Matthew 16:13-26

In one of the best-known passages in the Bible, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is? What are you hearing about me?”

Today his disciples might have said, “Let’s Google it.”

I just did that, and in 3.4 seconds I got about 668,000,000 results. Two-thirds of a billion! But the disciples didn’t have cell phones and social networking. Just word of mouth, and they replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

In others words, there have always been opinions about Jesus, and most would agree that he was a great man who taught great things, a man of influence, a religious man, a prophet.

But here’s the real question: “What about you? Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter blurted out, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

Where did that come from?!

Jesus responded, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” In other words, Jesus wasn’t just one more notable guy. He was and is the son of the living God, and everyone who believes in him—not just follows his teachings—will have everlasting life. And that’s not just an idea you’ve thought about. Knowing Christ is a work of grace, a transcendent moment in which your need for Jesus and his forgiving presence come together to change you forever.

Jesus is the God-man. Jesus is God, man. He’s not just another religious option, or the bearer of some really good, really helpful teaching about life. Jesus is a Person we encounter, we enter, and he enters us.

I was listening to a devotional on, and this narrative of Jesus and Peter was the text of the day. I’ve been a Christian my entire life. Been in full-time ministry for decades, and I’d never thought about Jesus’ question so personally. The narrator asked the question to his listeners, to me: “Who do you say Jesus is?”

It took my breath away.

Pause. Reflect. Search your soul: “Who is Jesus to me?”

Who do you say Jesus is?

Jesus is many things to many people. Just ask around. Everybody has an opinion. Some would be clear. Some would be muddy. Some might be heretical. But you? What do you think? When I say, “Jesus Christ,” what comes to your mind? To your heart? An idea? An opinion?

Or is Jesus the Son of the Living God, the One whom you’ve met personally and to whom you’ve given your life?

I’ve done that, but I’ve also drifted. I think that most of the moments in my life are godless. No, I’m not bad person. I just live so much of life with my eyes fixed on other things. In black and white contrast, the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

A couple things here stand out to me. First, others have lived the life. We are surrounded by witnesses, that is, all the men and women who’ve made the faith journey before us. They were faithful when their prayers were answered—and when they weren’t.

Second, two things always stand in our way. Between us and God. Between now and our future: the everyday things that hinder us and the spider web of all the stupid and sinful stuff we do to ourselves and others. It’s “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”

Jesus himself put it this way, “The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful.” Sounds like the Mall of America.

Years ago I heard a Chinese pastor tell a group of American students, “I’ve only been in your country for two weeks, but I’ve found that it’s very hard to be a Christian here.”

What? A Chinese pastor, for whom at that time living for Christ was a daily risk of persecution and imprisonment, told us that it was difficult to be Christian in America?

After pausing for effect, he told us why: “You have so many distractions here.”

So many things to turn our eyes away from Jesus.

Getting use to the blisters

My adorable grandniece just celebrated her sixth birthday. She left a voicemail for her grandma. We laughed till we cried as we listened over and over: “Hi grandma. I got some pretty awesome presents for my birthday. Thank you, grandma, for the shoes you gave me. I love them. I’m getting used to the blisters. Goodbye grandma. Amen.”

Goodbye. Amen.

It made me think maybe we should end our prayers like that. Instead of saying “amen,” it might be more accurate to say “goodbye.” After all, at the end of every prayer we just get on to other things and often don’t give another thought to God for the rest of the day.

So many distractions. Everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. The worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things. Here’s the only alternative: “Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

And the Rock of Ages.

“You are the Christ, the son of the Living God,” declared Peter. “Yes,” said Jesus, “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

To know Jesus is to receive life—and the power and perspective to live it well and forever. But life is never easy: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

God the Father revealed to Peter the exact identity of his Son. But when Jesus started talking about sacrifice and death, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Can you imagine?! Rebuking Jesus?!

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Not the Jesus we thought he was

So who do you say Jesus is? Who is Jesus to you? Is he ever someone other than who you thought he was? Has Jesus ever troubled you? Disappointed you? Angered you? Has he ever taken you beyond what you thought about him, believed about him?

He gives us children, but they’re not the kinds of children we asked for. He gives us a job we prayed for, but we didn’t ask for the difficult people we have to work with. He provides a new home but kept silent about the dysfunctional neighbors. He gives us new shoes, but now we have blisters.

