Jesus’ Command to Love

Read John 13:34-35 and Matthew 22:36-40

In our American culture, the word “love” is broadly used in reference to intimate sexual romance (eros), to close family, church, community friendships (phileo); or to what foods or things we enjoy.  The Greek language was much richer, offering three different words to define “love,” making it a much less nebulous concept – eros, phileo, agape.

Jesus chooses the Greek word “agape” in the scriptures noted above, to define the love that his disciples are to have for one another; a love that is habitually unconditional, sacrificial, service oriented and outwardly focused.

The reality of “agape” love is that it rises above the fickle nature of feelings and is, instead, much more an act of the will.  Choosing to love with “agape” love often means doing hard things such as forgiving, returning good for evil, serving and denying one’s own desires in providing for the needs of another.

It was after Jesus had eaten his last meal with his disciples, and after he had washed their feet and told them he would soon be leaving them, that he instructed them in regards to their continuing relationships with one another; “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35).

A few days earlier, one of the Pharisees, an expert in the law, tested Jesus with this question, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus said that there are two commandments that top the list.  The first and greatest commandment is, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  … And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”  He then added, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:36-40).

Throughout his three-year teaching, healing ministry, Jesus consistently spoke of the need to love God and others, and he daily modeled that compassionate, sacrificial love to his disciples and followers.  And now, just a few hours before his arrest and crucifixion, he restates, as a command, their need to love each other — no exceptions, no excuses, and no conditions.

And just in case they may think about trivializing the meaning of love, he raises the bar to its highest level and gives them a very challenging definition of “agape” love: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” 

In other words, the measure of love we share with others must reflect nothing less than the measure of love we have been given by God through Jesus. What has come to us from God must appropriately flow through us to all others!

Also, our acts of loving all others will be what sets us apart from the world and authenticates our declaration of being a Christian.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  The only distinguishing mark ever given in Scripture regarding who is a Christian is their ability to love in the same manner as Jesus loves.

Harry Stack Sullivan writes in his book, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, “When the satisfaction, security, and development of another person become as significant to you as your own satisfaction, security, and development, love exists.”  This is a good definition of Christian love.

In his devotional book, A Daily Walk Through Romans, Myron Augsburger comments on 12:9, saying, “There is a cost in love, for when you love someone, their experience is shared with you, their problems become your problems.  Love is far deeper than tolerance; it calls for repentance while tolerance doesn’t require change.  Love does not select.  Love shares totally with the person.  When we love we identify honestly, openly, fully.  Paul states his admonition simply but profoundly: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”

Josh McDowell writes in the August, 1999, issue of Focus on the Family MagazineTolerance says, ‘You must approve of what I do.’  Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will love you, even when your behavior offends me.’  Tolerance says, ‘You must agree with me.’  Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will tell you the truth, because I am convinced the truth will set you free.’  Tolerance says, ‘You must allow me to have my way.’  Love responds, ‘I must do something harder: I will plead with you to follow the right way, because I believe you are worth the risk.’  Tolerance seeks to be inoffensive; love takes risks.  Tolerance glorifies division; love seeks unity. Tolerance costs nothing; love costs everything.”

For Jesus, Paul and the other apostles, followers of Jesus will daily live a lifestyle of loving others.  Love is to be at the core of our relationships with fellow believers, and at the same time it determines our attitude and behavior towards all people, including enemies.  Love is the only identification we carry, authenticating our claim of being Christian.

 

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – October 17, 2018

Reclaiming Human Dignity

Human dignity has become a disposable commodity these days, and is under threat of extinction as we rush toward a culture of selfish individualism and gratification.  When it comes to affirming and protecting the dignity of others, our society is strong in vocal advocating for same, but extremely weak in practice.  Increasingly, more and more people find it easy and acceptable to cruelly “trash” those we don’t like or who disagree with us.

Our political campaigns and disputes have deteriorated into sickening trash talking about opponents, and are no longer a way to learn truthful facts about a person’s life and beliefs.  Unfortunately, this childish and prejudiced name-calling has become the character of our American culture, and encouraged by our top government leaders.  Shame, shame, shame!

