When Mourning Moves Mission

Everyone loves the mountaintop experience. You know what I mean. It’s that sweet sense of joy that comes with a deep awareness of God’s presence. Those times nurture us and strengthen us. We need  them. It is inevitable, however, that those seasons on the mountaintop will be met with seasons of sorrow, seasons in which it is more difficult to perceive the presence of God, seasons of mourning. You don’t have to live long on this earth to learn that life comes with suffering, and suffering comes with sorrow. Knowing that experience is unavoidable. So it’s reassuring to know that Jesus understands this and is attentive to our pain. And it’s good news to hear him say

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4).

But is there purpose in our pain? Does our mourning have meaning? Will God bring good from our sorrow?  To answer those questions we have to step back and consider the larger context of the beatitudes within the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon is not simply a list of rules to be kept or a new law to be followed. The Sermon on the Mount is formative and transformative. It’s about becoming a new kind of person. It’s about becoming the kind of person who brings hope and healing to a broken world. It’s about becoming the kind of person who can pray “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). And it’s about being that kind of person in times of joy and sorrow. Cultivating the character described in the beatitudes makes us into that kind of people.  So if righteous sorrow forms us into kingdom people, then we must conclude that

Sorrow for our broken world motivates mission to heal the world.

What sort of sorrow?

There’s more than one kind of sorrow. And we need to be clear on the sort of thing Jesus is talking about. For starters, he’s not talking about sorrow over worldly trouble. Perhaps you are grieving because you’ve been fired from a job. But you were fired because you lied to your employer. That’s not what Jesus has in mind here. There’s a difference between righteous sorrow and being sorry you got caught.

When it comes to righteous morning, there are two kinds of sorrow. The first involves sorrow over our own sin. The second involves sorrow over the world’s brokenness.

Let’s start with the first. When the Holy Spirit begins to convict us of sin, it should produce sorrow. We should mourn our depravity. We should mourn our rebellion against God. We should grieve over the separation our transgression has created between us and God and the negative impact it’s had on the people around us. And that grieving should move us toward Jesus, who comforts us with the knowledge of his love revealed most perfectly in his atoning death and resurrection.

And as we are drawn closer to Jesus, the Holy Spirit will increase our mourning over the brokenness of the world. God’s good world is groaning as it awaits liberation from bondage to the power of sin and death. The evidence of that bondage should be clear to all. The last week brought news of how the British government withdrew life support from twenty-three month old Alfie Evans and deprived him of food, because his life was not deemed worthy of care. My heart grieves to live in a world that cares not for our most vulnerable. I hope yours does, too. Not long ago I traveled to Guatemala and saw first-hand a community of people who survive by digging through the city dump for recyclables to sell. This includes kids who don’t have time for school because they must join their families in the search for trash to sell. My heart grieves for them. I hope yours does, too. I mourn every time I drive by the Planned Parenthood clinic just around the corner. My heart is filled with sorrow to live in a society that sees human life as a throw-away, and my soul aches for the women who feel like walking through those doors is their only option. I hope yours does, too.

From Mourning to Mission

If you look, you’ll discover this second kind of mourning in Jesus.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matthew 23:37).

The rebellion of God’s people was plain to our Lord. And it grieved his heart. But he did not wallow in his sorrow. He did something about it. The brokenness of our world motivated Jesus to heal the world. So he set his tear-stained face toward the cross, and he offered his life in place of ours. And he did it to keep his promise to comfort those who mourn their own sin and the sin of the world.

Now this is tough. Because our first inclination is to run from pain. But Jesus runs toward it. Not because he loves pain, but because he loves people. And if we want to be his followers, then our holy sorrow should motivate us to engage the world with the hope of healing that comes through Christ alone. Christian discipleship means running toward the places where the world is in pain. It means embracing the sorrow of Jesus for the sorrows of this world. It means knowing that he goes ahead of us and that he offers comfort to us on the way. And, more importantly, it means knowing he will offer comfort through us to our neighbors and the nations.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and adjunct professor at Wesley Biblical Seminary and Houston Baptist University. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Deep Happiness, John Wesley, and the Beatitudes

“Failure to thrive” is a medical diagnosis for children who aren’t growing as they should. If you’ve ever taken a child to the pediatrician, you know about growth standards. Every parent is eager to see which percentile their kids are in. 75th percentile? We may have a ball player on our hands! Every parent gets excited when their kids are above average. Kids who are low on the chart are diagnosed with a condition called  failure to thrive. It’s not a disease. It’s not a disorder. It usually has to do with environment. Maybe a kid isn’t properly nourished. Maybe he’s experienced some deep emotional stress or trauma that’s affecting his development.

