How far is Heaven?: The Pluralistic Challenge to Jesus

The following video is “Yahweh,” by the band U2.  The name “Yahweh” is one of the primary names for God in Hebrew.  It was a deeply personal name, so much so that when the name “Yahweh” was printed, the Hebrews used to switch to the name “Adonai” (analogous to “Lord”) out of reverential fear.

In U2’s video, however, the name “Yahweh” is invoked in the context of a wide variety of religious symbols.  Read more

From Leper to Love

His whole life had been defined by distance.  He was an “outsider,” they told him; a Samaritan.  To this day he still couldn’t remember all the reasons why he and the Jews would never really get along.   “Unclean,” they said, not because of anything he’d done, but simply because he’d been born that way. Read more

Occupy: The Religion of the Pharisees and the Religion(s) of the World

In case I’ve neglected to make this clear, this series of posts is intended to be an extension of the sermon series “The Dirt Under His Nails” at Tri-State Fellowship.

In our last post, we looked at the question of the paralytic from Luke 5.   Today we’ll look at how Jesus’ response was received by the Pharisees who were gathered there. Read more

“Would that really make you happy?” Jesus and the Paralytic

If you were with us on Sunday, you heard the story of the paralytic.  In that culture, paralysis rendered you wholly dependent on others for…well, everything.  So you can imagine that even family and friends were weary of having to tend to his needs, and would have jumped at hearing that this gifted healer named Jesus was teaching nearby. Read more

Restoring the Image: Jesus the New Adam


Christianity continues to hold out a solution to what a culture continues to deny.

In the video above, we see various portraits of people holding signs that reveal something about their character.  They are, in some sense, marked by their actions and attitudes.

The Scriptures describe God’s plan in terms of God’s character, His shalom, to borrow the Hebrew term, which refers to His peace, His goodness, and His great desire for the wholeness of the created world, including you and me.

And yet we’re so very broken.  We don’t have that wholeness.  Sin is, according to one author, the “vandalism of God’s shalom.”  God’s shalom was most fully violated in the breakdown of God’s image.  Adam bore that image, but ruined it.  All of Adam’s sons and daughters are now forced to bear the weight of that broken image.

So Scripture offers us so many different metaphors for what’s happened.  The Hebrew texts describe it in terms of rebellion (pesha), infidelity (meshubah), trespass (ma’al),transgression (‘abar, parabaino), becoming dirty (tum’ah), wandering (‘avon), failure (chatta’t), and disloyalty (beged).  The Greek texts describe it in terms of a fall (paraptoma), being unjust, unrighteous (adikeo), rebellious (asebeo), defeat (etao), ignorance (agnoeo), and missing the mark (hamartia).


What’s happened in our world is that we moved away from these understandings. In his book Whatever Became of Sin?, the writer Karl Menninger observes the way that sin has been redefined in western culture:

(1)     Originally, sin was defined by violation of God’s standards as revealed in the text of scripture.  Western culture built its laws and ethical foundations around the character of God.

(2)    As time progressed, the law courts began to be seen as the embodiment of morality.  Yet still, within this system, shame existed for the individual for violating an unchanging standard.  Punishments in colonial times and beyond included such things as the stockades, where criminals would be publicly shamed for their crimes.

(3)    As time went further, sin began to be seen more and more through the lens of psychology.  Sin was not a violation of an absolute standard, but the result of aberrant psychological patterns and maladaptive behavior.  We are not sinful people, we are diseased.  We no longer need to point to the curse of Eden, but instead at unhappy childhoods and past traumas that have shaped our psyche into the twistedness that they now have become.

(4)    Finally, sin has begun to be seen through a sociological lens.  It’s not even the individual’s psychology that makes man sinful: it is the shaping of an entire community.  It is not unusual, after tragedies such as that of Columbine or Virginia Tech, to hear public officials make statements such as ‘We are all to blame.’  The message is clear: the family, neighborhood and society in which you are raised has a large bearing on your moral development.


Luke’s gospel is deeply concerned with situating Jesus in the context of secular history.  The stories of Jesus’ birth are embedded right in the center of a hostile political environment, and in an era where whole families had become divided by sectarian religious beliefs.

When we first meet the adult Jesus, it is at His baptism.  John the Baptizer was His cousin.  He’d grown up as a preacher’s kid, but at some time or another he’d moved to the “wilderness,” some sort of Palestinian desert.  So we can imagine people took notice when he finally returned, looking like Grizzly Adams but with a mouth like a rock star.  He preached a message of repentance and justice.

So Jesus was baptized by His weird cousin – and it was here that the Spirit descended “like a dove,” and the Father said, “this is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  This is the first time in Jesus’ adult life that He is called “the Son of God,” connecting Jesus to the prophecies about His miraculous birth.

But then Luke does something odd: He gives us Jesus’ family tree.  Which wasn’t uncommon for writings of that era; it’s just odd to find it right smack in the middle of the story like this.  But if you read all the way through, you find that John traces Jesus all the way back to the very beginning, to Adam, who is also called “a son of God.”

