After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.”
Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!”
Immediately a rooster crowed. Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly. (NIV)
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and is being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” (NIV)
It is easy in the Lenten Season to become obsessed with perfection. We all try to live our holiest moments around the sacrifice of the cross and the miracle of the resurrection. We iron our Sunday bests, and we are careful of our manners.
But, despite our efforts, the perfection of Jesus Christ in the moment of His greatest glory often only accentuates our flaws. In reaching for perfection, we often fall short. We falter, and we let people down. That last point is often the hardest to get over. We all, at some point, have let down the people we care about most, and sometimes, we even do it on purpose.
Some of us have lied. Some of us have been manipulated. Some of us have given weak excuses to avoid a favor. And we have done all of this knowing in our hearts that we should be better than that. It can be difficult after such moments to look the person we failed in the eye again or even to look at ourselves in the mirror. Yet, even in this moment, we can look back to the sacrifice Christ made and gather wisdom because we are not alone in being so fallibly human. In fact, Peter struggled too, and he can show us the way to recover from betrayal, whether we are the ones betrayed or who have caused the betrayal.
The story is familiar to every Christian. Peter denies Christ at perhaps the most crucial moment of his life. Jesus is in prison, He awaits execution, and His greatest disciple, the man He has picked out of all humanity to found His church, denies Him, not once, but three times. And Peter does so knowingly. He does so emphatically, with curses, and he does so after vowing to the Lord that he would never deny Him.
Looked at so blankly, this feels like a moment from which no one can recover. To knowingly let down the savior of humanity is about as bad as it gets. Based off our own feelings at such moments, we might expect Peter to disappear forever into the disgrace of history. But his story goes on. Peter recovers and redoubles his faith and his courage. When he is tested again in Acts 4, he is filled with the Holy Spirit. He does not cower and weep and deny; instead, he proclaims Jesus Christ the Lord to “all the people of Israel.”
Peter’s story illustrates the power of forgiveness and redemption at the very heart of Christianity. No mistake is ever so bad it cannot be repented, and no one has ever made such a mistake that he or she cannot improve. No fall or failure is so great that we cannot be lifted up again. Peter went from the highest to the lowest, and he rose again back to the head of the church.
We see in Acts 4 exactly how redemption works. By being forgiven, Peter’s faith has been reinvigorated, and when the crisis comes again, he is ready to stand boldly by Jesus. This is crucial to the concept of Christianity, that true redemption requires a commitment to improve, to make ourselves better and stronger in our faith and in our actions.
We can never hope to be perfect, nor to live up to the Resurrection miracle in our own lives. But we can commit to picking ourselves up every time we fall and to walk more carefully every time, always with an eye on what is asked of us, and the power to be found in that divine forgiveness.
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (ESV)
March 28, as you all know, is Easter, the biggest day on the Christian calendar. It is the day that defines our faith more than any other. Though many of us spend part of that holiday painting and hunting for Easter eggs and enjoying chocolate, deep down, we know this is a day about our commitment to God.
But what does that commitment mean? How do we let the light of our commitment to God “shine before others?” Last week, I discussed one sort of commitment: commitment to self-improvement. By letting God guide our motivations, we can commit to making ourselves the best Christians we possibly can be and thus shine as examples.
But that is not the end of our commitment. We are disciples of Christ, and the weekend of Easter—from Good Friday that saw our Lord crucified at Calvary to Sunday when he rose again—is perhaps the best time to consider where we stand on our commitment to that discipleship two thousand years later.
In the passage above, Christ lays out pretty clearly why He wants us to extend our discipleship to commitment not just to ourselves but to others: “That they may see your good works and give glory to your Father.”
Jesus, as ever, led by example, showing His disciples over and over again the sort of public-mindedness He had in mind. I don’t need to recount here all the examples of His concern for the poor, the downtrodden, and the forgotten.
Commitment to discipleship can take on many forms, from missionaries around the world to simple acts of kindness between strangers. Our city, and our nation, is indeed set on a hill. We cannot hide our faults and failings. And that’s how Christ wants it. We are asked not to hide, but instead to shine a light upon our struggle so that others can see our good works, our sacrifice and charity, our love and faith and humanity, in all that we do to make our city glorious.
We are the light of the world, and we must act like it. So, I ask all of you to live up to that light, to let your commitment shine forth with good works. Let your discipleship of Jesus Christ show in all your actions, from the forgiveness of petty insults to the charity you do in your free hours. Always keep God in your thoughts and let that manifest in your actions.
