Ed said, “You feel frustrated at how silly they seem. But more importantly, you wonder about the reaction of the countless unchurched who are reading them.”

Ed has done more research on this topic, and has come up with some interesting information about how unchurched people respond to various evangelistic approaches. He conducted a survey with more than 15,000 Americans, asking them about different methods of church outreach. The survey covered 13 different evangelistic methods to discover ways that Americans are willing to receive information about local congregations. The top five, in increasing order of effectiveness, are:

5) Newspaper or magazine advertising – 46%

4) Outdoor sign or billboard – 46%

3) Informative ad in the newspaper – 48%

2) Personal conversation with a friend or neighbor from the church – 56%

1) Personal conversation with a family member – 63%

So the research showed that, whereas mass marketing methods have some effect, the biggest impact, by far, is gained by the least expensive techniques.

Additionally, the research discovered that some people are more or less receptive to considering issues of faith at different times in differing circumstances. The following are the top five times that people are most open to considering matters of faith:

5) After the birth of a baby – 28%

4) After a natural disaster – 34%

3) After a major national crisis, such as 9/11 – 38%

2) During the Easter season – 38%

1) During the Christmas season – 47%

What Ed Stetzer’s research has shown is that unchurched people are more willing to talk about Jesus than we may realize. But it has to be the right person and the right time. So while the research shows that marketing and advertising do provide support for outreach, they are supplemental at best. Contact based on relationships is the most effective approach.

And so it has been since the early years, when Peter exhorted the first Christians to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).

The message of Jesus is best shared by example, one conversation at a time. Perhaps that explains at least some of why, rather than hovering over us for all eternity in a heavenly blimp, Jesus came to us in time and space, in flesh and blood, in person, face to face!

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

A new generation of leaders

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In my letter to you this week, I want to draw your attention again to an item we featured in last week’s Update. This was the report on the Generations Ministries (GenMin) annual conference, held at the Mt. Lebanon Camp and Conference Center near Dallas (click here to read that report).

Nearly 100 GenMin leaders and workers attended this conference, which GenMin call their “summit.” The great majority of these were younger people–and that is very good news for our denomination.

As one gets older, the questions we ask about the future begin not just with “what,” but “who”? This is not a new problem. The first Christians expected Jesus to return almost immediately and certainly in their lifetime. “Succession planning” was not a high priority. They were certainly not thinking two thousand years in the future!

However, as the years went by, they had to consider how the work would continue after they had gone. They had to consider the welfare of the church after their contribution had been made. For example, in Acts 20, we have the account of Paul’s farewell to the elders at Ephesus. Knowing that it was unlikely that he would ever see them again, he said:

What matters most to me is to finish what God started: the job the Master Jesus gave me of letting everyone I meet know all about this incredibly extravagant generosity of God. And so this is good-bye. You’re not going to see me again, nor I you, you whom I have gone among for so long proclaiming the news of God’s inaugurated kingdom. I’ve done my best for you, given you my all, held back nothing of God’s will for you.

Now it’s up to you. Be on your toes—both for yourselves and your congregation of sheep. The Holy Spirit has put you in charge of these people—God’s people they are—to guard and protect them. God himself thought they were worth dying for (Acts 20:24-28, MSG).

Paul had learned that it is not easy to replace pastors and elders who would put the welfare of their congregations ahead of their own interests. He wrote to the congregation at Philippi, “I have no one quite like Timothy. He is loyal, and genuinely concerned for you. Most people around here are looking out for themselves, with little concern for the things of Jesus” (Phil 2:20 -21, MSG).

Timothy had proven to be reliable. But there was only one of him. So Paul advised him to “throw yourself into this work for Christ. Pass on what you heard from me—the whole congregation saying Amen!— to reliable leaders who are competent to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:1-2, MSG).

I see some similarities with our situation today. Thankfully, our ministry involves those who are loyal, hard-working and faithful. But we are aging, as are our people. Perhaps if you are the pastor of a small congregation of older people, you might wonder about the future—not just what, but who will come after you?

Anthony Mullins (with baton) is commissioned as GenMin director by former directors Greg Williams (left), Ted Johnston (center) and Jeb Egbert (right).

