To Be Set on Fire :: Makoto Fujimura, “Pentecost”

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Makoto Fujimura, Pentecost, Mineral Pigments and Gold on Kumohada over Board; 2008.

What must the early disciples have been holding in their hearts and minds in those days after Jesus’ ascended? His final words to them were drenched with weighty anticipation: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). They knew it would be some gift of His Spirit coming on them with power for witness (Acts 1:8), but when or how it would happen or what exactly would happen were undefined. And so, they waited in worship and prayer until the festival of Pentecost arrived. The celebration of Pentecost in the Jewish calendar focused on thanking God for the firstfruits of the harvest, and later for the giving of the Law through Moses on Mount Sinai. But now there was something new happening, as the fires of Sinai touched earth, and the ingathering of God’s kingdom came. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4). The early gathering of ordinary people was transformed by God’s indwelling presence. Contemporary artist Makoto Fujimura developed a series of liturgical paintings for a local congregation in Princeton, NJ, through paired diptychs: Advent/PentecostEpiphany/EasterLent/Good Friday and two Ordinary Time paintings. Fujimura’s unique Nihonga-influenced style brings together rich colors and radiant gold within this painting. Amidst ordinary worship, this congregation, and all who view it, are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

The Wonder of the Cross: my 2022 Good Friday message

A few people asked me if I would post my message from yesterday’s Good Friday services at Eastbrook, so here it is. The message was based out of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”


“Oh the cross…what You’ve done…It was more than enough…Oh the cross…what You’ve done…the power of Your blood was more than enough.” Those are the striking words we’ve just sung together.

In a letter to early Christians in the cosmopolitan city of Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes these striking words: 

“For the message of 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)

How can it be that this message – this gospel – can simultaneously be foolishness to one group and simultaneously reflect God’s power to another group? How can it be that on the one hand some people discount the message of the Cross as utter stupidity (the Greek is the same root word from which we derive our word “moron”) while on the other hand other people would describe it as the wisdom of God? 

I believe it is both puzzling and somewhat understandable. Let me lead us today in a reflection on five aspects of the crucifixion of Jesus which could be seen as utter foolishness and yet reveal the power and wisdom of God.

First, in His incarnation, which leads to the crucifixion, Jesus the Messiah took on human flesh so that God might restore broken humanity from the inside out, bringing us back to God.

The insurmountable gap between a holy God and a sinful humanity could not be crossed from the human side. It required God’s initiative. Not only did it require God’s initiative, but God took initiative by doing something that may seem utterly shocking and incomprehensible. God entered human experience and life to bring human life back from the inside. God took on human flesh and bone and, in a sense, lived in our skin. God entered the everyday aspects of flesh-bound human experience. As Eugene Peterson captures it in The Message, “The Word [that’s Jesus] became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). Jesus lived a perfect human life within the flesh. He was not an alien being in our midst, but became one of us, to bring our everyday flesh-bound human experience back to God. Our everyday lives are made sacred with God because Jesus lived an everyday life for God, too.

Second, in the crucifixion, Jesus the Messiah died under sin’s power that we might be set free from sin’s power.

Since the time of Adam and Eve, humanity has been caught under the power and influence of sin. It is something we see and experience in the world around us: the violence of one person against another, injustice and prejudice that pit one group against another, the misuse of money that enriches some at the expense of others, the tendency of nations toward war, and so much more. We see and experience that also in ourselves: the way we desire things we shouldn’t have while ignoring the gifts right in front of us, the lies we tell, both big and small, the cycles of addiction we cannot seem to get free from, the hurts some inflict on us that warp our thinking and the hurts we inflict on others that do the same to them. We are, as it were, trapped in a prison of sin. To remove someone from prison, you can send a message that they are free, but eventually someone must come and open the door. Someone must come into the prison to liberate the captives. And this is exactly what Jesus did.

Although it may seem strange or foolish to say that Jesus must die for our sins, Jesus could not deal with sin partially. He had to take the full effects of our captivity upon Himself. And if we, as human beings, are trapped in an endless imprisonment of sin that is not only a life sentence, but also a death sentence… 
Well, Jesus must take that death sentence for us. And so, He enters the prison of sin, takes the death sentence due us, and through the crucifixion and resurrection sets us free from a prison we could never escape from. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Third, in the crucifixion, Jesus the Messiah was beaten and torn that we might be healed and whole in God.