What is the origin of our human dignity and why does it demand our respect?  In the biblical record of Jeremiah, God is about to send Jeremiah as a prophet into a culture that had lost all reverence for human life.  They were corrupting themselves with the most flagrant disregard for human dignity.  To encourage and commission Jeremiah as his prophet, God says to him, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”  (Jeremiah 1:5)

I formed you in the womb” – Our earthbound little minds imagine conception as only a biological event.  Yet this verse forces us to think again about the origin and dignity of human life.  If God, as sovereign Creator, is present in the process of human conception, then the value of human life takes on the highest expectations of eternal relationship with God.

I think that the extent and weight of our glory as humans comes through these words to Jeremiah.  We are truly greater and infinitely more than just biological children of humankind.

The Psalmist knows this to be true and praises God, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (Psalm 139:13-14).

But, there is more.  Listen carefully to what God said to Jeremiah. Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.”  I hear God saying that our conception and birth is not our real beginning, nor will our death be the end.

Wow!  What a mind-boggling thought for us to ponder.  Before the day and moment of your conception, God knew you.  God dignified you by calling you into existence.  God names you in his mind and dignifies you with purpose and plan.

This is so amazing.  Let this thought infuse you with dignity.  Before your mother lovingly cradled you in her arms, God wrapped his greater arms around you and held you fast in a purpose designed especially for you.

The psalmist continues in verses 16-17, “Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.  How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them!”  And so, whether you choose to believe it or not,  God dignified your personhood before your first heartbeat and continues to dignify you forever.

But this is the reality kicker.  What God did in bringing you into existence, he did for every human being on this earth.  I repeat – What God did in bringing you into existence, he did for every human being on this earth.  We must let this truth permeate our whole being, and even into the deepest recesses of mind and heart.

Because, if we do not keep this perspective of human dignity before us, it becomes easy to debate and decide about others on the basis of their usefulness to us, and whether we like them or not.

Yes, it is true that many people do not live up to the dignity God instilled in them at their birth.  Many do not live up to God’s purpose and plan, nor even to their potential.  There are many reasons for such failure, but probably the most sad is when the cause is because the person did not receive the affirmation, dignity and respect needed to experience wholesome personhood.

In my many years of experience as pastor and chaplain, I have discovered that there are many, many individuals in our communities, churches, and workplaces, who struggle with low self-esteem and suffer a starving sense of worthlessness and of little value in their world.

It has also been my joy to see the lives of many of these same persons being transformed as we worked at creating a healing environment that dignified their personhood and treated them with respect as uniquely gifted persons of great worth.  Every human being needs to have their personhood dignified and respected in order to experience abundant living.

And, I am convinced that our communities, nation, and world can be transformed in like manner if we all could agree to reclaim God’s gifting of human dignity; and individually commit ourselves to dignifying the personhood of all others regardless of their race, religion, politic, or nationality – even as our creator God does.  May God help us in doing so!

 

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – October 10, 2018

Stretch Out Your Hand

Read Mark 3:1-6

I believe this story can be appreciated and understood as being much more than simply another miracle event.  I believe Jesus saw in this particular situation, during his visit to the synagogue, an excellent teaching opportunity for his disciples, as well as challenging his religious critics.

In contrast to the man with leprosy who came to Jesus and “…begged him on his knees, ‘If you are willing, you can make me clean”(Mk. 1:40);  or blind Bartimaeus who shouted to Jesus as he walked by, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me” (Mk. 10:47);  this man, with his shriveled hand, was just there, in the synagogue, the place of worship.  He wasn’t there begging or shouting for healing.  He was there to learn of God and worship him.

This causes me to believe that the writer, Mark, would have us understand that Jesus saw and seized the opportunity not only to heal the man’s shriveled hand, but also to teach an important truth about the Christian lifestyle of appropriately caring for others, wherever they may be and on whatever day it may be.

The first level of teaching is very evident.  Jesus had the man to “stand up in front of everyone.”  It is “show and tell” time to discuss the question, when is it appropriate to respond to human need?  When is it the right time “to do good, … to save life?”  When is it “lawful” to serve others?