That is why we should all be encouraged by the Dallas conference. Not only because nearly 100 young people attended, but also because some of our middle-aged leaders “passed the baton” on to another generation of young leaders, and moved into mentoring roles (see picture at left). In this way, their experience is not lost, while a new generation of leaders has the opportunity to build their own experience. This is vitally important for the future of GCI.

Our GenMin programs (camps, mission trips and young leader development programs like Journey with the Master) serve as “incubators” to develop the next generation of pastors and other church leaders. We will invite those who show promise for pastoral ministry into the GCI (U.S.) pastoral internship program, which I discussed a few weeks ago. We can help them receive a quality theological education through ACCM (undergraduate level diploma) and/or GCS (graduate degree).

Maybe you do not have many, or any, young leaders. However, think beyond your congregation. The GenMin conference shows that our denomination does have an up-and-coming generation of leadership, and we do have a future.

It would be foolish in this ever-changing world to be too specific about what that future will be like. New challenges, new conflicts and new technologies will continue to change the world, as they have in our lifetime. But whatever the situation, I know there will always be a need for men and women who hear and obey God’s call to pastoral ministry.

The conference in Dallas shows that we have just those people. Let’s give them our wholehearted support and encouragement. In this way we can all participate in the task of preparing for the future and moving towards the fulfillment of our vision of all kinds of churches for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. To learn more about GCI’s GenMin programs, go to genmin.gci.org/. To learn more about the GCI (U.S.) pastoral internship program, go to mindev.gci.org/internships.htm.

Place-sharing with Jesus

Copyright 1984 Doug Hall and Christianity Today International/BuildingChurchLeaders.com. Used with permission.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Many of you reading this are leaders in GCI churches and denominational ministries. And as the cartoon above suggests, sometimes you are inundated with offers of books, programs, consultants and the like that tend to emphasize efficient program management and guaranteed results more than what is central to Christian ministry—journeying with Jesus as he, through the Holy Spirit, fulfills the Father’s mission to our world.

Theologian and Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to what Jesus is doing in the world as our Lord’s ongoing “place-sharing” ministry. The gospel declares that the incarnate Son of God, through the Holy Spirit, is sharing the “place” or life situation with every person on earth and is at work acting on their behalf.

Many people are blind to this presence and activity of Jesus in their lives. We refer to these people as nonbelievers. However, Jesus, their true Shepherd, refers compassionately to them as his “lost” sheep (Luke 15:4). As believers who know Jesus as their Shepherd (John 10:11, 14), we are aware of his place-sharing ministry and his call to us to join with him in “finding” his lost sheep.

If we are to join actively in what Jesus is doing, we must hear his voice. We must discern the nature of his ongoing place-sharing activity in the world around us, and the nature of his call to us as a community of believers to join in. This participation is not a pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all program. Rather, it is a dynamic, active lifestyle that involves us in Jesus’ missional life, being lived out through the Holy Spirit in our world.

So what place, then, do programs and consulting services have in that context? Theologian Thomas F. Torrance referred to the church’s organizational structures and programs as “scaffolds” that, when used appropriately, can greatly assist the church in doing what it is called to do. Sadly, structures and programs can begin to take on a life of their own, being seen as the ministry itself, rather than as tools to facilitate ministry. When that happens, they become impediments to participation. Scaffolds can be a help to construction, but they can also be used as frameworks for hanging people! Obviously, we need to be selective and discerning in how we use them.

Thankfully, some books, programs and consulting services are helpful scaffolds. They teach us skills of discernment, and processes and approaches that help us join with Jesus in his place-sharing ministry. GCI U.S. Church Administration and Development (CAD) offers US churches one such resource. It’s called Transformational Church (TC) Consulting. It utilizes a survey instrument produced by LifeWay (called the Transformational Church Assessment Tool) that assists congregations in discerning the work that Jesus has been doing among them.

The survey is followed by a daylong Discovery Retreat. At this retreat, which is facilitated by a CAD consultant trained and certified by LifeWay, congregational leaders come together to clarify the Lord’s call to them to share more effectively in the work that he has for them. Following the retreat, the CAD consultant prepares a report that gives form to what the congregation has discerned and committed to do.