Which means that we have two “sons of God:” Adam and Jesus.  Adam was tempted in the garden by Satan.  In the next section, Jesus enters the wilderness to be tempted by Satan.  Both lived in the shadow of a tree: for Adam it was the tree of knowledge, for Jesus it was the cross.

The whole point is this: where Adam failed, where we fail, Jesus is victorious.  And His victory can be our victory.  The point of this story is not that if we “try harder” we can do what Jesus did.  The point is that we can’t do what Jesus did unless we trust in what Jesus achieved through His death on the cross.

And the most beautiful thing of all is this: when we trust in Him, God sees us the same way He views His Son;  the Bible even uses the word “adoption”(Romans 8:15).  Which means because of what Jesus did in the wilderness and on the cross, we can hear God say to us: “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”


Of course we know that “sin” is an archaic word that means nothing to a culture shaped by the sophistication of charismatic authority structures and rational thought.

But that seems awfully academic.  Especially to the faces in the video.

Could it be that we each know that we’ve been marked in some way?  See, in this life you will be marked by one of three things:

(1)    What I’ve done

(2)    What others have done to me

(3)    What Jesus has done for me.

Jesus achieved victory in a Garden where you only achieved failure.  The image of God that was broken by Adam – and us – was restored by Jesus, the second Adam:

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself…” (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, III.14)

Tomorrow, we’ll look deeper at the actual showdown between the Son of God and Satan.

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Cool Hand Luke: From Icon to Meme (and back again)

16th C work showing Luke creating icon of Mary

When most think of Luke, they think of the ancient physician who wrote a biography about Jesus.  But most don’t think of Luke as anartist.  In fact, Luke is counted as the patron saint of artists.

According to the writings of the early church, Luke was one of the first people to paint an “icon” of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  What is an “icon?”  The Latin word eikon simply means “image.”  The early church didn’t have cameras.  They didn’t have photograph albums, and they couldn’t “tag” Jesus on Facebook.  Icons were simple, stylized portraits used for Christian worship.  They mostly were portraits of Jesus and related saints, as well as painting narrative scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Read more

“Half-Price Messiah:” Discussion Guide

If you were here at Tri-State Fellowship this past Sunday, then you know the series “The Dirt Under His Nails” is off to an excellent start with Randy speaking on “Half-Price Messiah.”

To facilitate discussion, we’ve put together some resources for you to use as you follow along with us in this series.

So click the link to download the first handout of our series:

The Dirt Under His Nails Resource 1


This might make a good resource for small groups or simply discussion among your church friends.

But it also might be a great way to connect the sermon material with your friends and neighbors.  And I know most people cringe at the idea of handing out “tracts.”  That’s not what this is.  The purpose here is to help you process the sermon in such a way that you can have dialogue with people in your social circles each week:

“What’d you do this weekend?”

“Well, we had a great time at Church; we even started a new sermon series.  Mind if I share some things?”

And there’s an open door.  Now, maybe you’re not going to go through every point in there, but having a pamphlet lets you be equipped to dialogue about your faith with others.


These guides will be available in print on Sunday mornings, but also online.  If you’re downloading online, here’s how to use it:

(1)    Print it out.

(2)    Lay it so that the middle “Join our Dialogue” section is facing up:

(3)    Fold Column 3 over inward, over Column 2.

(4)    Fold Column 1 inward, so that the main image becomes the cover.

Keep checking the blog for more posts on this series, and be sure to come back next week for “No Reservations.”

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Coffee with Theophilus

The following story is, obviously, fiction.  It’s a conversation that might have happened if the events of the early church had happened in our culture.  Luke was the author of one of the four gospels, which tell the story of Jesus, and the sequel book called Acts.  Both were written to his friend Theophilus, as well as to the surrounding community.  Not much is really known about Theophilus, but this short interchange reflects the parallels between his world and our own. 


The buzz of my phone ranked somewhere below the din and clatter of the busy coffee shop.  I glanced at the screen to see the name “Theophilus” in my list of text messages.   “on my way” he wrote, though knowing him that meant he hadn’t left the meeting yet.  I’d made it through the first third of my latte before he walked through the door, dressed in his usual finest.  I waited to greet him until after he’d ordered and sat down.

“Most excellent Theophilus!  How’s life in the rat races.”

He shook his head and smiled, stirring his caramel double-shot whatever concoction he was undoubtedly addicted to.  “Oh, you know how it is, Luke.  Blow this next contract with Rome and heads are gonna roll.”  I honestly didn’t know if his laughter was nervous or not.  “What about you?  Given any more thought to heading back into medicine?”

I shook my head, suddenly a bit far-off.  I remember what people said when I took off to travel with Paul to be a missionary.  Most thought it a bit strange, especially since the word “Christian” was still unknown to so many.  “No, no.”  I replied.  “I’m sure there’s something else God has planned for me.”

Theophilus furrowed his brow a bit.  “Yeah, I guess maybe.”  He didn’t quite make eye contact.

“Still not sure about the whole God thing?” I asked.

“It’s not that, I mean…I love God, sure…my parents made sure they gave me a name to remind me of that.  And I even hear really great things about this Jesus guy and all.  It’s just…I dunno…the whole church thing…”

I broke the momentary pause.  “What about it?”

