Jesus is for Losers

The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining … saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax-collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:30-32)

The above passage from Luke’s Gospel is from the conversion story of Levi the tax collector (versions of which appear in all three synoptics). Most often, it is commented upon as follows: “A self-righteous man does not recognize his need for salvation, but an admitted sinner does.” That’s true enough, I suppose. And here’s where we might expect the apostle Paul to chime in: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Jesus, however—in this passage, at least—is much less inclusive. Avoiding any debate about predestination or human nature, he frames his mission statement succinctly: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Later on—after embracing yet another despised Roman collaborator (named Zacchaeus)—Jesus would elaborate: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). In other words, not those considered the “best” people, but those regarded as the worst.

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Driving Skeptics Crazy

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18).

Very recently—because his name came up in something I was reading—I found myself contemplating (what I consider to be) the tragic figure of Bart Ehrman. For those of you who don’t recognize his name, Bart Denton Ehrman is a highly-regarded scholar whose work focuses on textual criticism of the New Testament, questions about the historical Jesus, and the development of early Christianity. He has written or edited some 30 or so books, including five New York Times bestsellers.

Why do I consider him a tragic figure? Because—although he was once a kind of leading light in Christian circles—Ehrman ultimately rejected Christianity altogether.

Ehrman began his career with impeccably evangelical credentials (he is an alumnus of both the Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College). Then he earned both an M.Div. and a Ph.D. at Princeton Seminary. Sometime after that, the wheels came off his Christian faith. As Ehrman explained it in 2008:

About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future … he would set to rights all that was wrong … We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking. 1

Yes. The problem of pain. “Theodical angst,” as someone has called it. How can a good God allow evil and suffering in the world? That’s a legitimate question which, sooner or later, confronts every person of faith. And it’s one for which I, at least, have never found a satisfying answer, over more than 20 years of pastoral ministry. Bad things do happen to good people. And in the face of misfortune, I am often left wondering—along with Bart Ehrman—“Where is God in all this?”

Like I said, I’ve never found a satisfying answer. Yet I still believe in God and in God’s goodness. And as I ponder the reason for that, I refer back to my reflections in some of my earlier posts. 2

Essentially, I believe because my own previous direct experiences of the Divine compel me to do so. God has shown up in my life in ways that are both profound and—for me—utterly convincing. I simply do not any longer have the option of doubt—at least not when it comes to the existence of a personal God. It occurs to me that what I possess in this regard is not really faith; it is concrete certainty.

Statements like I’ve just made drive skeptics crazy. And it’s easy to understand why. Such statements are completely unverifiable. Encounters with God experienced by an individual—and then later reported by the same individual—cannot be proven by the scientific method. They fall into the realm of “subjective reality.” From the inside, they appear absolutely concrete—but from the outside … Well, they just sound crazy. And when it comes to the “problem of pain,” they don’t really offer much insight. But perhaps this is where faith comes in: I am certain of God’s existence; I have faith in his goodness, based on my subjective experience of him.

Trouble is, the vast majority of people—including most professing Christians—never have anything like this kind of convincing subjective experience. Clearly, Bart Ehrman never had one. Left with only the tools of scholarship—logic, textual criticism, and the cold rationality of critical thinking—he found himself unable to remain in the company of those who enthusiastically claim for themselves Paul’s epithet: “We are fools for Christ” (1 Cor. 4:10). Ehrman’s “agnosticism leaning toward atheism” is not a surprising thing. He could hardly have arrived at a different conclusion. I get that.

Even so, I continue to be amazed by the fact that—even in our secular scientific age—so many of us continue to profess some kind of religious faith. Not that long ago, a survey by Carleton University and the Association for Canadian Studies found 30% of Canadians polled agreed with the statement “I know God really exists and I have no doubts.”3 That’s way more than I would have guessed!

And in the United States—according to another recent survey—only about 3 percent of Americans describe themselves as “atheist.”4

What does all this mean? I’m not sure. Studies like these rarely ask people what kind of God they do or do not believe in. But it seems clear that—even if organized religion is on its way out—God refuses to leave us.

Whatever sort of faith … or certainty … or doubt we may have … it looks like the Almighty is in this for the long haul.







Not Far From the Kingdom of God: Albert Einstein’s Religion

I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds.” —Albert Einstein1

I have of late immensely enjoyed reading Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Albert Einstein (Einstein: His Life and Universe, Simon & Schuster, 2008). Focusing upon Einstein’s personality rather than simply upon his theories, Isaacson opens a fascinating window into the personal life of this complicated yet humble genius—a man who loved music, but hated wearing socks; who considered himself a pacifist, yet urged Franklin Roosevelt to build an atomic bomb. More than this, however, Isaacson devotes much of his book to an examination of the renowned physicist’s religious views.

