Unlock the Door to Heaven

Back in June I walked into St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican unprepared for what I was about to see. 

St. Peter’s Basilica is no ordinary church.  It is one of the largest buildings in the world and certainly the largest church, able to hold up to 60,000 worshippers at one time.  Christians have made pilgrimages there since the original Basilica was constructed in 329…almost 1700 years!  In the 1500s a new basilica, the one that still stands today, was constructed on the same site.

St. Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican

Walking in, I was stunned by the size and grandeur and beauty of the place. If the ancient architects of this place intended to inspire worshipful awe, they succeeded with me. The scale of the place is enormous, like the world’s most ornate airplane hangar, but bigger. Then there’s the opulence. Even those who feel slightly queasy about the accumulated wealth of the church might find themselves inspired by the architecture, the priceless art, the gold, the stained glass, the icons. The beauty and history of the place come together to inspire awe.

Cathedra Petri (“Throne of St. Peter”)

But there is an obvious tension for a Protestant in a place like this. You simply cannot escape the asserted authority of the Catholic church, underlying and hovering over everything. I felt it most with the emphasis on Peter (it’s his basilica, after all). To Catholics, Peter is the first Pope, his authority received directly from Jesus Himself. This same authority has stretched through the centuries and been held by every Pope of the Catholic church. Under the magnificent dome of St. Peter’s, at the intersection of the cross-shaped building, there is an enormous bronze canopy to mark the widely accepted location of St. Peter’s tomb, below the floor.

As I looked up at this canopy representing Peter’s unique place of honor in the church, I was still thinking about a painting I’d just seen in the Sistine Chapel. There, a famous masterpiece by Perugino depicts the moment when Peter received his divine authority: Jesus giving him the keys of the kingdom. Why did Jesus do this? Matthew tells us that when Jesus asked His disciples who they say that He is, Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16). Peter’s answer revealed an understanding of Jesus as the One God sent to save people. The physical embodiment of deity. The fulfillment of ancient promises now standing right in front of them.

Peter’s answer was divinely inspired.  Peter’s answer was pure worship. 

Jesus’s response: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter [Petros, or “little rock”], and on this rock [petra, or “bedrock”], I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17-18).

As I stood above the tomb of Peter, my neck aching from gazing upward at the dome of the basilica named in his honor, my heart thanked God that He did not choose Peter alone to hold all authority in Jesus’s name. Peter was one of a kind, for sure. He was blessed by God with understanding. He was greatly favored by Jesus, and given the great honor of leading the early church.

However, as others have often pointed out, the meaning of the Greek words “Petros” and “petra,” along with an understanding of the context of Jesus’s words, reveal that Jesus’s wordplay both honors Peter and points to a larger foundation. Peter was a rock, but not the bedrock. The truth in Peter’s words is the bedrock. I like John Piper’s succinct explanation of the rock and the keys here. I was also reminded of the same truth in this recent podcast with Pastor Jim White. We Protestants understand Peter not as the first pope, but as the honored representative of the apostles, and of every witness to the power of Christ.

So what about those keys? What are they, if not a unique symbol of Peter’s authority? The literal depictions of Peter holding these keys are a beautiful symbol of something far greater: the ability every believer has to profess the truth Peter first proclaimed—the truth of Jesus as Savior and Lord. Like Peter, we are all empowered to proclaim the saving grace of Jesus. Jesus is the builder of the church, and the cornerstone. Peter and the other apostles are its foundation (Ephesians 2:19-20). You and I stand on that foundation today.

Jesus goes on to explain that the bedrock of faith in Him as Savior and Lord opens the door to the flourishing of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 16:19-20 and 18:18). When everything in our lives is centered on our faith in Jesus, we “bind” and “loose” things on earth in the same way as they are in heaven. Honoring Jesus as the source and ruler of all unlocks the door to the kingdom of heaven. At the very center of the basilica of our hearts we won’t find a canopy honoring precious Peter; we will find Jesus and only Him.