Jesus angrily looked around at his critics’ stubborn silence and responded with a dramatic teaching moment.  Deeply distressed, Jesus acted out the Kingdom lesson he wanted to teach.  He had the man stand up in front of everyone and stretch out his shriveled hand so that everyone could see it, then he miraculously and completely restored it.

The lesson we are to hear, is this;  – that God’s so amazing grace in loving us demands we respond in healing ways to human need whenever and wherever the need presents itself, – and that religion without love is a most ugly thing in the world.

Throughout his ministry on earth, Jesus taught and modeled this lifestyle of providing for the needs of others as a basic principle of daily Christian living, and the way of doing business.

The second level of teaching may not be as apparent, but I think it is also seen in this story.  The shriveled, withered hand was “completely restored” when the man obeyed Jesus’ command to “Stretch out your hand.”

Today we know that there is substantial non-biblical evidence from studies of human nature, that persons who keep their hands close to themselves, selfishly clutching their accumulated treasures and divinely endowed abilities and skills, soon experience a withering of their spirit and a shriveling of their lives in every way, spiritually, socially, and physically.  They soon become fearful, unhappy, handicapped and useless in society.

Furthermore, I believe these same studies would confirm the biblical story of complete healing and restoration happens whenever we obey Jesus’ command to:

  • love one another as I have loved you.
  • love your neighbor as yourself.
  • be a servant in serving the needs of others.
  • do good deeds to all, even your enemies.

The cure for a shriveled life remains the same today as in Jesus’ day, “Stretch out your hand” in helping others toward wholeness.  For when we do, we also find healing for ourselves.

The truth is that we don’t have to obey Jesus’ command to “Stretch out your hand.”  We don’t have to love our neighbor; we don’t have to share what God has given us; we don’t have to feed the hungry, care for the sick and feeble, and be a friend to the lonely and dying.  We don’t have to be kind, compassionate, and considerate of the needs of others.

We don’t have to do any of these things, but we get to do them as a privilege to love and serve God by responding to the needs of others.  Our love for God because of what he has done for us, transforms our life from selfish grabbing to generous giving, and our work from dutiful labor to joyous privilege.

My Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition has always included an ethos of service to people in need and suffering, of stretching out our hands in helping others.  And my prayer is that the life energy of every church and community would flow from that same healing fountain of Christian compassion and concern for others, in spite of the challenges and difficulties we may encounter in doing so.  Shalom!

 

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – October 3, 2018

Overflowing With Hope

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but 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.”

In both church and non-church conversations I hear a lot of despair and hopelessness.  The daily news is bad and the future looks increasingly violent and dangerous.  For many there seems to be very little hope for any possibility of good changes happening.  To speak of “hope” seems to these people to be just a lot of wishful thinking.

However, I am convinced that hope is a critical necessity for living, and that we cannot survive without it.  Take away hope and we will soon weaken and die spiritually, emotionally, and physically, and most likely in that order.  I believe hope is that divine gift which energizes us and enables us to envision possibility, “a way through” that shapes our responses in any and every difficult, threatening circumstance or situation.

I must remind you that there are different levels or meanings to our contemporary use of this word “hope.”  The “hope” that we hear being expressed by the biblical writers is something different than wishful thinking as in “I hope it doesn’t rain on our picnic.”  This is the most popular use of the word “hope.”

It is also different than reasonable expectation as when the doctor says to the family “We have every reason to hope for full recovery” after his medical/surgical treatment to the patient. The doctor’s past experience with similar cases makes it possible for him/her to offer hope of recovery.

The “hope” we hear expressed by the biblical writers is a dynamic word of confident assurance.  It is the confident assurance of a promised future of personally sharing in the glory of God.  That is, we will share/participate in God’s triumph over sin and death.  This is the strong, sure hope that God has given us in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Furthermore, this hope is rooted in the confident assurance that there is purposeful movement in human history towards a future filled with meaning.  We believe that our God is the God of Hope – the God who said; “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

The writer of the book of Hebrews says that “hope” is closely related to our “faith” in chapter 11, verse 1 – “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”

As Christian believers we claim this “hope and future” as belonging to us, with the confident assurance that regardless of what is happening around us or to us, we can rejoice – not because of our present troubles, but because of being sure of our future glory.