In the last book of the Bible, the apostle John wrote, “I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour.”

After rebuking Peter, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, and I paraphrase, “Most of life is pretty much out of your control, and when you face the death of your dreams, or worse, the death of your child, you have to give up on yourself and totally trust God.” Actually, Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”

In dying we find the resurrection life of Jesus.

Who do you say Jesus is? Is he enough? Can you pause for a few moments of prayer and ponder that question?

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on GETTING USED TO THE BLISTERS

Plenty of Nothin’

How to know God deeply, get along with yourself, and love like Jesus the people you can’t stand

At a unity service with Roman Catholics recently, I was asked to share what’s on my heart, what I hear God saying to me.

And I said, “Nothing. Nothing is in my heart, because nothing is really important.”

Years ago I heard Richard Wurmbrandt, author of Tortured for Christ, talk about celebrating the Eucharist in solitary confinement. He had no bread. No wine. So he served himself the Lord’s Table with nothing. “Nothing,” he said, “is really something, because God made everything out of nothing.” Ex nihilo is what we call it in theological circles.

Nothing mattered to Jesus, too. In Philippians 2, Paul describes the incarnation of Christ this way: “He made himself nothing.” This has been called the doctrine of the kenosis, the Greek term used in this passage and which means “emptied out.”

Maybe you recall this rhyme:

Nothing in my hand I bring.

Simply to thy Cross I cling.

In fact, nothing is a master key to life.

When I say, Jesus is everything, it means nothing else matters. Only God. Only my relationship with him. But for you and me, more often than not, those are empty words. Jesus isn’t always everything to us, because in our distraction-filled world Jesus is usually just one other thing. Yeah, we like to say he’s the most important thing, but so many other things are just as important. Which is why losing a thing or two, or maybe losing everything, is necessary to get us back to the only thing that matters.

The ancient Psalmist wrote, “One thing have I desired of the Lord, and that will I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of his presence” (Psalm 27:4).

Just one thing.

What’s your thing?

Whatever happened to the dinosaurs?

We just spent the Easter week with our son Matt, his wife Kate, and their two children. He’s in the Navy band, but on Easter Sunday he had a solo trumpet gig, a piece from Handel’s Messiah at a historic Presbyterian church in Norfolk.

I sent a video of Matt’s performance to my brother Tom, who was a high school band director for many years. He emailed me back, “I really get emotional listening to that. I picture how our Dad [Matt’s grandfather] would have reacted to his grandson performing like that.”

When I read Tom’s email to my wife Marilyn, she said, “Maybe God let him hear Matt.” It’s a common hope, that dad, who passed away, is with his son as he plays in a championship basketball game. If, indeed, that’s the case, the Bible is certainly not clear on what exactly we know or don’t know in heaven about our families back here on earth.

My son Matt kinda laughed when he heard his mom’s comment. He said he had friends say something like this: “I can’t wait to get to heaven, because I have a whole of questions. Why this? Why that?” Or even, “What ever happened to the dinosaurs?”

“Heaven,” Matt declared, “is about experiencing fully the incredible presence of God. So when I see God face to face for the first time, I’m gonna ask him what happened to the dinosaurs? I think not. I think the only thing I’ll be thinking about is God. Nothing else will matter.”

God plus nothing.

Just give me Jesus

Jesus’ friend Martha had him over for a meal. Her sister Mary was sitting there talking to Jesus, and busy Martha was annoyed. Mary is doing nothing, she thought. “Hey sister, help me in the kitchen,” she demanded.

Jesus gently intervened, “Martha, Martha, you are troubled and anxious about many things. Only one is needful, and Mary has chosen this better thing.” And what was that? To do nothing, except to spend time with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).

In his Gospel, John calls this abiding in Christ, remaining in his life giving presence like a fruit-bearing branch abides in the vine. But the ancient temptation of another tree is ever present: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We hear its siren song: “Know what’s good, and do it. Know what’s evil and don’t do that. Work on being a better person, and you’ll become more and more like God.”

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is, simply, religion. It’s all the things you should do. Have to do. It’s the endless and hopeless self-effort in the pursuit of the person you will never be. Religion says do. Grace says done.