“Well, you run with that crowd.  They don’t seem to be able to agree on much of anything.  Besides, it seems like the kind of thing that appeals more to the people who have been, you know, religious all their life.”

“You mean the Jews?”

“Yeah.”  He became more animated on this point.  “I’m not saying I’m against them or anything like that, it’s just…I wasn’t born into that.  And now, who’s to say what it really means to be a ‘Christian?’  Some say you have to go back and follow all their religious practices and all but…gosh, I don’t even know where I’d begin.”

That stung a bit.  Especially since neither of us really got the whole “tradition” thing the same way that so many of Jesus’ followers did.  Even Jesus had come from a Jewish home.   Traveling abroad, I’d gotten to see so many cultures.  And it was strange, you have to admit: no other community was as racially and culturally diverse as Christianity.

“Plus,” he continued.  “I mean, I get it Luke.  You’ve been all over the world.  But Jesus…we all know He died a long time ago.  It’s been what…20, 30 years?  How can we really know how this whole ‘Christian’ thing is supposed to really work?  Don’t get me wrong, I mean, I love Jesus.  The things I hear about Him are great.  And yeah, I’ve even been to some of these churches that have been meeting in homes.  These people…they risk their lives.  I mean, the Jews…people are willing to put up with them, I mean the government’s even helping remodel their temple.

“Well, not everyone’s all that thrilled about that.”

“Yes, but at least they’re respected.  I heard the other day that some people were starting to call Christians atheists, because they don’t follow Jewish or Roman gods.”

“Well, you can’t judge by stereotypes.”

“I know, Luke.”  He wiped his face with his hands.  “But perception is reality you know?  Again, I love Jesus; I think what you’re doing is great, I just…I guess I just don’t see what it has to do with me.” 

I understood right then and there what it was my dear friend needed.  I remember medical school, where we read a dusty textbook by a man named Galen, who used to talk about “carefully investigating” the symptoms of his patients.   And I realized that this is what my friend needed.  Jesus was now a major topic of conversation.  I even heard that whole books were slowly being circulated about Him.  Maybe it was time to add my own voice to the mix – not just for my friend here, but for anyone struggling to understand how to love Jesus and fit into His church.  And we needed this desperately, before people’s ideas about Him began to eclipse who He actually was.  So I committed right then to find out more, and I committed right then to tell my own story along with it.

I asked Theophilus if I might pray for him.  He had already stood up to leave when he nodded vigorously.  He was a busy man.

And right now, so was I.

Discussion Questions:

The following questions could be used for a small group, but they’re also great ways to start spiritual conversations one-on-one with friends or co-workers. Feel free to post responses (yours, or even theirs with their permission) in the comments below.  

(1)    As we see, Theophilus was a well-to-do, educated man who knew some things about Jesus, but didn’t really know how he fit into the culture of the church of his day and so it’s not clear that he was ready to make that next step.  Do you or someone you know fit this description?   What would it take from having good ideas about Jesus to trusting Him totally?

(2)    Part of the barrier that Theophilus encountered was that with all the diversity of the early church, including those who insisted on maintaining Jewish practices, he wasn’t sure what he should believe and why.  Are there “Christian” practices and beliefs that can be a barrier to belief?  Which ones and why?

(3)    Theophilus also had trouble understanding how he fit into the church because of the negative perceptions people had of the church (called “atheists” by the Romans).  What are some negative cultural perceptions of Christians?  Why might these be a barrier for people to believe in Jesus?

(4)    Luke mentions that there were, by this point, there were many other teachings out there about who Jesus was.  What are some of the ways Jesus is portrayed in our culture today?  Where do your own ideas about Jesus come from?

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“The Dirt Under His Nails”

Starting this Sunday, we’ll be starting a new, exciting series at Tri-State Fellowship called “The Dirt Under His Nails,” which is all about Jesus.  In the area?  Don’t have a local church?  We’d love to welcome you.  And don’t forget to hit the “share” button to get the word out over social networks. 

In addition, I’ll be blogging through some of our topics in the next several weeks, so stick around and enjoy.  


No other name is tied to so much emotion, and no other name sparks so many opinions.  Who was Jesus? Many have their opinions formed about Him long before they ever see His face.

For some it’s a stained glass Jesus: a religious figure not terribly concerned about others. For others, it’s a fake-plastic Jesus: a cheap misfit who offers us friendship without ever truly being connected to the world that we live in.

But beneath the stale images of our past, we find a Jesus who walked among His people, a Jesus who swung a hammer with His daddy, a Jesus who laughed, and a Jesus who cried.

In this series of sermons, we’ll be following the ancient writer Luke as we meet a Savior with calloused hands and dirty fingernails. Whether this is your first time meeting Jesus, or even if you’ve known Him for years, we invite you to join us as we experience this vividly fresh portrait of the Savior.



February 26 “Half-Price Messiah”
March 4 “No Reservations”
March 11 “How Far is Heaven?”
March 18 “Party Crashers”
March 25 “Character is a Four-Letter-Word”
April 1 “Why Jesus Wants You Dead”
April 8 “Hearing is Believing”

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