As a pastor, I can’t help but think how many Christians might – at one time or another – diagnose their devotional (un)health with failure to thrive. It’s easy to imagine. You’ve experienced the new birth. You’re excited. You’re growing in your newfound faith. Then a little time passes. Maybe you get out of the habits that fueled your experience of grace in the beginning. You don’t read the Bible like you once did. You haven’t gathered to worship with the church in a while. Maybe life has dealt you unexpected  circumstances that left you struggling to hold on. You haven’t given up on following Jesus. But you sure wouldn’t say you’re thriving.

Beatitudes as Growth Chart

The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most famous passages of scripture. The Beatitudes are one of the most famous parts of the Sermon. There are two approaches to the Beatitudes. Some say they are ordered steps on the path to Christian maturity. Others say they are each always presents to some extent in every believer. John Wesley saw no reason to pick one approach over the other. He took a both/and approach:

It is undoubtedly true, that both poverty of spirit, and every other temper which is here mentioned, are at all times found, in a greater or less degree, in every real Christian. And it is equally true, that real Christianity always begins in poverty of spirit, and goes on in the order here set down, till the “man of God is made perfect (Sermon XXI).

So if the beatitudes are intended to be taken in order, then perhaps we can think of them as a spiritual growth chart. And as you develop along the growth chart, you grow into a thriving follower of Jesus and a full experience of human life. Want to escape the failure to thrive diagnosis? Spend some time in the beatitudes. Immerse yourself in Jesus’ vision of flourishing.

Absolute Helplessness

If the Beatitudes are all about thriving, then the first one might seem counter-intuitive. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). We don’t normally think of poverty as thriving. So what does it mean to be poor in spirit? And how does poverty of spirit lead to a full and thriving human life? Let’s start with the notion of poverty. Poverty means a person doesn’t have the resources to meet their basic needs. It means they are helpless. And it’s not just a matter of finances. There are plenty of people with plenty of money who are impoverished relationally, emotionally, psychologically, or in other ways. This helps us understand poverty of spirit. To be poor in spirit is know we don’t have the resources to meet our spiritual needs. We don’t have the power to atone for our sins. We don’t have the ability to free ourselves from slavery to sin. We come into the world spiritually destitute, and we don’t have what it takes to fix our problem. When Jesus talks about “the poor in spirit,” he’s talking about the people who understand that.  Here’s Wesley again:

Poverty of spirit then, as it implies the first step we take in running the race which is set before us, is a just sense of our inward and outward sins, and of our guilt and helplessness.

So the first step to thriving is understanding that we can’t thrive on our own. We are absolutely helpless. We need someone to do something we can’t do.

Ultimate Happiness

Now you may be thinking: If the beatitudes are all about blessing, why am I hearing so much about what a mess I’m in? Well, the blessing comes in what Jesus can do for people who are in a mess (and who know they’re in a mess). When our eyes are opened to our desperate state, he meets our poverty with the riches of the kingdom of heaven. He does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. He forgives our sin. He frees us from slavery. He reconciles us to God. And he graciously begins to reproduce his own character of holy love in us. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven, he’s talking about the reality of the reign of God coming to bear on this world. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). The will of God is done on earth when human beings surrender their bodies to God’s purposes for them. And as more and more people surrender more and more of themselves, the kingdom spreads. And it will continue to spread until that day when Jesus returns to make the kingdom complete and perfect. Participation in that project is happiness. Not the shallow and fleeting emotion of happiness, but the deep and abiding happiness that comes with the knowledge that we are living into God’s best for us, even if our circumstances are not what we expected or what we may have once preferred. The path to that deep happiness starts with embracing our spiritual poverty. Put differently, ultimate happiness depends on absolute helplessness.

For more on the beatitudes, check out the latest episode of the So What? Podcast.

 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

No Redemption without Resurrection


Easter has come, but it hasn’t gone. We are now several days into The Great 50 Days (or Eastertide), the period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost. It’s an important reminder that Easter is not just one day on the calendar, it’s a season. So, I’m continuing to reflect on the importance of resurrection. (In truth, the significance of resurrection occupies my thinking  most of the year, not just this season.) The bottom line from my Easter sermon was this: “There’s no redemption without resurrection.” Here are a couple of reasons that’s true.

God Loses

If there is no bodily resurrection, sin wins and God loses. God did not design human beings to die. All through scripture death is the consequence of sin. From Genesis 2:17, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die,” to Romans 6:23, “the wages of sin is death.” We are bound to decay and death because of sin. So we can infer that if God intended human beings obey the command to not sin, then God did not design human beings to die. That was not his intent. It was not the plan. Sin and death are the twin enemies of God, his people, and creation as a whole.