On the other hand, the tree of life is an ancient symbol of the presence of God in Christ, of his perfect life and sacrifice to love us, to make us his own, to sustain us. “Come to

me,” Jesus said to simple people living in a culture of religious rules and demands, “Come to me, all of you who are carrying the burdens of life, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). In other words, Jesus was telling them, “I am your Sabbath. Let go of yourself. Stop working for the perfect righteousness that I will give you out of my perfect sacrifice and infinite grace.”

A life worth nothing

This brings me around to my persistence about Jesus plus nothing. If nothing matters but God’s presence and our shared life with him in heaven forever, what could possibly matter to you in the here and now? This is why the Apostle Paul writes, “We look not to the things which can be seen, but to the things which cannot be seen, because the things which can be seen are transient, but the things which cannot be seen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). It’s why we live by faith and not by sight. Why faith is the evidence of things not seen.

It’s why nothing is so important. The more we empty ourselves like Jesus, who made himself nothing, the more room we have in us for God.

Don’t you just hate it when people are full of themselves? Don’t you just love it when people have died to themselves and are full of God? We have a treasure in jars of clay, Paul wrote, to show the world that it’s not about us. The apostle used cruder terms to describe all his former rigorous efforts to be religious: a heap of dung. In fact, the Greek term he uses is more vulgar. Why? So that he could know Christ deeply, fully, freely, to abide in him, lacking nothing.

So how much is all the stuff in your life worth? Your things, your identity, your dreams, your absolutely correct doctrinal statement which pretty much makes everybody else’s doctrinal statement incorrect?

Man, is it ever hard to live out this scripture: “I [Paul] consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24 NIV).

It’s the grand irony. The closer you live to nothing, the more you are emptied of yourself, the more open you are to God, who is everything! Yet I have to confess: I hate this because I love myself so darn much.

Good for nothin’

Ok, so what on earth is all this good for? Well, of course, nothing is good for you. You get the peace of God that passes all understanding. You get to trade elusive happiness for priceless contentment. The joy of the Lord becomes your sustaining strength. To put it another way, you’ll find yourself getting along with yourself!

You’ll also find yourself getting along with others. Even loving your enemies. Because it’s not about you anymore. It’s about Jesus in you. Totally. And Jesus in you loves the people you hate more than you love the people you love.

My wife and I wrote our wedding vows. Shallow me included Colossians 1:15-20 (NIV).

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that [ponder this] in everything he might have the supremacy.

Everything in this world, everything in this life is lost in the shadow of the One by whom all things were created. But there’s more:

19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], 20 and through him [ponder this too] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As Jesus becomes the center of the universe, everything is reconciled to him, and as everything and everyone gets closer and closer to Jesus, everyone gets closer to one another. When Jesus is fully Lord over us, nothing can come between us.

Jesus plus nothing is why Christians of every persuasion are able to enter into the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Jews and Gentiles. Men and women. Rich and poor. African, Asian, Anglo, and Latino. Catholics and Protestants. To be one. Because we are all one in Christ Jesus, as he and the Heavenly Father are one.


Jesus prayed for us to be as one with one another, and the Triune God is one with himself? Yes, the perfect union of the Persons of the Trinity is our model for Christian unity, absolutely nothing between us. In fact, perfect community is the very image of God in and among us. And God (Elohim, plural) said, “Let us create human persons in our image.” So in the image God (Elohim) made he them, male and female, made he them (Gen. 1:26-27).

And those two very different people, a man and a woman, became one flesh, one with each other, an image of the perfect, eternal oneness of the triune Being of God.

Through his work on the cross, Jesus not only forgives our sins, but he opens the door to a new creation, a new world where the lion lies down with the lamb, a new humanity where people with extraordinary differences become one in the One God who is One. Jesus has destroyed the dividing walls of hostility and made the two one: God and fallen humanity—and all the fragments of fallen humanity.

Next time you participate in Holy Communion, consider this: it’s not about just you ‘n God. It’s a celebration of our co-union with Christ. Every week around the globe, his body is broken into millions of fragments, bits of bread which each of us consume to heal our fractured lives and fragmented relationships. Jesus was broken so we can be put back together.

