Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (ESV)
We’ve talked a lot in the past few weeks about returning to God after we’ve made mistakes, the need to recommit ourselves to the role of discipleship, about recovering from letting others down, and about finding our footing again after we’ve fallen into doubt. The ability to rejuvenate ourselves in the Lord after we’ve demonstrated our fallibility is crucial, and I’d like to consider the thread that binds all these ideas together: the concept of renewal and rededication.
In all our struggles and failures, I encourage you not to just return to previous levels of commitment, but to exceed them. We can see this at work in our scriptural examples. Peter did not just return to being a disciple, he became the leader of the church, a symbol of Christian sturdiness after his failure following Jesus’ arrest. His faith carried him to his own cross in the end, but he never again faltered. Thomas also went on to exceed himself in faith. According to tradition, the strength of his belief carried him farther than any other disciple, leading him all the way into India, where he was the first to preach the Gospel.
Beyond these two examples, there is Paul, who perhaps exceeds all others in his change of direction once God’s forgiveness is introduced into his life. Paul starts out as the bad guy in Acts, a fervent Pharisee. Acts tells us he was “breathing threats of murder” (9:1) on his way to Damascus against Christians. This is an angry, violent young man, dedicated to being on the wrong side of history. But after God corrects him, blinding his eyes and opening his soul to the truth, Paul does not hesitate to do more than just correct himself. He rededicates himself with incredible fervency to his new direction.
None of us are expected to have all the right answers. We will, at times, grow doubtful and lose faith, or fail and fall short of expectations. We will lie when we should be truthful, or attack and blame and persecute the wrong people in our lives. We will be Thomas and Peter and Paul, but we must remember to live up to their examples after our failures. All three men made up for their errors and turned their hearts entirely to God afterwards, exceeding in faith and deed what they had otherwise done in harm.
It is only through this process that our souls learn, that we make progress as Christians on our own roads. We must stumble and fall—blinded by our own faults—and then we must rise when we are lifted back up by God.
So, I hope you will look over your own life and see where you have fallen short. Have you broken faith with a friend or failed to trust a partner? Have you blamed others when you were at fault? Don’t let these sins nag you forever. Instead, live up to the example of the disciples, and turn to God.
Be as Paul was after being called by the Lord on the road to Damascus. Keep your ears and eyes open for what service is required of you.
Do as Isaiah bids and, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, And the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (60:1).
Or, as Jesus himself put it, “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.”
2 Timothy 2:5
Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules. (NIV)
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. (NIV)
For me, healthy competition has always been very important in my life. Whether it is in business, sports, or other endeavors, I find that the dedication that occurs when I am deeply involved in something and truly challenging myself is quite rewarding. If I hold myself to a certain standard and create healthy goals, then I am driven and directed—I can get in “the zone,” so to speak— where I feel confident and empowered to accomplish the task at hand.
As king of Israel, David was in nearly constant warfare to defend the kingdom, constantly challenging his mind, body, and spirit, much like the athletes we see giving their all on the court and field each day. Of course we all know about his incredible battle with Goliath, and how his trust in God, not himself, brought victory. As we get up each morning, we face the battlefield. We lace up our shoes, put on our armor, grab our equipment, and greet the day, full of small battles every step of the way from frustrating coworkers to overwhelming schedules.
As we look for victory in our daily lives each day, we must still remember the responsibility we have to represent Christ with integrity. While a little competition is healthy—maybe we’re competing for a promotion or getting a little rough at an afternoon pick-up game of basketball—we should always remember our faith. In the heat of competition, first and foremost, we have a duty to refrain from cheating for advantage. Compete with purpose, not with spite. David was victorious because he trusted in God to bring him to victory, not because he trusted in himself. Remember that.
I strongly feel that fellowship that strengthens such thinking is important. God wants us to always remember that with Him all things are possible, as He is the one that will give us the strength we need to run the race and accomplish the goals we set in life. However, He expects us to remain faithful to Him in all things. You will not find victory in life unless you compete according to God’s rules.
John 20: 24–29
24 Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” 26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (NIV)
When Jesus rose on the third day and appeared to the disciples, Thomas—one who had witnessed many miracles in his time with Jesus and followed him without question—had trouble understanding the account of the Lord’s rising. Even when Thomas sees the Lord, he must confirm that Jesus Christ himself has risen from the grave by putting his hand on Jesus’ wounds.
When I ponder this story, I am struck by the idea that Thomas must have spoken without thought after hearing of the Lord’s resurrection. It’s comparable to your expected reaction upon hearing that you landed your dream job or won the lottery. “I did not! That’s not possible! Is it?” I am also struck by how, in his immediate grief, Thomas must have been taken aback by the fact that his friend and savior lived, and that he was seeing Him again.
In life, we are confronted with the good, the bad, and the in-between. We roll with the punches and we accept what we need to accept. Sometimes, in the span of a day or even an hour, we feel happiness and sadness, or tremendous joy followed by great fear. As Christians, we look to our faith for strength and to God for guidance. Sometimes, however, when the fear is too great or the sadness too prolonged, we trip up. We doubt. We doubt ourselves, others, and God. Even when we have happiness in our lives, it can be hard to understand God’s intentions moment by moment. People who have been through a lot are always waiting for their misfortune to end, and those who feel as though they have not yet experienced the blessings that they desire, often abandon hope before they can allow it to take hold of their lives and their destinies.
Like Thomas, we all need to see for ourselves what life has in store for us. It is hard to blindly move on when we have either experienced turmoil—deaths in the family, illness, or financial trouble—or when we have experienced great joy that seems to demand a payment. In truth, we need to be armed at all times with the Word of God and carry with us the knowledge that if we hold steadfast to our faith, strive to be sincere in our prayer lives and love as Jesus would have us love, the doubt that we at times allow to consume us will begin to fade away.
If you have not had the opportunity to read my latest book, Dressed for Victory: Putting on the Full Armor of God, I encourage you to do so. We have to be ready for the arrows that will undoubtedly come our way that may cause us to doubt the faithfulness of God. Remember:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Ephesians 6: 10-11 NIV)
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.