Two weeks after I visited the Vatican, I found myself at the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina.  Hanging in the house are three 500-year old tapestries, and one of them includes a depiction of Peter holding his key.  Except in this case, he appears to be handing the keys to the other apostles. 

Flemish Tapestry at the Biltmore House

I’m not sure if this is the correct interpretation of this image, but I like to think it is. It’s a picture of a simple truth: Jesus has given all of His followers the power to unlock the door to heaven, simply by proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Savior!

We all hold the keys.

Blessings!

Let God In

Everywhere I look, I’m noticing a trend and I bet you are too.  Believers are using social media…like it has nothing to do with God.  Believers are managing (or mismanaging) relationships…like they have nothing to do with God.  Believers are making choices in their personal lives…like those choices have nothing to do with God.

I do this myself.  I while back I was hurt by the words and opinions of someone close to me, and I spun for days trying to think of every possible way to respond.  My first reaction was to lash out or cut this person out; it certainly wasn’t to bring this situation to God.

Why do we act like so much of our lives has nothing to do with God? 

If we really trust Jesus with our eternal salvation, why don’t we trust Him with our daily lives? 

There is a better way. 

Jesus is standing at the door of your heart, knocking.  He says, “Here I am!  I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”   In Revelation 3:20, the apostle John documented these words of Christ to the church at Laodicea, a church that experienced the salvation of God but then became complacent and lukewarm in their faith.  These believers allowed their comfortable lifestyles to lull them into a kind of spiritual sleepiness.  They may have believed, but they ignore their own need for an ongoing, vibrant relationship with Christ. 

Could the same be said of you and of me?  Are we so comfortable that we forget to let God in?  Do we forget our great need for a relationship with our maker?

Jesus wants to come in, and sit with you, and talk with you like a friend at your kitchen table would.  He wants to enter into all your questions, doubts, anxieties and wounds.  My friend, God already knows you, through and through.  He knows your history, your thoughts, your dreams, and your frustrations.  Because He knows you, He has the answers you need in the “small” stuff as well as the big stuff.  He can guide your words and actions, your thoughts and how you express them.  But to enjoy the tangible benefits of that kind of intimacy, you have to let God in. 

Today, before heading off to work, let Him in.  Invite Him to guide your thinking and decision-making. 

Before hitting “send” or “publish,” let Him in.  Seek His confirmation that your words honor Him and the people He created.

Before giving up on that difficult relative, let Him in.  Evaluate whether God’s grace, humility and unity governs your own behavior. 

Before pursuing a personal goal or making any kind of decision, let Him in.  Ask Him for His direction and then be bold enough to follow it.

Will you let God in today? 

The question is more difficult than it seems, because in our complacency we habitually ignore His knocking.  Not only that, but once we’ve invited Him in, we sometimes don’t like what He says.  He might ask us to swallow our pride, face our own sin, own up to our own mistakes.  When I finally took my situation to God in prayer, He revealed some ways that I had contributed to an unhealthy pattern of communication with this loved one.  I had to own that before I could heal and move forward.  It wasn’t easy.

So yes, it can be hard, but whether we let God in matters deeply, because there’s someone else lurking at your door.  Before Cain murdered his brother, God said to him, “…sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7).  Sadly, Cain invited sin in, murdered his brother, and suffered the consequences.  “Cain went out from the Lord’s presence” (Genesis 4:16).  Like Cain, we get to choose who we invite into our homes and our hearts.  And when we leave the Lord out in the cold, we are inviting the devil in. 

It is time to start living as if Jesus is both Eternal Savior and Lord of our daily lives.  It is time we let Him in to every detail.  When we do, we experience an intimacy that leads to His perfect guidance and faithful empowerment in any question, challenge, worry or problem we have.  Even better, His presence within us shines like a light pouring out from the windows and doors of our hearts, inviting others to want more of God for themselves.

All because we let Him in.

Something to think about! Love y’all!