Even though we do admit that In the midst of difficult experiences, hope may seem very distant and dim, we are reminded by the biblical writers that this is where hope has its beginning and growth.  Story after story throughout the Bible affirms the truth that the Christian’s confident assurance (hope) is rooted in and springs up from the soil of suffering and loss.

The reality is that without suffering and/or loss, we would have no need or reason to hope for something better.  We also know that our pain and suffering is transformed when we choose to invest it with some meaningful purpose and value.  And according to Apostle Paul, our “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” thus having eternal value in making us better children of God.

He also tells us that this hope is fully reliable because it rests on and is dependent on God alone. This hope will never disappoint us because of God’s Holy Spirit within us certifies it.  “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

The Holy Spirit does not guarantee that we shall never make mistakes or experience suffering in life.  But instead, the Holy Spirit uses the difficulties and hardships we experience to shape and transform us into new and better persons.

As children of God’s family, we have been given God’s gift of hope – an unmerited, unique opportunity to share in God’s triumphant glory and eternal life.  What an amazing gift of love!  What a reason to rejoice!

Paul concludes his theological letter to the Romans with this benediction in 15:13 – “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

 

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – September 26, 2018

A Song of Confidence

Violence and greed, disrespect and racism, political and religious animosity have escalated to a fever pitch during the past year, causing many of us to become anxious, uncertain and fearful. God’s message of hope, peace, joy and love is in danger of being silenced and forgotten by the loud, clanging noises of economic crisis, criminal violence, terrorist attack, war, racism, divisive national politics with its unstable and unpredictable leadership.

So how should you and I, who claim to have faith in God, respond to these threatening situations?  One of the truths that I have learned over the years by personal experiences and Bible study is this – God is not our protector against trouble, but he is our refuge and strength – our very present help in trouble. 

I understand this to mean that I should not expect God to prevent tragedies and pain, nor should I blame Him if they happen, but I can expect God to strengthen and sustain me in and through every difficult and threatening situation of life.

Read Psalm 46

Psalm 46 is a statement of faith declaring God to be in charge of history, and that he is more than adequate for every difficult and threatening event of life, so therefore we do not need to be afraid.  This psalm encourages us to trust God at all times and in every circumstance, and particularly when our life becomes difficult.

We may be facing an uncertain and frightening tomorrow or experiencing a very painful situation today; the earth and mountains may be shaking with storms and earthquakes of all kinds, and yet the psalmist assuredly declares that God is mighty and able to sustain and see us through the threatening darkness of evil.

The writer of this psalm reckoned with the possibility that God may allow the worst to happen in our world and life.  But in the midst of the crisis, he renounces fear and reaffirms faith with three great affirmations of faith that can keep us from being robbed of the hope, peace, joy and love that Jesus brings to us in his promise never to leave us nor forsake us.

The first affirmation is regarding God’s POWER in verse 1-3; “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble.”  No matter what storm rages, the almighty God is present in the midst of the trouble to help us.  God’s strength will surround our weakness and protect us.  Therefore we will not feareven if the worst is happening.

The second affirmation is regarding God’s PRESENCE in verses 4-7; “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.  …The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  The powerful, loving presence of God gives us confidence, no matter the tumult swirling around us and threatening to destroy us. Therefore, we will not faint, nor fall.

Writing to the Romans, Paul put it this way: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rm. 8:38-39).

The third affirmation is regarding God’s PEACE in verse 10; “He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”  When in the midst of desolations as described in this psalm, we look up and seeing God’s sovereignty, we rest in confidence of God’s exalted power and presence.  When we believe with certainty that God is present, powerful, and provides all the resources we need in the situation, God’s gift of peace settles upon us and calms our hearts.  Therefore, we will not fret.

Yes, we may be facing an uncertain and frightening tomorrow or experiencing a very painful situation today – the earth and mountains may be shaking with storms and earthquakes of all kinds – yet the psalmist assuredly declares that God is able to protect, provide, and lead us through the threatening event or situation. Because we know and trust the Lord to always keep his promises to us, we can say:

“I will not fear – I have a fortress, a place of refuge and protection. 