Nothin’ but Jesus

The Corinthian Christians are a case study of division in the church and how to bring the fragments of the body of Christ back together. God’s people in Corinth weren’t getting along. They had their reasons. You know, everyone always has their reasons. Some were following one apostle, other another. Like Luther. Or Calvin. Or Wesley. Or Pope Francis.

According to Paul, they were behaving like children, or worse, they were unspiritual, carnal (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).

What to do? Nothing!

Listen to Paul, “I am determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2 NASB). Nothing except Jesus. Jesus plus nothing. As we take up the cross, we become dead to the world and alive to God, dead to ourselves and alive to one another.

To me, this is the practical outworking of Jesus plus nothing. In contrast, when you add things to Jesus, when your life is about Jesus plus this or that, it’s the this-or-that which becomes, in effect, more important than Jesus himself. It’s the plus-something that becomes our point of division, misunderstanding, even hostility. It could be a doctrine. Our denomination. How we do church. Or in a marriage, a relationship, or at work, it’s the issue that divides us, never Jesus.

Ponder Paul’s approach to the problem of disunity in Corinth: nothing except Jesus, the introduction of the idea how we are all members of one another in the body of Christ, and the supremacy of love in the transcendent words of 1 Corinthians 13. God is love, and love does.

Nothin’ matters. Not spiritual gifts. Not knowing it all, like having several seminary degrees. Not faith to move mountains. Not giving away everything you have. Not even giving your life away in blazing martyrdom. Nothing. Nothing but love matters. If we don’t do everything in love, we’re just making a lot of noise. And the very best of religion can make the worst kind of noise.

Resolution or reconciliation?

You can always find Jesus plus something when someone is more concerned about resolution than they are about reconciliation. Resolution focuses on the problem, but reconciliation focuses on the person. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not holding our sins against us. In fact, a study on forgiveness some years ago at UCLA found that there was no correlation between conflict resolution skills and long-term marriages. What was common? Empathy and forgiveness.

But Jesus plus the issue keeps the conflict—and the division that comes with it—alive. So what’s your thing? What’s your issue that’s putting Jesus in the shadows? The “irreconcilable difference” in your marriage? What marriage doesn’t have those?! Praying to Mary? If you don’t, is God going to think less of you? If you do, are you going to hell?

Who is anyone to speak for God and tell others that what they are doing or the way they are living their life is a breaking point for God? I don’t pray to Mary. It’s just that my soul venerates so many other things. And so does yours. Yes, things matter, but mostly nothing matters. Nothing has to be our starting point for everything.

I know this ain’t so religious, but why can’t we all sing this song from the musical “Porgy and Bess”?

I got plenty o’nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me

I got no car, got no mule, I got no misery

Folks with plenty of plenty, they got a lock on the door

Afraid somebody’s gonna rob ’em while they’re out a’makin’ more

What for?

I got no lock on the door, that’s no way to be

They can steal the rug from the floor, that’s OK with me

’cause the things that I prize, like the stars in the skies, are all free

Say, I got plenty o’nothin’ and nothin’s plenty for me

I got my gal, got my song, got heaven the whole day long

Posted in John 17 Unity | Comments Off on Plenty of Nothin’

The Mother of All Oxymorons: Born-Again Catholics

Or maybe not…

Portions of Los Angeles were ablaze. Victim of a brutal beating, Rodney King cried out with a quivering voice, “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?”

Three years later In July 1995, he was arrested by Alhambra, California, police for hitting his wife with his car and knocking her to the ground.

So, Rodney, why can’t you get along with your wife?

Why is our world ravaged by war? Why do church people take each other to court? Drag their children through a hateful divorce?

Why will some of you, after you read this article, decide never again to read anything Gary Kinnaman writes?

It’s ridiculously simple: everyone is profoundly self-centered, and even the most insecure human being, deep down inside, believes they are right and others are wrong. And sometimes you are so right and the other person is so wrong, you just have t’ kill ‘em.

Like Jesus.

They’re nailing him to the cross. A crude hammer is striking rusty spikes. Above the banging and the clamor of the crowd, we hear another quivering voice, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34 NASB).

Whoever does that? Forgives the people who are crucifying them?! Man, it’s gotta be a God-thing!

Yet look directly into the eyes of the crucified Christ and listen to him say softly to you, “I forgive you. So ‘when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins’ (Mark 11:25 NIV).”