Take Off Your Grave Clothes

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I’m deep in a study of John right now, and revisiting the lovely story of Lazarus.  Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters as dear friends, and His reaction to Lazarus’s death is one of the most touching stories in the Bible.  At first, His disciples are confused because He doesn’t head right over to heal Lazarus when He hears his friend is sick.  But Jesus’s delay is an example of His perfect timing.  He knew Lazarus would die of this sickness, and He knew He’d raise Lazarus from the grave. He also knew this miracle would inspire belief for many witnesses, and thanked God for it.

There’s so much to say about this story, but I want to focus today on what Jesus says to the assembled people at this moment.  Jesus has already commanded the people to roll away the stone at the entrance to the tomb.  They are reluctant, knowing the body would have begun decomposing, but ultimately they do roll the stone away.  Then Jesus tells Lazarus to come out, and he does.  Even though Lazarus has been entombed for four days, his body is not decomposed.  Instead, the man is miraculously intact and alive, still wrapped in the strips of cloth that were wound around dead bodies in those days.

Imagine the shock, maybe even the fear, of the people assembled there!

What does Jesus do next?  He simply says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”  John 11:44. Before Lazarus can step into his new life, he must be released from the confines of these cloths marking him as a dead person, these grave clothes.

Let me ask you: are you still wearing yours?

If you believe God sent Jesus to save us, then you are gifted with new life in Him.  But as we believers stumble into the light of this new life from the darkness of our own tombs, we often find ourselves constrained by the grave clothes we wore before we believed.  We find ourselves bound to old habits and behaviors, old temptations and patterns.  I have experienced this bondage in my own life, sometimes finding myself speaking or behaving as if I never met Jesus!

Maybe it’s human nature to continue as we have always done, ignoring the amazing miracle we have experienced through new life in Christ.  If we haven’t shed those grave clothes, we will continue to be confined by them, even as believers.  What grave clothes are restricting you from experiencing freedom in Christ today?  What old sin belies your new life?  Ask God right now to show you those grave clothes and give you freedom from them.  Welcome the chance to confront what may be holding you back, even if doing so is painful.  I promise, the freedom of being born anew is so worth it.  Today, experience the freedom of stepping forward into the light of new life, unrestricted by death, unencumbered by sin, truly free in Jesus Christ.

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The True Meaning of Emmanuel

It’s hard to believe it, but the aisles are stocked with Christmas, holiday concerts are already being advertised and “Black Friday” seemingly has become “Black November.” It puts me in the mood for hot chocolate and snow days!  Especially around the Christmas season you will hear Jesus referred to by the name Emmanuel, but have you ever wondered why?  Emmanuel means “God with Us.”  Since coming to Jesus fifteen years ago, I have loved that name and its meaning. I love to think of Jesus by my side in all things, “takin’ the wheel,” so to speak.  But a while back God showed me more about this name Emmanuel.  It’s not just a nice name with a cool meaning, but a glimpse of God’s love for you and me, as well as His plan to pursue our hearts.

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At the time, I’d been reading the stories from the Old Testament with my children, and in the evenings my older son and I were also reading much of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.  At the same time, I was studying the book of Revelation through Bible Study Fellowship.  This is where being in the Word gets so cool.  Reading history and prophecy at the same time will blow your mind!  By having one foot in the history of our faith and the other in our certain future, I was able to catch a tiny glimpse of God’s awesome love story.

Here’s the headline: Since the beginning and until the end, God’s desire is to be with us.  His word reveals time and again that he longs to dwell among us.  In the very beginning he walked with us, and we with him, enjoying an unashamed intimacy and personal relationship.  When we (making poor use of our God-gifted free will) decided to reject God and usurp His role, we introduced all kinds of barriers into this relationship.  It has suffered ever since.

But God’s story didn’t end there.  He still relentlessly pursued us.  God appeared as a pillar of cloud and fire which lead the Israelites through the desert.  He later dwelt among them via the physical temple, but unlike in Eden, His physical presence among the Israelites was limited.  The temple was built in such a way as to ensure God’s innermost chamber (the Holy of Holies) would be inaccessible to all people except to the High Priest (and even then only once a year).  This movable temple traveled with the Israelites everywhere they went, ultimately being replaced by the permanent temple at Jerusalem, built by Kings David and Solomon.  There, again, a curtain blocked God’s holy dwelling-place from public view.