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“THIS IS FOR ALLAH!” No, it isn’t.

Saturday night. It could have been anywhere. But it was England. And it was London.

Three terrorists shouted “this is for Allah” as they stabbed random victims during the horrifying van and knife rampage at London Bridge …

The three attackers were in a white Renault transit van which rammed pedestrians on the bridge just after 10:00 p.m. (London time) on June 3. Then they drove to Borough Market, where they began indiscriminately stabbing members of the public before being gunned down.

The attackers have been praised on social media by ISIS militants and supporters, and the Islamic state group has claimed responsibility.

Less than two weeks ago, a suicide bomber killed 22 children and adults at a concert by singer Ariana Grande at Manchester Arena in northern England. Five people died in March after a man drove into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in central London and stabbed an unarmed police officer.

“This is for Allah!” No. No, it isn’t.

On Sunday, Harun Khan, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain, denounced the terrorist attacks at London Bridge and Borough Market, saying those who would commit such atrocities during Ramadan “respect neither life nor faith.”

“I am appalled and angered,” Khan said. “These acts of violence were truly shocking and I condemn them in the strongest terms. Muslims everywhere are outraged and disgusted at these cowards who once again have destroyed the lives of our fellow Britons.”

“This is for Allah!” No, it isn’t.

Above all else, terrorism is murder, and murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. Qur’an 6:151 says, “do not kill a soul that God has made sacrosanct …” And of one who kills an innocent person, Qur’an 5:53 says, “it is as if he has slain all humankind. And whoever saves one, it is as if he has saved humankind entirely.”

In fact, the Qur’an demands of believers that they exercise justice toward others—even when they have reason to be angry with them: “O you who have believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness.”[5:8]

“This is for Allah!” No. No, it isn’t.

Brutal, unprovoked violence against those who have done you no harm—this is not the will of Allah. It is not the work of God, any more than witch trials or Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or the kidnapping of aid workers. Or public beheadings documented on video.

No. The massacres in London and in Manchester may have been carried out in God’s name—but certainly not in accordance with God’s will.

Well, then … with whose? With whose will could such atrocities accord? And what sort of people could carry them out?

“You are from your father the devil,” Jesus said. “And you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (JOHN 8:44).

Yes. The “father of lies.” The one who is the polar opposite of truth.

As someone has remarked, “Satan is very good at his job.” I think the ongoing global struggle against terrorism is a perfect illustration of that point. Not only are unoffending individuals being maimed and killed—not only are young lives being needlessly and senselessly cut short—but members of the three great Abrahamic religions are being dragged into a swirling vortex of destruction and hatred.

The plan is as simple as it is ingenious. With each fresh act of barbarism, Christians and Jews alike find themselves tempted to embrace hatred—to return evil for evil. Whether that means defacing the exterior of a mosque, or bullying and threatening Muslims in our communities, or enforcing a travel ban on persons from Islamic countries—or even (God forbid) picking up weapons ourselves—when we embrace hatred, we are buying into a lie. A lie about Muslims. A lie which convinces us that, somehow, Muslims are different. Not like us. Not capable of loving their children the way we love ours. Without a moral sense like ours. Lacking every vestige of compassion. And therefore, somehow, less human than we are.

Of course, all of that is … well, lies! It’s hogwash. But it is sophisticated hogwash, intricately crafted in the bowels of hell. Don’t believe it. Believe, instead, in the goodness and decency of the Muslim folk whom you know—those you work with, or go to school with, or with whom you trust those things most important to you. Refuse to play the devil’s game—because he is the only one who ever wins it!

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (MATT. 5:43-45).


Almighty God, you give us power—but we don’t use it. You send us your Spirit of courage and truth and healing—yet we cower in fear. Clinging to illusions and refusing to let go of our hurts, we lash out at our neighbours. Regarding them as enemies, we view them as somehow less than ourselves—less human, less valued, less beloved by you. Spirit of forgiveness, blow through our lives! Burn up every trace of timidity, deceit, and resentment. Make us better disciples of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.



Back in 2003, renowned British atheist Richard Dawkins travelled to Sudbury, Ontario in search of God.

Well, sort of. Dawkins’s pilgrimage was made to a neuroscience laboratory at Laurentian University to try on Dr. Michael Persinger’s famous “God Helmet.”