We testify every day to the power of God when we let our better selves shine forth for all to see. This city on the hill of ours could use far more holding back from casting that first stone. Most of all, it could use more genuine faith and charity. “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” says the Lord later in the same chapter (Matt. 5:42, NIV).
In order to show our faith, we must commit, we must commit not just to God but to our city, our nation, and ourselves. We must be disciples of Christ by projecting Christ into our every action, testifying to His love and mercy by our own love and mercy.
There are commitments inherent in your discipleship. Remember that Christ also said, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27 ESV). The crosses of our time—poverty, hatred, crime, and an angry, tired nation—are for us to pick up. That is the key to our discipleship. Let us try to live up to Christ’s example.
For things to do around Pittsburgh in March and April, including a few Easter services, brunches, and special weekend events, check here: http://www.downtownpittsburgh.com/events. I encourage everyone to get out and live life in the spirit of the season of resurrection and and renewal.
“Don't lower your expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations. Expect the best of yourself, and then do what is necessary to make it a reality.” - Ralph Marston, Writer
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” (NIV)
“I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.” (NIV)
I strongly feel that challenging yourself and meeting those challenges head on in order to change your life for the better is something that we should all do. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut with our everyday activities: same diet, same workday routine, same weekly worship or daily prayer schedule. However, when we step outside ourselves and move our own expectations for the norm to a higher level by thinking about what God wants us to achieve, we can see some surprising results.
Certainly, raising the bar can be intimidating and raising our level of expectation might be something that we actually do every day with no real measure of change. However, in the book Creating Your Dream: Confidently Stepping into Your Own Brilliance, Christopher Dorris advises us to go through steps or stages to reach this potential state of enlightenment and allover improvement. Dorris tells us that the five big stages to achieve better results in life are:
• Acceptance – Accept more into your life. Take on bigger challenges.
• Fearlessness – You become less afraid the more you take on and can successfully handle.
• Higher Expectations – As you see improvements in your life, you expect more from every endeavor and every situation, elevating your expectations of yourself and your performance.
• Greater Effort – With higher expectations in life, an individual’s effort will increase or intensify.
• Greater Success – With greater, intensified efforts, greater success occurs in every aspect of life.
In essence, if we expect more of ourselves, consistently holding ourselves to improving despite past successes or becoming better with each new endeavor, we are expanding our own sense of accomplishment. Rather than fearing growth, change, or challenges, we are embracing it all—or raising the bar, if you will—and experiencing a heightened level of expectation and subsequently, a certain level of success in our lives.
Of course, we know this process is only possible through God. We are told in Colossians to "work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord” and in Philippians, "I can do all this through Him." It is through our faith that we overcome fearfulness, accept more into our lives, and raise our expectations and effort. God grants us this strength and demands our motivation to be our best selves.
I encourage us all to search for God's strength and rise to our own personal challenges in our prayer lives, our personal lives, and our professional lives. I want us to spiritually and intellectually explore things that we would otherwise not give attention to. In his blog, The Daily Motivator, Ralph Marston (quoted above) provides encouragement to like-minded individuals with his regular posts. It is important to him to let people know that he is a real person living in today’s challenging world. He is handling the daily ups and downs with the rest of us, yet his attitude and his constant adherence to God's strength and encouragement make him an interesting pop culture reference for the power of positive thinking.
Yes, with God we can elevate our levels of expectation. And yes, with God we can be better for doing so. Twentieth century minister and theologian Walt Schmidt once said, “You’ll never find a better sparring partner than adversity.” In other words, we can all bring our best to every problem. There should never be an excuse for us not to do our best.
For some inspiration and opportunities to expand your horizons and bring out your best this spring, check out the upcoming local Pittsburgh events here: http://www.visitpittsburgh.com/events-festivals/. Those of you in other areas, do the same in your communities.
He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you
But to do justly, To Love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God? (NKJV)
This past Thanksgiving, I wrote about our role as stewards in connection with being thankful. Now that we're well into the new year, I want to return to that idea. With another spring upon us, it's easy to glory in God's creation, but I want to remind all of us not to view this glory with an impersonal eye. We are not just spectators in God's garden, we are stewards, and that position comes with responsibility.
As stewards, we are called to properly manage the lives and resources that God has blessed us with. We often mistake these blessings as entitlements, but we must always remember that the titles we have in life are loans. All the good things we have are from God, and they belong to Him. We must recognize the fact that He has simply entrusted us with managing these things here on Earth. Therefore, we should all strive to be stewards that carefully cultivate all that we have borrowed.
Think of how you feel when you lend something important to a friend — your car or a piece of jewelry, or any precious object with deep personal worth — how do you expect them to take care of this borrowed object? Would it not offend you to see it returned damaged due to neglect, or worse, destroyed by your friend's selfish indifference? Now, imagine how much greater the trust and how much worse the potential offense in God's placing His entire creation in our hands.