But God’s story didn’t end there, either.  At the right moment in human history Jesus–Emmanuel–was born, fulfilling countless Old Testament prophecies as well as God’s divine plan. God again physically walked among us, no longer restricted to that innermost chamber behind the curtain.  Emmanuel–God with us–had come to once again dwell with His people.  Many people in those times recognized Jesus for who he was, and followed him—can you imagine what that was like?  And since His death, Jesus offers all people everywhere the blessing of God’s Holy Spirit, which is God dwelling in us.  Have you heard that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit?  This means it is the physical dwelling-place of God’s spirit the same way that Moses’s temple was a physical dwelling-place for God.

And lest we forget, at Jesus’s death the curtain (or veil, as you may have heard it called) in the temple was torn.  The physical symbol for separation from God was supernaturally destroyed at the moment when God-with-Us fulfilled his purpose of removing all those barriers to relationship with Him.  This is the meat of why Jesus died.  It was to overcome our rejection of God, cleanse us of all those barriers we put up between Him and us, and again dwell with us.  Through Jesus’s sacrifice and this gift of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to walk with God in this life.

Unbelievably, that’s still not even the end of the story.  If you respond to God’s pursuit by turning toward Him, if you believe that Jesus’s death does in fact reconcile you to God and allow Him to dwell with you, there is even more.  God’s response to your commitment of faith is to honor it: to dwell with you in eternity.  This is what we call Heaven.  Revelation teaches us that the final chapter in this love story is a beautiful afterlife characterized by togetherness with our Maker.  Our intimacy with Him will be restored and the beauty of Eden far surpassed.

God’s story, from beginning to end, is the story of His desire to be with us.

When you see the fullness of His pursuit for intimacy with you, across thousands of years and in the face of repeated rejection, does it change the way you respond to Him?  It fills me with overwhelming gratitude. The God of the Universe didn’t just give up on me.  He hasn’t given up on any of us.  From creation…Old Testament History…Jesus’s life and death…to prophecies yet to be fulfilled…they all speak to this singular truth: God’s deepest longing is for relationship with you, me and all of us. The name Emmanuel, God with Us, it means something.  I pray that today you will allow it mean something for you.

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Where We Find Peace

Didn’t mean to drop off the planet for the last two weeks!  Between traveling and school starting, it’s been a busy time.  Despite the blazing heat I feel the seasons changing–new routines and schedules as we settle into school and the coming fall (bless it can’t it get here already!?!)

In the midst of this season of transition I’ve also been reminded that this fickle, random, broken world will disappoint us, will knock us around and sometimes bludgeon us nearly to death.  Last week I found myself at the hospital, hugging and praying with an old friend while her little boy suffered in agonizing pain.

Once again, Lord, we cry out: why?

Why is he suffering?  Why is anyone?  We want to understand…but these things can’t be understood. The other day I stumbled across a re-broadcast of a Charles Stanley sermon.  I love him.  He was preaching about suffering, and about why God sometimes puts us through some things.  (Can’t you just hear him saying “Watch this?”)

I love Charles and that man’s got wisdom, but watch this: not all of this hardship is from the Lord. Does God sometimes allow or cause trouble in our lives?  Sure, I believe that.  But I also know that most of the time, he doesn’t need to.  The world does enough of that on its own.

The good news–sometimes the only good news–is that we are never alone in our suffering.  As we cry out, Jesus is right there crying alongside us.  Remember, He’s already suffered under every sin of this fallen world, including those that make no sense.  And remember, in Him alone we find our victory.  In Him alone we find peace.

In painful moments sometimes all I can do is bring my broken heart and hand it over to the one who knows it best.

Today, if you are asking why, look to Jesus.  He may not answer the why but He has already overcome it…and through Him, so can you.
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P.S. These pictures were taken at Graylyn and in the nearby Reynolda Gardens in Winston-Salem, NC.