I will not faint – I have a river of refreshing resources from God. 

 I will not fret – I see the rainbow of God’s sovereignty and majestic glory over all the earth. 

Are we worthy of such help?  Of course not.  But God does not help us because we are worthy.  He helps us because He loves us and is gracious toward us.

It was when Martin Luther was going through a personal storm he meditated on Psalm 46 and was inspired to write, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  If we can grasp the message of this hymn, and trust the God that this hymn exalts, I believe we also will discover the secret of living with calm confidence in the midst of fear-filled uncertainty.

“The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  Amen.

 

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – September 19, 2018

Christ In You, The Hope Of Glory

Read Colossians 1:15-23a, 25-27

Paul soars to his highest thoughts in his effort to describe the person and work of Jesus Christ. I am almost breathless as I read this passage regarding the supremacy of Christ, exalted above all “thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities.”  I become even more breathless when I realize that this superior, boundless Jesus Christ is also very personal in reconciling me to God.

The heart-core of the New Testament gospel and the whole of Christian experience, is that Jesus, who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, by whom and through whom all things were created; this Jesus who is before all things and in whom all things hold together; this Jesus, in whom God was pleased for all His fullness to dwell, and through whom to reconcile to himself all things by making peace through Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross;  this Jesus, lives in me and you by the Holy SpiritWow!

For the apostle Paul, the word “reconcile” is key to his thought about what Christ has done for us.  He uses the same image when writing to God’s people in Rome, “while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son,” (Rm. 5:10).  Paul is fully convinced that through Christ’s death and resurrection, the broken relationship between us and God is forgiven and restored.

However, in verses 25-27 we discover that there is much more to this reconciliation theme which Paul elaborates on in the balance of his letter.  Paul says that “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations” has now been revealed to us by God.  He says the glorious richness of this mystery is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Our reconciliation is by the death of Jesus Christ, but our complete redemption, our salvation, our being presented “perfect in Christ” (v.28) is by the life of the risen Christ living in power within us.

Again, we hear this truth expressed in the verse I partly referenced earlier from Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, “For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10).

Paul’s most vivid description of his own life in Christ was written to the Galatians:  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20).

In one of the boldest prayers ever prayed, Paul interceded for God’s people in Ephesus, “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  …that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:17, 19).

Paul believed that in all his dealings with humanity God had been working on a deep plan, with a secret purpose that can only be discovered by the illumination of the Spirit. Throughout his epistles he lays emphasis on the deeper understanding of the gospel – this mysterious secret which has been hidden for ages, which men have sought to probe and decipher, and has now been revealed.  It is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

We talk about becoming Christian in ways like:  accepting Christ, inviting Christ into our lives, receiving Christ as Savior, surrendering our lives to Christ, giving our lives to Christ, being born again by allowing Christ to be born in us.

But whatever the language, our faith and experience is that as we confess and repent of our sins, we are forgiven and accepted by God and ushered into a new relationship with Him.  Being forgiven and reconciled by God’s grace, he then lives in us by the transforming power of his Spirit as the indwelling Christ.

What feelings does this truth of “Christ in you” awaken in your soul?  For me, it’s feelings of thankful praise and worship, singing “Amazing love, how can it be, That thou, my God, should’st die for me?”

 

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – September 12, 2018

For What Do I Labor?

Read Luke 14:1-14

Labor Day weekend is a good time to ponder “for what do I labor?”  Is it for self-status or for service to God?  Is it to receive praises from mankind or praises from God?  Do I labor for things temporal or for things eternal?

Picture a man in his fifties, distinguished and properly attired.  He is a faithful husband and strict father.  He is a respected businessman and, above all else, a deeply religious man.  In a word, he is a Pharisee.

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were not bad people.  They were highly respected merchants with a heart for God.  In fact, it was with the Pharisees, as opposed to the Sadducees, that Jesus was most readily identified.

And it was in the home of one of these highly respected Pharisees that Jesus sat down to eat.  The table is magnificent, the servants attentive, the centerpiece impressive, and the wine chilled.  All the “right people” are there – bankers, doctors, lawyers, synagogue leaders.  Jesus is invited not because he is considered an equal but because he is a curiosity who has been in the news.