For information about CAD’s TC consulting services go to http://mindev.gci.org/services.htm (look under consulting services). For those who do not have access to a CAD consultant, it would be helpful to read and then discuss the book Transformational Church, creating a new scorecard for congregations (by Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer, B&H, 2009).

I am deeply grateful that God has given us a theology that grounds us in the love and life of Christ, and helps us understand more clearly the nature of his ongoing work, and thus of our work. This theology helps us to use wisely and effectively certain helpful ministry tools. My prayer is that our understanding of all these matters will continue to grow so that our ministry activity will be even more focused on what really counts—a life of place-sharing with Jesus.

It is a joy to share the journey with you.

In Christ’s service,

Joseph Tkach

Our mission and vision

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We have just concluded the first of our 2012 US regional conferences. GCI members and friends gathered in Ontario, CA for three days of worship, dialog and presentations. I always look forward to these conferences—they are wonderful opportunities to renew old friendships and make new ones. Several more conferences are scheduled around the nation this year. I urge you to attend if you can.

Sharing our mission and vision

At our conferences, I’m often asked to cast a vision for our denomination’s future in the way a CEO might cast a vision for a business. Though, for practical reasons, churches must embrace certain business practices, the Biblical model for leading the church is that of a shepherd or farmer rather than a business executive. This does not mean, of course, that we are called to sit back and do nothing. However, it explains why my approach is not to cast a vision but to gather a vision. Let me explain.

In the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul wrote: “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Romans 5:3-5, The Message Bible).

This passage describes the sense of hope and expectancy that I feel as I receive reports concerning what our congregations around the world are experiencing in Christ’s service. We have moved from being a denomination where our congregations existed to support a work that emanated from a central headquarters, to a network of congregations that are working under the overall umbrella of the denomination. Now, each congregation seizes opportunities that God presents to them locally to advance the overall work of the church globally.

Ontario, CA regional conference audience (click to enlarge)

I have the privilege of telling the stories of many of these congregations in my presentation at the regional conferences. Like Paul who couldn’t “round up enough containers” to hold everything, I do not have enough time to tell all the stories about the marvelous things the Holy Spirit is doing through our congregations. From these reports, I gather a picture of what God is doing with and through us. And that collage, rather than grandiose ideas I might come up with, is what frames my vision for our future as a denomination.

With that in mind, let me now share with you some thoughts concerning our mission and vision that I shared at the first of our 2012 regional conferences.

What is our mission?

Grace Communion International is a people called together by God to share in the ministry that Jesus is doing through the Holy Spirit in our world. We are a communion of churches and denominational ministries with a shared mission, which is taking us toward the realization of a shared vision.

We are called to the same mission as all other followers of Jesus—it’s often referred to as The Great Commission. There are a number of ways to summarize this mission. We do so in our denominational motto: Living and Sharing the Gospel.

This motto, which appears in our denominational logo (see above), is not just a catchy slogan. It encapsulates our sense of calling to lock arms, sharing together in what Jesus is doing in our world, through the Holy Spirit, to fulfill the Father’s mission. We can expand this into a more complete mission statement: Grace Communion International is committed to living and sharing the good news of what God has done through Jesus Christ.

We pursue this mission by:

  • Building healthy, Christ centered congregations that are sanctuaries of worship, friendship and nurturing pastoral care.
  • Providing sound biblical teaching through our congregations, media and personal outreach in ways that are relevant and meaningful to people of diverse backgrounds and ages.
  • Equipping people for Christian service so that the gospel can be known, understood and experienced.
  • Sharing in the work of the gospel with the broader Christian community, acknowledging that we can learn from one another and that Christ’s love goes beyond denominational boundaries.
  • Expressing the love of God to all through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

The result of this mission focused work is lives transformed by the gospel, one person at a time. This is actually Jesus’ mission—and we are called to share in it with him. Through eyes of faith, we are able to see the transforming presence and activity of God that others are not yet seeing. It is not about us “taking God to people,” but rather helping people see the God who already is sharing his life and love with them. It’s not about helping people “find” Jesus, but of showing them the creative, life giving Savior who, through the Holy Spirit, is already present and at work in their lives.

