Beyoncé, “Irreplaceable”
So don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.
Caedmon’s Call, “The Truth”
[M]aybe all that I’ve to do was done a long time ago.

‘Cause there was life before my life,
There was provision before my need,
There was redemption before my sin,
For the sake of the world I thank the Lord,
That the truth’s not contingent on me.
Psalm 103:15-17
As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting . . .
This last month and a half has been (in many ways) an extended exercise in forced humility. There is little virtue is having one’s weaknesses exposed, particular those banal, petty weaknesses that I’d hoped were a thing of the past. Cultivated humility for the sake of spiritual growth is one thing. Being pushed down under the weight of one’s own failures is another. As Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 12, there’s nothing more pitiable than exorcising one demon and “putting your house in order” just to have the same unclean spirit show back up with seven fresh companions in tow. “The last state of that person is worse than the first” (Matt. 12:45). It takes real spiritual sanity to live proactively within that truth.

All metaphors aside, by far the hardest thing to deal with has been the stark realization that I am (despite my previous thoughts to the contrary) thoroughly replaceable. I don’t mean replaceable as a person (like with my wife, friends or family). I mean replaceable as a tool of the kingdom. It’s been tough (unbelievably tough) to realize that I’m not indispensable, not foundational, not one-off. In the end, God’s about doing His will, building His church, glorifying His Son and he’ll do it with just as much glory, power, and beauty with me as without me. Jesus is irreplaceable, Aaron isn’t.

I don’t say this to evoke sympathy. A sort of “There, there. You’re special.” is the last thing I need (not that I’ve given up hoping for it; pride dies hard after all). In the end, however, what it has to come down to (what I need most) is grace. Grace that comes from the outside in. Grace that has nothing to do with me, the receiver, and everything to do with God, the Giver. Grace to be forgiven. Grace to be renewed. Grace to be made clean. Grace to grow-up. “For the sake of the world [am myself] I thank the Lord / That the truth’s not contingent on me.”

Easter and the Goal of the Gospel

N. T. Wright’s most recent book—After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters—begins with a simple question, “What am I here for?” The question is posed not as abstract philosophy but rather as the concrete concern of a genuine disciple: Given that, as follower of Jesus Christ, I’ve been saved by grace through faith . . . what now? What’s am I to do with my time this side of the second coming—the ‘in-between’ time, so to speak? Where’s it all going? And, most importantly, how do I become a part of what God is doing in the every day realities of life?

For most evangelicals, the goal of the gospel—what it’s really all about—can be summarized in a single word: heaven. We may (at our more humble moments) say, “It’s all about God,” and we may (at times) even mean it. But when it comes to our own personal happy ending, when we really get down to what it’s all about for us, heaven is the goal.

The trouble with this goal isn’t so much that it’s not true; only that it’s half true. Heaven—in the sense of a spiritual, disembodied, escape-from-the-world-down-here sort of place—is certainly a part of the story (part of each of our own personal in-between time), but it’s not where the story ends.

The problem is that ending with heaven leaves out the most significant event in the New Testament: Easter. As Wright has elsewhere put it, “Heaven’s important, but it’s not the end of the world.” No, the goal of the Christian story—from Genesis to Revelation—is not going-to-heaven-when-you-die. The goal is resurrection—God’s cosmic, kingdom-enacting re-creation of all things “in heaven and on earth.”

Where does Easter fit into this story? In 1 Corinthians 15:20 and 23 Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was the “first-fruits” of God’s new creation, the down-payment in the present guaranteeing and even providing the foundation for what will one day flood creation.

The point in all of this is that knowing the end of the story drastically changes how we answer the question: “What am I here for now?” Wright sketches out the following answer through what he calls “moral thrust of the New Testament”:
  1. The goal is the new heavens and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world’s rulers and priest.
  2. This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus as the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
  3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world (67).

Failure and Success in Acts 5

I’ve spent the last two Wednesday nights teaching at our church’s high school group—Ignite. It’s been a great experience. There’s such an atmosphere of authenticity there, as though the group’s leadership (especially the student leaders) is after really building disciples and not just putting on a show.

Last night we were in Acts 5:17-42 which records the second conflict between the “church” (i.e., the apostles and the emerging group of Spirit-empowered, Jesus-followers) and the Jewish high council (i.e., the religious powers-that-be). Two passages in particular stood out:

Acts 5:18-21
[The council] arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach.
Acts 5:40-42
[A]nd when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
In the first passage, the angel’s revelation must have been a bit confusing to the apostles and (in a way) even disturbing. In essence, they’re arrested, miraculously rescued and immediately told to go right back to the very same place and activity that got them in trouble to begin with. What’s more, all that their impromptu (and incredibly brief) release does is embarrass and further enrage the very people who’re already taking issue with them.

What this passage teaches us is that (despite our personal expectations), God (at least in this story) isn’t all that interested in our physical safety or our social well-being. Instead, God’s all consuming priority is that the “words of this Life”—the gospel—be declared.

This run contrary to the way we naturally respond to trouble. Normally, our goal when things get hard or scary is to simply put our heads down, take a deep breath and just get through it as quickly possible. Our aim is simple: “Get out.”

The problem with this is that all through the book of Acts, God is much more interested in getting his people into trouble than he is in getting them out of it. Now, it’s important to understand what this trouble is. The trouble in question isn’t brought about by laziness, short-fuses or sinful mistakes. What I’m talking about are situations in which our reputations, our names, our futures, our emotions and even our bodies are threatened for the sake of the gospel.

At an even larger scale, we usually go through life as if the point were to basically be as safe and as comfortable as possible. Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting good grades, playing sports, going to a good school, getting a good job, buying a nice house and raising a family in a safe neighborhood. All I’m saying is that that’s not what God’s people, under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, were after. Nor was that what Jesus was after either.

The second passage is equally disturbing. We’re used to thinking of persecution as a very physical thing. Here, while it’s certainly partly physical—after all, the apostles are beaten and have their lives threatened—what they ultimately rejoice in is being “counted worth to suffer dishonor for the name.” The Greek word behind “dishonor” could just as easily be translated as “degradation,” or “mockery” or even “abuse.” The point is that the apostles weren’t just physically hurt, they were socially rejected. They were looked down upon, belittled, by the very people who their culture most admired and looked up to.

What this part of the story’s trying to tell us is that so-called “personal success” is just as much an enemy of the gospel as other more overt and stigmatized sins. In fact, it’s probably even more of an enemy because of how deceptive, acceptable and even trumpeted it is. The problem is, if what motivates us is success—personal recognition, looking good, being beautiful, liked and looked up to—then we simply will not be willing suffer public dishonor for the sake of Christ. It’ll just be too hard. Your heart won’t allow it.

The bottom line is this: following Jesus means following in the footstep of a man who (in the eyes and estimation of the world) was a colossal failure. This means that following him will inevitable lead us into the same sort of apparent failure. It’s simply impossible to look good and follow Jesus. At times, the two become mutually exclusive. In the end (as hard as it may be to accept), it’s better to be a “failure” who loves Jesus than a success who left him behind long ago.