Attention was given to the proper prayers and ritual cleansings.  Everything had to be just so, and it was.  The esteemed guests are watching closely to see how Jesus fits in.  The table talk is polite, as expected – until Jesus began to speak.

At the dinner, Jesus noticed how the guests made their way to the places of honor at the table.  They were good people, and they simply wanted to be recognized as such.  But Jesus saw it differently.  He severely rebuked them for seeking out the places of honor and striving for status.  In essence he said that if you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on you face – “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus tells them that humility is more important than being esteemed.  This was contrary to the Pharisees’ way of thinking, and their puffed-up egos.  They considered themselves good, religious people and thought the community should esteem them as such.  But Jesus says that they should see themselves more as servants than rulers and that the table of fellowship is open to all.

What Jesus is saying about God’s Kingdom and entrance into it is unacceptable to the Pharisees.  And even Jesus’ own disciples struggled with this new Kingdom thinking.  Remember the story of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, asking Jesus for the honor of being seated on his right and left in his glory.  And on another occasion the disciples were arguing about who was the greatest among them.

For what do I labor – for self and status, or for service to God in serving others?

When Jesus finished rebuking the guests, he turns to the host and criticized the host’s dinner guests list.  In effect, he said, “Why do you invite only the beautiful people?  What about the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind?  Why not invite them?”

I can imagine the host thinking this was a silly question.  Good religious people know that there are standards to be upheld, reputations to consider.  Besides, this was a Sabbath dinner, not simply a common meal.

That is Jesus’ point exactly.  The Sabbath is an institution of God, who loves and invites all to his table of fellowship.  A Sabbath dinner is the perfect time and place to welcome all of God’s children.  So Jesus instructed him to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  And Jesus assured the host that if he adopts this practice he “will be blessed.  Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus promises that if we live our lives under the banner of lifting up those in need and affirm their eternal worth in the sight of God, we will be blessed.  The blessing will not be from other people, but from God.  He is ultimately the only One who can bless us, or whose praise matters.

This reminds me of the words Jesus spoke as recorded by Matthew in 25:31ff:  “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. …  Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’   Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, …or thirsty, …a stranger, …or needing clothes, …sick or in prison?  The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”

For what do I labor – for self and status, or for service to God in serving others?

(September 5, 2018)

Becoming Fully Human, Perfect in Christ

Read Ephesians 4:11-16

This chapter begins with the Apostle Paul saying to the Ephesian Christians, “I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (v.1).  Then in verses 12-13 he says that Christ has given us, the church, grace gifts of leadership for the purpose of equipping “his people for works of service,” so that all of us will grow in our understanding of Jesus and “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  And again in verse 15, “grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

From these and other scriptures we learn that God intends for us to grow toward perfection in becoming fully human.  The Greek word “teleios” is translated as “perfect” or “mature” and means “complete, fully developed, or all that God intends.”  To speak of perfection in becoming fully human is the equivalent to the next phrase, “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said that we are to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  He also told the rich young ruler who asked what he must do to get eternal life, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21).

And in Colossians 1:28, the Apostle Paul writes, “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect in Christ.”

I think the teachings of Jesus and the apostles both confirm “perfection” to be a valid goal in our understanding of becoming fully human as maturing in Christ, and becoming like Christ.  I believe this is God’s creative intention for us, and to the extent that we live in harmony with that intention, we can be “perfect ” as God so much desires us to be, and as Paul says, “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

In verse 14, Paul jolts us into an awareness of the dangers experienced by those remaining in spiritual infancy.  Christian “infants” are gullible and vulnerable to false and deceitful teachings and easily victimized.  Spiritual toddlers tend to believe everything they are told, and like rudderless boats, tend to go wherever the wind takes them.

And so, Paul urges us toward growth and maturity, perfection, in Jesus Christ.  Jesus and the apostles both teach that spiritual growth, both inward and outward, is to be a dynamic movement toward perfection in becoming like Christ in all of our human life.

Ephesians 4:22-24 – “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.”   In other words, “to be made new” is about becoming perfect as a human.