What is our vision?

Our vision is a faith and hope-filled glimpse of what GCI will continue to become as we pursue our mission to live and share the gospel. We summarize our collective vision this way:

All kinds of churches for all kinds of people in all kinds of places.

Expanding it, we can say: Grace Communion International exists to help each congregation of Grace Communion International attain its God-given potential. Why this emphasis on local congregations? Because it is my belief that God’s primary instrument for realizing our collective vision is healthy local churches—here in the US and around the world. As I look ahead, I see us becoming more and more a growing, loving community of congregations that are dynamically living out God’s mission in a broken world, and that excites me!

Our core identity (who we are) is founded on our communion with the Father and Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And who we are drives what we do—our passionate participation in what God is doing in the world. In this way, our mission gives shape to our vision.

I look forward to sharing more about these things at future US regional conferences and on trips to other parts of the world. I hope to see you there!

Your brother in Christ,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. For locations and other information of future US regional conferences, see our web site (www.gci.org/event/12/conferences). Also, be sure to note in this issue the article (linked above, left) telling about our new US military chaplain support ministry.

Prediction addiction

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

I can relate to the cartoon above (used with permission). I am a moderate gadget person. I enjoy my smart phone and am slightly envious of my wife’s sleek flat screen television in her craft room. But I still hold on to the old-fashioned tube kind in my den.

Technology is changing the lives of even the most technologically challenged of us. If only we could make the same kind of progress with war, or poverty, or hunger and disease. Even developed nations seem to be in danger of economic collapse these days. Experts in international politics and finances disagree about the seriousness of the situation. Some see peace on the horizon and an economic recovery. Others warn us that things could get worse before they get better.

It is, then, not surprising that there are many people who think we are on the edge of disaster, and that the world is coming to an end.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in international finances or politics. I have no inside knowledge about what is going to happen. What I do know is that I have heard dire warnings of catastrophe “just around the corner” all my life. These warnings were not from experts, based on experience or a careful analysis of the situation. They were based on a wrong understanding of Bible prophecy. Doomsaying like this did serve to create a certain climate of urgency about “preaching the gospel as a witness before the end came.” At least, it did for a time. But in the long run, I see that it also created what I call a “prediction addiction.”

Here is what happens. You conclude from your study of prophecy and its chronological calculations that we are in the “end times,” and that a catastrophe of “biblical proportions” is going to befall us in “just a few short years” (they are always “short” years, it seems). You then “watch and pray,” anxiously (or perhaps eagerly), fitting the events and news of the day into your predetermined framework. You watch with growing anticipation as the evidence piles up.

The problem is that the pile of evidence starts to get very shaky, and the “short years” stretch into decades. Although the pattern of major world events may not fit neatly into your prophetic scenarios, you can still find enough catastrophes to stay in the game, while you hastily recalibrate your prophetic timetable.

Thankfully, as we in GCI have moved into the full embrace of grace, we have come to understand prophecy in a different light – the light of Jesus. It is his light and life that deliver us out of prediction addiction.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that we look at the state of the world through rose-colored glasses.When we look at world history, we see a cycle of corruption, greed and egomania that has resulted in financial crises, starvation and war. History does have a way of repeating itself. One thing is consistent – we human beings do not know the way to peace. In spite of our progress in technology, far too many of the world’s citizens live in poverty, sickness and fear. Indeed, we need help of biblical proportions.

Most of the self-appointed prophets who so enthusiastically plot the end time do at least have one thing right. The solution is for Jesus to return and establish the kingdom of God, as he promised he would. But he did not say when, and he made it clear that it was a waste of time trying to figure it out.

Jesus’ prophetic word announced the mustard seed presence of the kingdom of God and the promise of it one day arriving in fullness when he himself would return. He opened up the way for us to accept his rulership in our lives now and, in effect, change sides. While remaining in what the Bible so accurately calls “this present, evil world,” we can by God’s grace, live our lives now in a way that represents the very kingdom of God. Although not now fully manifested and often hidden, our trust in the coming of our Lord’s kingdom means we are to be people of hope, not doom.