I wrote earlier this week on why dying and going to heaven is not enough. And this reflection reinforces that point. If the body dies and we find ourselves conscious in heaven (as scripture teaches), and if that’s the climax of salvation (which scripture does not teach), then sin wins and God loses. Why? Because going to heaven is another way of saying the body is dead. An essential part of our human existence remains in the grave. Dying and going to heaven does not mean we are more alive than ever – despite what D.L. Moody may have thought. Dying and going to heaven means we are dead. Now let me be clear: I am not denying that believers enter the presence of Jesus when they die. I affirm that wholeheartedly. What I am saying is that heaven should be seen the way scripture portrays it: as a period of waiting for bodily resurrection. Only when the body is raised will any of us be more alive – and more fully human – than ever before.

That’s why there’s no redemption without resurrection. Sin is our enemy. Death is the consequence of sin. If we die and remain dead, the enemy wins and God loses. That’s why scripture spends so much time on the past resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of believers. That’s why Paul says, “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:26). And that enemy is destroyed when Christ returns to raise the dead. Only “then will the saying that is written be fulfilled, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory'” (1 Cor 15:54). Note the future tense verb. The dead in Christ are still dead. The saying has not yet been fulfilled. We’re still waiting on that, because (like the saints in heaven) we are still waiting to be raised from the dead.

More than forgiveness

Sometimes (not always) the way we do evangelism suggests that we only need forgiveness from sin. Think about it. How often are people invited to pray and ask forgiveness so they can go to heaven? The focus there is on what the individual must do to avoid the consequence of their sin. You’ve heard the cliché about salvation as fire insurance; this sort of evangelism is what it’s talking about.

Again, let me be clear. I’m not saying that we don’t need forgiveness. Of course, we do. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do evangelism. Of course, we should. What I’m saying is that we need more than forgiveness. We need new life. The one is a means to the other. Forgiveness is a means. New life is the end. That new life looks like growth in holiness now and bodily resurrection later. That’s what God wants. Of course, God has to forgive our sins. He can’t fill a bunch of unforgiven sinners with the beauty of his holy love. But forgiveness is not the goal. Holiness leading to resurrection life is.

Think about the death and resurrection of Jesus this way. Christ died and his blood was shed to forgive our sin. He was raised from the dead to launch God’s new creation and give us new life. The death and resurrection of Jesus are two parts of one complete redemptive event. The cross is not enough. That’s why Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 that if Christ hasn’t been raised, faith is a waste of time. We need the new life that comes out of the tomb on Easter morning.

And our evangelism should reflect that need. Forgiveness is not the goal of evangelism, and we shouldn’t evangelize as if it were. Our proclamation of the gospel – our Lord  Jesus Christ has died and was raised – should present forgiveness of sin as a step that enables us to experience new transformed life in the present and resurrection of the body in the future. There’s no redemption without resurrection because we need more than forgiveness of sin.

For more on holiness now and resurrection later, watch this Seven Minute Seminary.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Heaven Is Not Enough

Views about heaven abound. Some are helpful. Some are not. When it comes to the Bible, some passages about heaven come with surprises. One of those is the vision of the martyrs in Revelation 6:9-11. Now a martyr is by definition someone who has died and gone to heaven. They loved Jesus more than life, and so they were “slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given” (Rev 6:9). What’s surprising about this passage is the attitude of the martyrs. Most people think of heaven in terms of eternal joy and bliss. After all, if you’ve entered into the presence of God, what more could you want? Apparently, that isn’t how these martyrs view the situation. They have a complaint. And they’d like it resolved quickly. From their position under the heavenly altar they are said to cry out in a loud voice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Rev 6:10). They’ve died and gone to heaven, but heaven isn’t enough. They want more.

Dissatisfied with Heaven

So what are they waiting for? To answer that question we need to look more closely at their appeal. Their complaint revolves around the wrong done to them. They did nothing wrong, yet they’ve lost their lives. They were perfectly faithful, but they suffered deep injustice. They died for their faith. And from their perspective, entrance into heaven does nothing to make things right. They want to be vindicated. So they appeal to their “Sovereign” to do something about it, and they’ll be dissatisfied with heaven until he does.

Resurrection as Vindication

But we still haven’t answered the question. If heaven isn’t enough, what is? What does vindication look like for the faithful dead? The answer comes later in Revelation. After Babylon falls to God’s judgment (in Revelation Babylon is a symbol of the forces that oppose God and oppress his people), the martyrs are raised from the dead and participate in Christ’s reign. This is what they’ve been waiting for – the resurrection of the body. After all, if the body is killed, that wrong cannot be made right as long as the body is in the grave. To say they’ve died and gone to heaven is to say their bodies are still dead. The injustice of their deaths can only be rectified by bodily resurrection. Their bodies must rise from the grave for the wrong to be made right. And this is true not only for the martyrs. It is an affront to God any time a creature made in God’s image dies. That’s why the hope for resurrection permeates the New Testament. Heaven is great, but if we’re talking about a disembodied spiritual experience, it’s not the goal. Ultimate redemption only comes with bodily resurrection.