But this raises the question – Why be a Christian rather than a humanist?  Many who call themselves agnostic or atheist are, largely indistinguishable from Christians in their moral sensitivity, their commitment to responsible community action, and their passion for justice.

And, sadly, over the years I have encountered more than a few people identifying themselves as “Christian” with whom I would rather be disassociated from.  The way they live and treat others, what they believe and say, and the things they think are important, cause me great disappointment, concern, and embarrassment to say the least.

Nevertheless, I choose to be a Christian and be identified with the Christian community.  Why?  Because it answers better than any other religion or philosophy the fundamental question – “What does it mean to be human – to be perfect, mature?”

At the center of Christianity is a living, dynamic model of what it is like for a person to be fully human, fully mature, perfect.  That model is the person, Jesus Christ.  For me, he is the only genuine and reliable model, and by which we are called to pattern our own lives.  I see in Jesus the perfect human being that I was created to be.

That’s why I choose to be a Christian, even with its many embarrassing associates.  For at the center of Christianity is One who both shows me the way and, more importantly, who by his indwelling Spirit enables me to “… become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

And, in reference to perfection, I say with the apostle Paul, “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  …I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 3:12,14).

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.  For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1b-2).

“Healing Rays of Righteousness” – August 29, 2018

Knowing Our Past, Present, and Future

I once heard about a minister who was attending a conference and decided to take a bus to the beach on a free afternoon.  Soon a strange-looking lady boarded the bus and sat next to him, cooing, “Cross my hand with a dollar, and I’ll tell you your past, present, and future.”  He eyed her for a moment and then he cooed in response, “That won’t be necessary.  I have a little book in my pocket that tells me my past, present, and future.” 

“You have it in a book?” she replied, not really believing him.  “Yes, and it is absolutely infallible.  Let me read it to you.”  Then he read Ephesians 2:1-10.  The lady quickly got up from her seat and ran down the aisle of the bus shouting, “I picked the wrong man!”

For many people, knowing about their physical and material future is so needful that they spend thousands of hours and dollars on reading horoscopes and listening to fortune tellers.

For me, this anxiety about my future is answered in reviewing and remembering my spiritual journey with God.  One way to really appreciate what has happened to us spiritually, is to look back to what we were, and in doing so, we begin to understand what God has called us out of and what future is ours in Jesus Christ.

Read Ephesians 2:1-10

The opening words of this chapter tell us that we were dead in transgressions and sins.  We did what we thought was right, but found it was constantly getting us into difficulty and destroying us – and we never knew why.  We were victimized by the desires of the body and the mind, and, as Paul says, “were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (v.3).

From God’s perspective, we were spiritually dead in our past life because of our willful disobedience to his commandments that was evidenced in our thoughts, conversations, and deedsGod doesn’t say sick or asleep, he says dead, in need of life.  Dead means to be powerless and rotting.  In God’s sight, we were powerless to change our behavior and rotting in sin.  As a result, we could expect nothing from God but His wrath.

There is a paradox here:  We were spiritually dead, yet alive and active against God.  We served the world, the devil, and our fleshly desires.  Because we didn’t live to please God, we set ourselves up for God’s wrath.  “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).

That was our past life of sinful separation from God, but “hear ye, hear ye” the good news of our present life in Christ.  “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” (Vv.4-5). 

Oh, what wonderful and amazing words these are.  We were “made alive” – resurrected to a new life of eternal relationship with God. This is our present life as a Christian.  We could not work for it.  We did not deserve it.  We have not earned it.  And yet, God gifted eternal salvation to us who believe, because Jesus willingly and lovingly paid for it on the cross.  And now we share in his glorious and wonderful resurrection life.

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!”  But what exactly is grace?  According to Paul, it is God’s unmerited love acting on our behalf through Jesus Christ to rescue us from eternal death.  “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Rom. 6:23).

The exclusive agent of grace is Jesus Christ.  Behind God’s grace is Calvary’s cross and Easter’s empty tomb.  Jesus came to earth and took our sin upon himself, suffered and died as a condemned criminal in our place, so that we could be made eternally alive and new.  Why?  Because he loved us!