If you’ve never heard of the “God Helmet,” you must not be a fan of pop psychology or dumbed-down neuroscience (and if that’s the case, good for you!).


What We Will Be

TEXT: 1 John 3:1-3

In 1905, the American novelist, poet, and playwright Gertrude Stein was asked by the great Pablo Picasso to sit for a portrait. She was 31 years old at the time, but in Picasso’s rendering of her, Stein appears as a much older woman. Interestingly, the writer herself loved the painting—but others have described it as “dark, brooding, and strange.”1

Asked about his portrait of Gertrude Stein, Picasso famously said: “Everybody says that she does not look like it—but that does not make any difference. She will!2

In our text from the First Epistle of John, we read: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 JOHN 3:2).

God wants to make us look like Jesus. “When he is revealed, we will be like him.” God intends to work in us, and work with us, and work on us—until we fully reflect the spirit and character of Christ.

Part of what it means for a person to be “in Christ”3—or what it means for all of us to belong to the “body” of Christ4—is simply this: when God looks at us, he sees Jesus. He sees the likeness of his Son—right now, when the Father looks at us, that is what he sees.

Others—perhaps especially those closest to us—may not think we look very much like Jesus, at this point. But that does not make any difference. We will! That is the promise of Scripture—and of the living God.

Continue reading “What We Will Be”

“I AM,” HE SAID TEXT: John 10:1-16

Imagine that you are a first-century Christian—a member of one of the house-churches for which the apostle John wrote his Gospel. Perhaps you are a Jewish Christian—one of many who have been expelled from the synagogue because of your belief in Jesus.

You’re meeting in a small group, praying for strength and courage, clinging to unpopular beliefs. You face huge challenges, and you have plenty of reasons to be worried.
Then the worship leader begins to read the apostle’s account, and you hear the words of Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
“I am the good shepherd.” You hear those words, and you remember. From previous worship services, you recall other “I am” sayings. Jesus said he was bread and light and life; a path, a gate, a vine. And suddenly your heart is rendered peaceful, as you remember that Jesus provides all that you need.

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God in Three Persons, Blessed Trinity

This Lord’s Day past was that one which rolls around every year on the liturgical calendar, right after the Day of Pentecost.

Trinity Sunday.

And once again, I joined the company of preachers all over the world who approached it, asking: “What can I say about this?”

Not that there’s a shortage of things to say about the Trinity. In fact, that’s part of the problem. What we sermon-writers struggle with is really a two-fold question: “What can I say about this gigantic subject in the slight time available?” and “What can I say that won’t put the congregation to sleep?”

On both counts, this is a daunting challenge.

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Direct Experience of God: Part 2

Sunday, April 10, 2016 ~ Easter 3

TEXTS: John 21:1-19 and Acts 9:1-20

Let’s continue our reflections about “objective reality” and “subjective reality”—and how each of these can bear witness to the truth about God. Last time, I focused on objective reality—on concrete, undeniable proof—in relation to the resurrection of Jesus. The kind of evidence that presented itself to Mary Magdalene when the risen Christ greeted her outside the empty tomb. Or which confronted the disciples inside that locked room, when Jesus “came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” and displayed the still-fresh wounds of his crucifixion.

In Luke’s account of this event, Jesus says, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (LUKE 24:39). Anyone who witnessed those events would be left with no doubt whatsoever about the literal reality of Jesus’ resurrection. No one present could thereafter deny the truth of the statement, “Christ is risen.” Continue reading “Direct Experience of God: Part 2”

Direct Experience of God: Part 1

Sunday, April 3, 2016 ~ Easter 2

TEXTS: John 20:19-31 and Acts 5:27-32

A young man went to his rabbi and said, “I have lost faith.”

“So,” said the rabbi, “how did you lose faith?”

“I studied Logic at the university,” said the young man, “and I found out that—if you’re clever enough—you can prove either side of any case.”

“I see,” said the rabbi. “Can you prove that you have no nose?”

“Certainly,” said the student. “To begin with …”

But at this point the rabbi punched him—right in the nose!

And then the rabbi asked him, “What hurts?”

My friends, there is an objective reality! There is also a subjective reality—which I’ll talk about next week.

But this week and next week, I will be talking about “direct experience of God.” That’s right. Direct experience. Concrete, tangible, in-your-face evidence that this God whom we worship is real. Not a metaphor. Not a figment of our imagination. But real, and personal, and desiring a relationship with each one of us. Continue reading “Direct Experience of God: Part 1”