Enemies of the cross

Jesus came to make peace with God. For us. It cost him his life, and his death on the cross is the centerpiece of the Christian faith. The cross isn’t just an emblem of the Savior’s sacrifice. It’s also a symbol of our own journey as we follow the Christ of the cross. Jesus said famously, “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NIV, italics mine).

Daily. That word in the verse above just pierced my soul, because daily I’m livin’ for me.

The apostle Paul embraced this when he wrote, “My brothers in Christ Jesus our Lord, my life is one long death.”1

And this: “For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4:11-12 NASB).

Yet as my friend Al Ells likes to say, “The church is filled with people who are enemies of the cross.” What does that mean? Simply that people follow their own pursuits and don’t pursue Christ and the cross. Again, Saint Paul writes, “For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19 NIV, italics mine).

It’s the “earthly things” that always get between me and Jesus. Hebrews calls them “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”2 That would include all the differences between and among us, differences that lead to strife and division, the dividing walls of hostility.4

Can I make this ridiculously simple one more time? Jesus died to reconcile me to God, and Jesus died to reconcile me to others. He died to destroy every dividing wall of hostility. Jesus forgives our sins and ends our divisions. Certainly this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the fiercely divided church in Corinth,

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought…. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:10,13 NIV)

And what’s Paul’s ridiculously simple solution to the problem? Jesus plus nothing.

For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2 NIV, italics mine).

Nothing except Jesus.

Jesus plus nothing.

Diametrically opposed to this affirmation is legalism: Jesus plus something, like circumcision, for example, in Galatians. Jewish Christians insisted that new Gentile Christians (just the men, of course) must be circumcised. Paul stands up to these “Judaizers,” because his hope was built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Jesus plus nothing.

Jesus-plus-something is the tap root of legalism, as Paul writes, “You have become estranged from Christ [Jesus plus circumcision], you who attempt to be justified by law… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love… This persuasion [Jesus plus circumcision. Jesus plus anything] does not come from Him who calls you. A little leaven [Jesus plus anything] leavens the whole lump” (Galatians 5:4-9 NKJV).

So are Catholics really Christians?

Catholics pray to Mary and believe in Purgatory. Well, you know, the only way you can be saved is Jesus plus not praying to Mary. That’s Jesus plus something. Jesus plus not praying to Mary. And which means that people who believe in salvation by grace alone don’t really believe that, because they believe that praying to Mary trumps grace. If you want to be saved, you have to believe in Jesus, but you can’t pray to Mary. So I guess we are not really saved by grace alone. There are conditions! Yes, you have to believe that Jesus died for your sins, but you can’t pray to Mary. In other words, it is Jesus plus something, Jesus plus not praying to Mary or any other saints!

No, I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t pray to Mary. I believe in salvation by grace alone, which means that if I do something wrong, or I do something that someone thinks is not biblical, God’s grace trumps that. In me. In you. In Catholics. In people who are not Catholic.

I presume most of my readers are not Catholic. So tell me, are you a better person than a Catholic who believes Jesus died on the cross for their sins?

“Oh, wait,” you say, “just believing isn’t enough. You have to believe the right things.

How many right things? All the right things? Most of the right things, like 87%? Or maybe you can believe a few wrong things, but not really wrong things? And not too many wrong things?

Is it really possible for anyone to believe everything exactly and correctly? The Apostle Paul writes about this: “I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.”4 In other words, it’s either Jesus plus nothing or doing everything right without Jesus. Or believe everything exactly correctly.

Hundreds of years before Paul, the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV)

And this: “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night— 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it” (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 NIV).

Here’s something else that’s ridiculously simple: Either God does it all, or you have to do it all. Grace and human effort are mutually exclusive. Like oil and water. You can’t mix ‘em.

Listen to this,

The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ… Conversely, to seek justification by works means trying to save yourself through one’s own efforts… Justification by works means that man wants to construct a little immortality of his own. He wants to make of his life a self-sufficient totality. Such an enterprise is always sheer illusion.

This is exactly Paul’s argument in Galatians: “How foolish can you be? After starting your new lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3, NLT)

So do you agree with the statement above that “justification by works” means trying to save yourself through your own efforts? Can you guess who wrote this? Martin Luther? Phillip Yancy? Billy Graham?