“How could it be,” some might say, “that God would not only enter our human experience and then be beaten and torn for us? If God was powerful, He would not allow such a thing to happen.” Yes, this seems far-fetched, perhaps even like a form of insanity, but God knows this is the only way. If broken human lives are going to be made whole, it requires more than a surgeon. If broken humanity is going to be made right, it requires more than someone watching from the outside and giving advice. In fact, it takes someone fully living life with God from the inside. Otherwise, human beings might always say, “No, it is not possible for meto be whole. No, it is not possible for me to be healed. No, it is not possible for me to be made right.” 

When a budding athlete wants to know how to excel at their sport, they look to those who have gone before them and have excelled. When a writer wants to know how to do their best at their craft, they look to those who have gone before and have mastered it. So, too, if we want to know how to live whole and healed in God, we need a picture of what that can look like, not in abstraction, but in flesh and bone. Jesus walks within human flesh and bone so that we see what it looks like and know, by God’s power, what is possible “Yes, we can be healed in Christ. Yes, we can be whole in God. Yes, things can be made right through Christ.” As Isaiah the prophet tells us:

“The punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5b). 

Fourth, in the crucifixion, Jesus was mocked and vulnerably exposed that we might receive a new identity and restored dignity with God.

One of the most apparently foolish things to claim about Jesus is that He was God, but also that He was vulnerable on earth. In one sense, we know that God is vulnerable all the time. People say all sorts of things about God in the abstract and seem to get away with it. Some people bless God, but others curse Him. Some people say wonderful things about God, while others say terrible things about Him. Amazingly, God seems to handle all that and we don’t think much about it.

But on the Cross Jesus takes on another level of vulnerability. He is terribly mocked by several voices. He is derisively mocked as the Messiah. He is sarcastically mocked as the Son of God. He is mocked in relation to His teaching. He is mocked in relation to His claims to power. 

Beyond the vulnerability of mocking, on the Cross Jesus becomes vulnerable in an even more unimaginable way. I know you may have seen all sorts of artistic renditions of Jesus’ crucifixion, but I hope you don’t mind me telling you that Jesus was stripped absolutely naked to be crucified. Nakedness is the epitome of vulnerability and exposure. And here is Jesus, affixed to a cross in public view, absolutely vulnerable and mocked.

Why would God do this? It may seem foolish. Yet God enters human vulnerability so that no matter what sorts of mocking or exposure we have endured, no matter how vulnerable we have been in our lives, God has been there too. The God of the universe entered that experience to breathe the spiritual breath of His Holy Spirit upon us there. He gives us a new identity as sons and daughters of the most High God, and says that we—mocked, exposed, vulnerable—are worthy of dignity from God. He went to great lengths to show us this. 

Fifth, in the crucifixion and His death, Jesus the Messiah endured pain and separation from God that we might experience the love of belonging with God. 

You may remember that at one point in His crucifixion, Jesus cried aloud, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Jesus experienced real physical pain, but that pain was surpassed by the rending Jesus experienced in relationship with His Father. This is the Father that Jesus had described at one point with this phrase: “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). But on the Cross, Jesus experienced a chasm between Himself and the Father as He took our sin, our pains, our wounds, our mocking, our vulnerability, and more on Himself. 

“How can this even happen? What foolishness is this?”, some might way. We respond, “Only God could do such a thing.” We were lost, like the prodigal son, in a far country but Jesus the true Son came in search of us to bring us back to God. He experienced the agonizing pain of separation from God yet did so that we might find belonging and love in God. As we read in one of Paul’s letters, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith” (Galatians 3:26).

So, ponder with me the wonder of the crucified Jesus. Some may say such a message at the heart of our faith is foolishness, but we say it is the power of God. Or, as the Apostle Paul continues: 

Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)

Thank God for His grace amidst all our false and failed sacrifices that have led Jesus to this Cross. 

And as we savor the gift of salvation won for us at the Cross, may we thank God for Jesus, the real sacrifice, on this Good Friday.

Three Ways God Uses Suffering in Our Lives

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We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

The sufferings we endure are not meaningless within the hands of God. This is true regardless of whether we have brought the suffering upon ourselves or whether it has come upon us through the hands of others or our environment. When we put ourselves in the hands of God by faith, our sufferings are invested with another purpose. As the Apostle Paul outlines here in Romans 5, God takes us in the midst of our sufferings and shapes something valuable into our lives.