Our role is to show how anyone can have that life now, through a personal relationship with Jesus and his Father by the Holy Spirit—a life that God offers to everyone. Our part is to be living parables—those who embody signs of that coming kingdom. We are to speak and act in faith, and love and hope—at home, in our churches, at our jobs, in our nations.

So we don’t need to waste our time frantically trying to find meaning in the next cycle of world disruptions. Jesus said these would continue until he returns, whether that is one, or ten or a thousand years from now. It does not change what we can enjoy now in our relationship with Jesus. He has already secured our future. He holds out to us the hope of a new heaven and earth. He is the First One, the Protos, and the Last One, the Eschatos (Rev. 22:13). Jesus Christ, our Reconciler and Redeemer, is the Living Word of God and he will have the last word.

So I consider myself a recovering prediction addiction addict. I have stopped looking to world events to serve as my spiritual barometer and only look to Jesus who is the author and finisher of our faith.

In him,

Joseph Tkach

Real love

A Leadership cartoon by Lee D. Johnson.|Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today International. |Used by permission.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Unlike the man in the cartoon above, we don’t view love as an esoteric theological concept. For us, love is real and living, for as the Bible tells us, God is love (1 John 4:16).

How sad then that some preachers and teachers declare that God does not love everyone. They say that God created some people for the purpose of damning them for eternity. I find it astonishing that anyone could actually believe, let alone teach such a distorted and ugly picture of God. Such a view cannot be true for multiple reasons:

  • It portrays God as working within a mechanistic system that in effect robs God of any freedom to love.
  • It renders Scripture incoherent since all humanity is called to repent, yet some cannot since God (supposedly) has already assigned some to damnation.
  • It presents God as capricious, arbitrarily choosing some and rejecting others of his own creation who bear his own image.
  • It divides God’s will between two opposite ends, since God purposes and wills to bring about both life and death for his good creation.
  • It makes God’s character incoherent and untrustworthy since God is equally predisposed to bless and damn his good creation.
  • But worst of all it creates a split in God’s very being so that the Son is the merciful Savior and Reconciler of the world while the Father is only concerned for a righteousness that is entirely satisfied with rewarding the good and punishing the evil. The Son does not, then, show us the Father, but is actually at odds with his mind, character, purpose and will.

Whichever way you look at it, to believe God predestined some people for condemnation is inconsistent with a God who says love is the very essence of his being.

Since God is a relational being living in perfect oneness as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he did not have to create us – or anything. He was not lonely or lacking anything. He created all that exists because he wanted to share his love, his light and life. Note what the apostle John says:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1-5).

So it is tragic when God is presented as a harsh, cosmic sheriff; or when Jesus is portrayed as the good cop, playing us against his bad cop Father. This dualistic viewpoint has Jesus running interference for us behind the back of His Father. It ignores the fact that God the Father sent Jesus to reveal God to us. It is the Holy Spirit who convicts us that Jesus is the true Son of the Father and that God’s triune nature is one of pure, perfect, and to our limited minds, incomprehensible love.

Love is the nature of God’s being – that is, love is not something God has; it is what he is.

It is one of my passions for people to know of this life that we have in Christ. It is a joy to point out that the gospel is a message of good news from beginning to end.

Scripture describes the gospel in numerous ways. Here is how the word is most often used:

  • good news of Jesus Christ — 15 times
  • good news of God – 9 times
  • good news of the kingdom – 7 times
  • my gospel, our gospel – 6 times
  • the gospel of peace – 2 times
  • good news of God’s grace – 1 time
  • good news of the glory of Christ – 1 time
  • gospel of your salvation – 1 time

From infinity, God has reached down, touched the earth, and redeemed it with the blood of his only Son. Whether one believes in him or not, the life that we all have exists only in him. The more we acknowledge and live in that knowledge, the quality of our life is enhanced. It makes no difference whether we are wealthy or poor, healthy or ill. Any joy we experience is the echo of his life, love and light in our lives.

Our ultimate delight, through the Holy Spirit, is to come to know the divine love of Christ. The love that God has given his sons and daughters in Christ is not a philosophical contemplation, a scientific theory, or a theological treatise, but a living and binding love to be shared with one another and with our Lord.