No, Joseph Ratzinger. That would be Pope Benedict XVI.5

So even the Catholics believe in justification by faith!

Yeah, but

But what? You think Catholics believe all kinds of other goofy things?

Like you don’t? And like God can’t handle their goofy things but he overlooks yours?

In my view, this is all so wacky. I’m glad it’s the view of God’s Word too: “If I … can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge … but do not have love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2 NASB). This is to say that, if I believe everything there is to believe and I believe it all accurately, without love, I’m just a lot of loud noise.

At the core of the Christian life is the unconditional love of God, agape, for me to be saved and through me to offer a pathway for others to be saved: “A new command I give you: Love (agapao) one another. As I have loved you…. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35 NIV. Italics mine).

So you think you know something? That your understanding of the Bible is more accurate than the understanding of your brothers? Paul would like you to know that “those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know” (1 Corinthians 8:2 NIV).

So why can’t we all just get along? Because some of us are just more right than others, and sometime others are so wrong, we have to beat ‘em, like Rodney King. Or kill ‘em, like Catholics and Protestants have done to each other for centuries.

At the very least, if we don’t kill ‘em, we sure can’t eat with ‘em. According to Galatians, St. Peter couldn’t eat with the uncircumcised Christians even though he knew he—and they—were saved by grace alone.

Think about it: Peter knew he had denied Jesus three times in one night, and Jesus still loved him. Forgave him. Restored him.

Of course, denying Jesus three times is not nearly as bad as being uncircumcised! Do you think Peter thought to himself, “At least I repented”?

As for you, is there anything you think about the Bible or God that isn’t exactly correct? Do you even know what part of your thinking isn’t exactly correct?

I like the way the ancient prophet was thinking about himself, about all of us: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and it is exceedingly perverse and corrupt and severely, mortally sick! Who can know it [perceive, understand, be acquainted with his own heart and mind]? (Jeremiah 17:9, Amplified Bible). In simple terms, everything I think is distorted in some way by my sin, and even when I do have it right in my head, my behavior is sinful. Like when I’m so right it makes me mad.

So being right becomes more important that being kind.

Can anyone ever get everything right about God? Or maybe, just maybe, is there something about God that transcends human understanding?

Our western culture has placed a premium on being right. Being doctrinely right is more important than serving others, especially people we think are not right. Or the ones we think are really wrong. Like Democrats. Or Republicans. Or Calvinists. Or gay people.

The ultimate question for every person is this: How big is Jesus in your life? Is he Lord of everything? Do you take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ?6

Jesus plus something makes Jesus less than everything. And when your life is about Jesus plus something, the something always becomes bigger than Jesus. It’s what I’ve written about in my newest book Honey, I Just Shrunk Jesus.

Jesus plus something and your marriage

My grandfather did our wedding. Not fully understanding the implications of the passage, Marilyn and I put Colossians 1:15-18 into our marriage vows:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.7

That last line, Jesus supreme in all things, is the master key to everything. For him to be preeminent in my life, in my wife’s life, in our marriage, means that nothing else can push him aside. No difference. No issue. Jesus is the glue that holds us together, and the bridge over every raging river in our relationship.

Anything that takes us down is something that, for one or both of us, has become bigger and stronger that Jesus. Oh yes, we believe in Jesus, but this issue … blah, blah, blah. Yep, it’s the issue that’s ruling your life, not Jesus. And honey, you just shrunk Jesus.

So if there are divisions in the church? I am determined to know nothing else but Jesus Christ and him crucified.8

And if there are problems in your home? “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.9

And you’re having issues with your neighbor? Or the guy in the big black pickup on the freeway? Let your kindness be evident to all, for the Lord is near.10

Don’t you just love this tune by Darlene Zschech?