Check out this Seven Minute Seminary for more on what the Bible says about life after death.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Book Notice: Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (@cenpastheo, @IVPAcademic)

When it comes to sex, evangelical Christians tend to be known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for. That’s why we need this new book and why I’m grateful to have had opportunity to contribute a chapter. The book is Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic), and it’s a collection of essays from the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference. Contributors consider the topic in light of scripture, history, theology, aesthetics, and culture. One recurring theme is the need for those who take a traditional view of marriage and sexuality to spend more time working on a positive theology of marriage. This book makes a significant contribution to that endeavor. You can read the contents at the IVP Academic site. Here are the endorsements:

“Pastors minister; theologians seek-and minister-understanding. Ministering understanding of how the Bible addresses real-world issues is the great privilege and responsibility of the pastor theologian. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson have put together a whole ministry team that ministers understanding worth its weight in gold on one of the most socially complicated, politically fraught, yet existentially unavoidable issues of our day or any: human sexuality. In an age where the male/female duality is in danger of becoming extinct, these essays serve as salient reminders of the beauty and mystery of God’s created order: ‘Male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27).

-Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL

For Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, the ideal of the pastor-scholar is not merely theoretical but intensely practical. The example they set through their Center for Pastor Theologians is an invitation to practice ecclesial theology. So is their new volume of thoughtful essays on God’s beautiful, well-ordered, and yet mysterious purposes for human sexuality-a book that demonstrates the value and relevance of having a community of wise scholars ‘do’ theology in the service of the church.

-Philip Ryken, President, Wheaton College

There’s a public conversation about human sexuality happening nearly everywhere today, but this book helpfully locates it right at the intersection of the pastoral and the theological. Beauty, Order, and Mystery provides a remarkably easy introduction to a vexed set of issues because the chapters are approachable and accessible even as they display deep reflection and up-to-date learning. In this particular multitude of counselors there is much wisdom.

-Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Getting Grace (@pastorjoei, #UMC)

umc_webban_graceseries_wk3-690x353I very much enjoyed the recent opportunity to be interviewed by Joe Iovino for a series of articles on grace for UMC.org. Joe did a great job articulating the Wesleyan understandings of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace. In particular, he made it clear that we are talking more about different seasons of grace than different kinds of grace. There’s only one grace. The distinction is more of chronology than substance. Here they are:

  1. God at work before we know it: Prevenient grace
  2. By grace we are forgiven: Justifying grace
  3. God’s power over sin: Sanctifying grace

These are the kind of resources you could share with a friend as an intro to Wesleyan theology. Pastors and others will find them very useful.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

Bodily Resurrection and Identity Formation in Paul

What does future bodily resurrection have to do with present life in the body? Do Paul’s pastoral goals shed light on his attitude toward resurrection? Does hope for resurrection bear on the formation of group identity in the Pauline communities? These are the questions that energized my doctoral research, which is now available electronically from the University of Gloucestershire Research Repository. Here’s the abstract:

This study investigates how Paul’s attitude towards future bodily resurrection functions in relation to his expectations for believers’ use of their bodies in the present, both as individuals and as a community. I argue that embodiment is essential to Paul’s anthropology, and that Paul understands future bodily resurrection primarily in social terms. Drawing on insights from the social sciences and rhetorical studies, I also argue that future bodily resurrection functions in the letters under consideration as a future possible social identity that contributes to Paul’s persuasive strategies with regard to his expectations for believers’ behavior. In general, it will become clear that Paul expects his recipients to use their bodies in ways that stand in continuity with the resurrection-oriented future social identity. After an introductory chapter orienting the reader to questions, method, and relevant scholarly discussion, chapter 2 sheds light on the social dynamics of Paul’s attitude toward future bodily resurrection in general and the function of the resurrection-oriented future identity in particular through a close reading of 1 Cor 15:12–58; 6:12–20; and 2 Cor 4:7–5:10. Chapter 3 offers a detailed analysis of the relationship between resurrection and practice in Rom 6:1–23 and 8:9–25 to argue that Paul’s understanding of that relationship provides a framework for understanding table fellowship as bodily practice in Rom 14 and 15. Chapter 4 takes up Phil 3:12–4:1 and argues that Paul’s language of resurrection fosters a common ingroup identity that serves the letter’s double goal of mitigating faction and strengthening the recipients to persevere in the face of persecution. A final chapter synthesizes the overall findings of the research.

If that strikes your fancy, you may want to read the whole thing.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.