Blessings from my family to yours,

Joseph Tkach

P.S. Last week we reported on GCI pastor Rick Shallenberger’s recent visit to Africa (see https://update.gci.org/2012/02/gci-zambia-report/). This week we continue that report with an update about his visit to Malawi (see https://update.gci.org/?p=8487). I’m grateful to Rick and others who assist me in keeping in contact with our churches in Africa. In some cases (as with Rick), these trips are financed by their home congregations. Thanks to all for their generosity in helping us spread the love of God around the globe.

Black History Month

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

February is Black History month in the USA, in which we acknowledge the contribution that African-Americans have made to this country (a similar celebration is held this month in Canada). For example, the recently released movie Red Tails tells a little known story of African-American aviators who were a part of “the Greatest Generation” and helped defeat the enemies of democratic freedom in the Second World War.

Some people in other parts of the world may wonder why America devotes a month to recognizing the achievements of just one segment of our population. However, the contribution of African-Americans to this nation has not always been acknowledged. In fact, for a long time it was quite the opposite.

Carter G. Woodson

We owe the celebration of Black History Month, and the study of black history, to Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Carter Woodson was born to parents who were former slaves. He spent his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines and enrolled in high school at age 20. He later went on to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Dr. Woodson was disturbed to find that history books largely ignored the black American population. If they were acknowledged it was generally in ways that reflected their inferior social position. Woodson set out to set the record straight. His work influenced the young Martin Luther King.

Curtis May

The awful stain on our nation’s history that was slavery is now in our past, but the effects linger on. It is only in my lifetime that some of the most glaring injustices have been addressed. One of my close friends and colleagues, Curtis May, who is just a little older than I am, spent his early years in Alabama. He experienced the prejudice, humiliation and indignity of segregation. Curtis now heads up The Office of Reconciliation and Spiritual Mediation. This ministry (online at http://atimetoreconcile.org/) is steadily gaining respect and recognition as it seeks to promote forgiveness and understanding wherever there is need of reconciliation and healing.

When I consider this aspect of our past, it leaves me asking how we, a people who sing proudly about “The land of the free and the home of the brave,” and who pledge allegiance to a republic that promises “Liberty and Justice for all” could have allowed ourselves in the past to be so blind, so prejudiced and so stupid. Advocates of slavery and segregation even used the Bible to support their arguments. Could anything be more contrary to the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18)?

However, the problem of racism (and the related problem of ethnic prejudice) is not limited to one nation and is not just a black/white problem. Black History Month reminds us that people everywhere are capable of inhuman behavior. Remember Auschwitz, Kosovo, Cambodia, Darfur and Rwanda, to name just a few atrocities in our time. These are signs of the fallenness of all humanity.

Christianity and racism are incompatible. We must work to not just overcome racism, personally, but eventually to obliterate it through our message and example of love and reconciliation. Our own denomination has had to grow in this. We owe a great debt to our pioneer African-American elders, like the late Harold Jackson and Stanley Bass, and also Abner Washington, Maceo Hampton, Leslie Schmedes and Franklin Guice who, though well up in years, continue to make substantial contributions to the life of our denomination. The patience, humility and courage of these men and their families, and many like them, have helped GCI grow in understanding of the evils of racism and ethnic prejudice. I am deeply grateful for the unique contribution my African-American brothers and sisters have made, and are making, to our denomination.

As Acts 17:26 reminds us, “from one blood [God] made the whole world of humanity” (Aramaic Bible translation). We are one people with a common need for forgiveness and salvation. Thank God that we have one Savior and, therefore, a common destiny. God values us all and Jesus paid the same price for each of us. That leaves no room for prejudice, segregation or discrimination of any kind.

So, as we are reminded this month of the significant contributions and the unique sufferings of our African-American neighbors, let me encourage you to take some time getting to know more of that history. Let us pray for the eradication of the lingering injustices still found in our nations. Let us thank God for the ministry of reconciliation our Lord Jesus has given us. And let us look for opportunities to extend that ministry in the power of the Spirit to those within our fellowship and beyond.

Love from my family to yours,

Joseph Tkach