Jesus at the center of it all
Jesus at the center of it all
From beginning to the end
It will always be, it’s always been You
Jesus, Jesus

Nothing else matters,
Nothing in this world will do
‘Cause Jesus You’re the center,
Everything revolves around You
Jesus You,
At the center of it all,
At the center of it all

Jesus be the center of my life
Jesus be the center of my life
From beginning to the end
It will always be, it’s always been You
Jesus, Jesus

Jesus be the center of Your church
Jesus be the center of Your church
And every knee will bow
And every tongue shall confess You
Jesus, Jesus
Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus, Jesus,
Jesus, Jesus

1 1 Corinthians 15:31, Bible in Basic English
2 Hebrews 12:1 NIV
3 Ephesians 2:14 NIV
4 Galatians 5:3
5 Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life (CUA Press, 1988, p. 99)
6 2 Corinthians 10:5
7 Italics mine
8 1 Corinthians 2:2
9 Ephesians 5:21 NIV
10 Philippians 4:5
Posted in John 17 Unity | Comments Off on The Mother of All Oxymorons: Born-Again Catholics

MINISTRY HIGHLIGHTS – Third Quarter 2015

Networking Leaders/Impacting Our Community

American Bible Society (ABS) This is, perhaps, the most significant opportunity and assignment I’ve had since leaving my lead pastor position at Word of Grace. The American Bible Society, two hundred years old and founded by such notables as our second president, John Adams, have made a 21st Century commitment to reverse the alarming trend of Bible illiteracy in America. They have chosen three cities to ‘test-market’ their efforts: New York, Philadelphia, and yes, Phoenix. ABS has reached out to me to lead their efforts in Phoenix, which according to the Barna Group, placed a shameful 92nd in biblical literacy among American’s 100 largest cities. We will be working with local churches and city movements in the Valley, in partnership with ABS and the Barna Group, which means I have the opportunity to serve in ministry with my son, David. As most of you know, David is the principal owner and President of the Barna Group ( and

  • Catholics. Since the first of May, God has been opening one door after another. As you likely know, God has given me unusual favor with the Catholic Community. In a personal meeting with Bishop Olmstead, I encouraged him to launch a Bible engagement movement in the Phoenix dioceses. Here is his response:


Thank you for following up with my secretary about the Bible Engagement initiative of the American Bible Society. I appreciate our recent conversation about this and other matters, and I assure you of our interest in this ecumenical initiative to promote the Word of God.

The individual from the diocesan offices that has agreed to serve as the point person for the Diocese of Phoenix is Angela Gaetano, Director of Parish Leadership Support in Family Catechesis. I am sure that you will find her most capable of working with you on this project.

May the Lord bless you and these efforts to make Him better known and loved.

+Thomas J. Olmsted

P.S. Thank you for the books by your son David on what the new generation thinks about Christianity. I find Chapter 6 of UnChristian to be especially thought-provoking


  • Veterans. We are also reaching out to the veterans’ community in the Valley. Did you know that 1 out of 10 adults in Phoenix is a veteran! We’ve established a team of top-tier leaders to form a faith-based team to work through local churches to reach and empower vets and active military. See and
  • Trauma Healing. Interested in serving others like Jesus, setting the captives free? Consider attending the Trauma Healing Institute in December. I’ve been assisting key leaders in the Valley to organize and implement this movement. See

John 17 Movement. We had over 2000 people attend our John 17 special event at the Phoenix Convention Center on Pentecost weekend (see photo below). Worship was extraordinary, both Phoenix Bishops attended, I spoke on “Nothing but Jesus” and Pope Francis shared a personal nine-minute video with us. You can read more about this on our website


Chair of Congressman Matt Salmon’s Council on Faith and Community. Congressman Salmon wrote to me, “I wanted to take a moment and express my appreciation to you for accepting my invitation to serve as Chairman of the Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership Advisory Council. Your service will not only be of great benefit to me and my office, but also the constituents of Arizona’s 5th Congressional District.” Our Council is focusing its efforts on mental health issues—and personal and community trauma.


image2The best times of our lives. Our nine grandchildren together mid-summer at our son David’s home. Annika made the sign: WELCOME TO CAMP KINNAMAN


L. Our son Matt (far left) with the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, at the dedication of the keel laying of the newest US submarine. R. Our second grandchild Annika graduating from 8th Grade at her Christian school. Where does the time go???

image5At Glacier Point in Yosemite last spring. We camped a night here on our honeymoon in another century.

Your Continued Financial Support

Help us! Invest in the amazing things God is doing through Nothing But Grace! Thank you for your regular and generous financial support. We can receive tax-deductible donations directly to Nothing But Grace LLC, 3769 E Morrison Ranch Pkwy, Gilbert AZ 85296. We’re also set up to receive contributions through PayPal:

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on MINISTRY HIGHLIGHTS – Third Quarter 2015