Though we don’t too often hear the word outside of the church anymore, we are indeed stewards of the earth, of our possessions, our children, our spouses, and our wealth. We are expected with all these dearly entrusted parts of our lives to act wisely and in the spirit of their true owner. And what is that true spirit? It is spelled out for us in Micah above: "He has shown you, O man, what is good." And that "good" is defined by justice, love, mercy and humility. We must strive to be our best selves not just in church but in every situation, in every location, because there is no part of God's creation where we are not held responsible, where we are not stewards.
The first blooms of spring remind us that Easter is nearly upon us, that the mystery and wonder of resurrection will yet again play out. But with this wonder must come reflection on our own place in this annual renewal. Are we showing the charity and generosity of good stewards? Are we representing that sacrifice and commitment? Indeed, are we living up to our responsibility to leave God’s creation in better shape than we found it? Have we, like the faithful servants in the Parable of the Talents, done our best to leave God with an increase, with a greater prize, or are we like those bad friends who lose or damage a borrowed item because of our carelessness?
One of the greatest ways to fulfill your stewardship is to volunteer your time and talents within your community. One simple way to do this is to support your church’s food pantry program or your local food bank. Simply gather a few cans of non-perishable goods from your cupboard and either drop them off at your church at the designated times or take them to the closest food bank donation center. Better yet, grab your colleagues or your friends and family and start your own food drive. Form teams and challenge one another to see who can generate the most goods or money. Would you believe that just one dollar can provide meals for five families?
Stewardship is always welcome in our communities and homes. As Easter approaches, I encourage you to consider all of the ways that you can be a good steward of the things the Lord has entrusted to your care.
Support the Pittsburgh community by making donations to the Mt Ararat Community Activity Center food and clothing bank. Every second Saturday of the month, 8:00 AM – 10:00 AM, residents from the 15206 Zip Code and Mount Ararat Baptist Church Members can participate in our monthly shop-through and clothing bank.
Also, check out the local food bank at: https://www.pittsburghfoodbank.org/. See how you can help by providing time, money, or goods.
Soul-winning has traditionally been viewed by “church folk” as evangelism or witnessing. As Christians, we do talk about our faith, and we work to make sure that our lifestyles reflect that faith. We pray over lunch while we’re at work, we make sure we attend church on Sunday, and we thank God when we experience His blessings through various situations and events in our lives. However, I maintain that the best way for people to communicate the message that God wants us to convey is by living a life that consistently illustrates the love of Christ through fellowship, service to others, and a sincere faith in God.
In other words, I think that our strength as Christians and our impact in soul-winning occurs when we create opportunities to share not only faith, but life experiences and relationships that demonstrate Christ’s Word. I suggest taking the following steps when thinking about spreading your faith and making sure that it means something to those who encounter Christ through your example:
A 1 – 2 – 3 Approach to Soul-winning
- Check yourself for integrity and sincerity in everything you do. Do you tell your children not to use the word “hate” and then find hate in your own heart when you’re watching the news or a political debate? Do you tell your co-worker to forgive the person who embarrassed them in a meeting, yet give one of your own family members the silent treatment for upsetting you at dinner? We aren’t perfect, but we can strive to be the best that we can be in every situation, admitting our mistakes and growing from our experiences.
- Pray every day. Know what you’re asking for, expressing thanks for, and reflecting on. Study your Bible and know what to suggest to others who need direction and comfort; make sure the verses and your advice are relevant and informed. You are God’s messenger when the person across from you on the bus or next to you in the coffee shop doesn’t know His Love and His Word. If someone reaches out, seize that opportunity to impart your wisdom and your faith.
- Make the time to express your faith by lending help in soup kitchens, at the library, with your kids’ extracurricular activities, in your own backyard with neighbors who need help, or anywhere you think your help might be valuable. Create opportunities to talk about your faith over dinner with friends, at night before bedtime with your kids, during philosophical discussions at work, or anywhere you feel it’s comfortable and appropriate to share.
"Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you."
(1 Peter 3:15)
For more information and inspiration on soul-winning, I suggest the following books:
The Soul Winner by Charles Spurgeon
Soul Winning Made Easy by C.S. Lovett
For a different type of soul, consider checking out the following local musical series from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust:
Soul Sessions with Maysa on April 9, 2016 at the August Wilson Center and Musiq Soulchild on April 22, 2016 also at the August Wilson Center. Tickets available at: www.trustarts.org/events/series/soul-sessions/