First, Paul writes, God shapes perseverance into our lives. This is the capacity to keep going, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Perseverance does not just magically appear in our lives. It is something that we must develop, like a runner suffering through training until she can run a full marathon. While none of us desire suffering, when we submit our suffering to God we free Him to develop perseverance into our lives. Without perseverance, nothing else will come because we will continually push against our circumstances and against God. But as we grow in perseverance, God can have His way in developing us for His glorious purposes.

Along with perseverance, Paul tells us, God uses our sufferings to shape character into our lives. Character is not an abstract gift from God—just an idea about virtue—but is something tangibly confirmed in our lives through the furnace of our trials. If you want character without suffering, you are looking for something else; perhaps a good reputation. If you want character without perseverance, you really want something else; perhaps informational knowledge of what character is. But if we really want character, there is no other way than through the furnace of suffering. Character is developed through trying and testing, like a precious metal refined in the fire as the dross is burned away to reveal its highest quality. Our character is developed and revealed through the fires of suffering combined with our willingness to persevere.

Third, Paul tells us that hope follows character and perseverance when our suffering is given into the hands of God. Hope arises as we persevere amidst the fires of suffering in which character is shaped. Without hope we give up in life, as we know from those who lose a will to live in dire health circumstances or imprisonment. But with hope, we can find meaning in life and keep going. It is by clinging to God by faith amidst suffering that we begin to see that God is indeed doing something else as we bear up in the challenges of life. Contrary to what we perceive with our eyes, God is at work, and this revelation that God is at work brings hope into our lives. We walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul writes elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:7), but it is hope that keeps us walking. When we yield our sufferings to God, letting Him shape Christlike character in us, hope simultaneously springs up as we realize God has not left us alone and is working in our lives.

All of this meaningful work of God amidst suffering is sustained not by sheer human willpower (although the will is significant), but by the Holy Spirit who is the bond of love tying us into the presence of God through Christ. God is at work, completing what He begins in us (Philippians 1:6). God is working within us with the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). And so, even as Christ’s suffering was powerful significant, so, too, when we yield our sufferings to God they bring forth a harvest of righteousness for His glory.

All Real Faith Involves Discipline: Albert E. Day on cooperation with God

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I encountered these provocative words from Albert Edward Day in Discipline and Discovery. While perhaps in some ways using exaggeration to make his point, Day strikes home the importance of cooperating with God in the process of spiritual growth.

True holiness is a witness that cannot be ignored. Real sainthood is a phenomenon to which even the worlding pays tribute. The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship

We have talked much of salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe ‘turning it all over to Jesus.’ Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.’

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for god is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.’ People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperations, is a heartbreak spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not life his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

In all Christian literature there is no writer who had a clearer conviction concerning the salvation provided only in Christ than has Paul. His self-despair ended in that marvelous, ageless insight, ‘I thank God, through Jesus Christ, my Lord.’ ‘I know whom I have believed,’ he cried in an ecstasy of gladness, ‘and am persuaded that he is able.’ Paul was a salvationist, in the noblest sense.

But Paul was also a disciplinarian. ‘I beat my body to keep it in subjection.’ ‘They that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts.’ ‘So fight I, not as one who beateth the air.’ ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon earth.’ ‘Laying aside every weight and the sin which so easily beset us.’ ‘No man that warreth, entangleth himself with the affairs of this life.’ These are not he words of a man who scorned discipline!

On might multiply such statements as these from Paul—all of them the almost spontaneous evidence of the disciplines which he, trusting in Christ, imposed upon himself in his eager effort to give Christ that co-operation without which not even Christ can save a soul and make a saint.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

Prayer as Living within God’s Power and Love (Ephesians 3:14-21)

This past weekend at Eastbrook, we began a new series entitled “Power in Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul.” This first weekend in the series, I took us inside of Ephesians 3:14-21, one of Paul’s notable prayers from this circular letter sent to churches in Ephesus and the surrounding area. I structured the message around two deep longings in our hearts: to have access to power and to find love. Prayer is, in many ways, a direct connection with these longings, as we reach out for power beyond ourselves and also open ourselves to the deepest vulnerability and intimacy possible in the spiritual realm.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement. Each weekend I am also providing some resources for prayer related to the passage or theme of the week.

Resources for prayer

Our life of prayer is fueled by accurate knowledge of God’s power and love. Read through these verses and use them as material for prayer, both this week and in the future:

Understanding God’s love is central to our growth in faith and prayer. Here are some resources that may help us better understand God’s love:

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