We have been re-created, born again, made alive and new in Jesus Christ to serve God. We, who were dead are now alive, not by good works but for good works.  God’s intention is to restore us to our original purpose as doers of good.   We are God’s workmanship, God’s masterpiece in this present world of sin and death.  This is our present reality and mission in life.

But there is more.  Both our present reality and continuing future is pictured in the good news that God made us alive with Christ – … And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” (Vv.5-7).

Please read that paragraph again, slowly and thoughtfully, letting the awesome truth of what God has done for us through Jesus Christ penetrate deeply into your mind, heart and soul.

We have been raised and seated with Christ “in the heavenly realms” and even now share in a measure of Christ’s authority.  From this position of closeness and glory we are called to imitate God in seeing those near us who are enslaved by the powers of evil, and to love them as God has loved us, thereby participating with Christ in God’s process of salvation.

Thank you, Jesus!

A Prayer for Living Abundantly

Read Ephesians 3:14-21

Even though Paul was sitting in a prison, he is filled with deep concern for the spiritual welfare of “God’s holy people in Ephesus” and prays for them.

In the first 14 verses of chapter 1, Paul reminds the Ephesians believers that God had blessed them “with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”  Then in verses 15-23, he prays that they might experience spiritual enlightenment and wisdom.  In chapter 2 and continuing through to 3:13, he says that all of God’s resources are available because Jesus Christ died to make God’s blessings accessible to all, both Jew and Gentile.

It is one thing to know that God made his resources available through Jesus, but it is quite another thing to act upon that knowledge – to tap into those resources – to be filled with the fullness of God.  It was Paul’s earnest desire that his Christian friends fully enjoy the life-shaping experience that was available in their relationship with God, and that is why he prays this prayer beginning in verse 14 of chapter 3.

Paul’s prayer consists of three related requests, each introduced by the word “that” as it appears in the NIV translation.  And so he prays:                                                                                 “For this reason I kneel before the Father, (praying)”                                                                          1)  “That out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (16-17a).

God has given us, his children, the Holy Spirit as an inner resource.  I believe that to live in this world as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ it is imperative for us to have our inner being continually renewed and strengthened by Christ’s indwelling Spirit.

Shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to the Father for his disciples and us, saying,    “I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” (Jn. 17:26).

Jesus’ one and foremost desire is to lead us into an ever-deepening knowledge and experience of God’s love.  His concern is not merely that we know more about God, but that we know more and more experientially about how deeply we are cherished and loved by God.

To be all that God desires us to be and to accomplish all that He desires us to accomplish, Jesus Christ must be eagerly welcomed into our love and life.  He will not come uninvited.  And his enabling strength does not come to those who resist his presence.

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, (praying)”                                                                           2)  “That you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  (17b-19a).

Paul saw the cross as the supreme revelation of love, and this is the love he wanted his readers to experience – amazing, boundless love.  The outstretched arms of Christ on the cross embracing all humankind with forgiving love.  The marvel of it is overwhelming – that the sinless Son of God would willingly endure the shame and agony of crucifixion for us sinners.

This love of God is so amazing, so glorious that it defies description, for it goes beyond our ability to fully comprehend.  In fact, Paul says, it takes the combined experiences of “all the saints” to even begin to grasp its amazing greatness.  He is saying that this love of Christ is far beyond the rational limits of intellect or theory.  It is experiential knowing – the knowing that comes from experiencing Christ’s amazing love in our everyday living.

I once read of a farmer who had a weather vane on his barn, on which was written GOD IS LOVE.   When friends asked why, the farmer said, “This is to remind me that no matter which way the wind blows, God is love.”

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, (praying)”                                                                           3)  That you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (v.9b)

Although we cannot contain God’s fullness, we can receive it to the full measure of our capacity and to the degree of our being yielded.  The truth is that whatever fills you controls you.

That’s why it is so important to be Spirit-filled – to have a relationship with God that is so yielded to him that his Spirit fills us and dwells with us in intimacy and power, so that we can experience the abundant life that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would do for believers.

Imagine the possibilities that are yours with Christ dwelling in your heart.  Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5).

Imagine your life being abundant and overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit.  “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  (Gal. 5:22-23).

This, my friend, is my sincere prayer for you and me.