The Roman Road Less Traveled: The Good News is God’s Grace

How do you see God? If you painted a picture of what your mind’s eye sees when you imagine God, what would it look like? Pastor John said in Sunday’s message, “How we see God creates what we think and believe about God.” I think it can also be said that the ways we think and believe about God creates our picture of God, because as John also said, our theology hasn’t always painted a good image for us to ponder.

I wrote in last week’s post,

“. . .God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us. . .”

Why do we sometimes project those things onto God? I think there are several reasons we are inclined to do that, but often our thinking can be traced back to our own misunderstanding of the good news of Jesus. We become familiar with verses like this one, probably the most familiar of the six we looked at on Sunday:

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. (Romans 3:23, NLT)

We all fall short. We don’t measure up. We’re not good enough. We hear these things–sometimes exaggerated by our individual church backgrounds or upbringings–and we build our ideas about God using verses like this one. It’s true–it’s what we covered last week, the bad news. We do fall short of the standard of perfection we observe in the person of Jesus who “. . . is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendor, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” (Hebrews 1:3a, TPT)

If we stop there; if we live in constant glare of our inadequacy and ruminate on all the ways we fall short, we can distort the character of God because we imagine that our falling short changes how God sees us. The opposite is true: Focusing on our shortcomings changes how we see God. Paul, after telling us that we all fall short, writes this:

Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. (Romans 3:24)

Yet God… in his grace…

If we stop at “we all fall short,” we don’t make it to the good news of Jesus. And Jesus changes everything. The first verse we looked at in this week’s passage, Romans 3:21 tells us,

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. (MSG)

Before Paul tells us how we’ve all fallen short, before he reminds us of God’s grace, he asserts that the law has been fulfilled and that through Jesus, we are now free from the bondage of trying to earn our way into good standing.

The good news is right there on the page. Before and after the verse that reminds us of the bad news. And yet we tend to focus on how we–and others–fall short of perfection, rather than on the extravagance of God’s grace. We gravitate toward a faith secured by works–which doesn’t exist in the kingdom of God–rather than accepting the truth that we are saved by grace alone. A justified-by-works theology may make logical sense to our bartering, human mindsets, but it is unachievable. One has walked in perfection. One. There’s no sliding scale of righteousness, no gold star for almost making the mark. There’s Jesus, and there’s the rest of us. And he came with a brand new yoke to break all other yokes, to join his life with ours, the embodiment of Grace.

And Jesus himself, John 5:39, told us, “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!”

The law won’t get us there. Paul knew that more than anyone–he had checked off every box on the to-do list of human righteousness. He knew the law and kept it down to the finest detail. He was a self-proclaimed zealot, certain of his uprightness. And then he encountered Jesus. This Paul, who once believed the law and the prophets held the keys to righteousness and eternal life suddenly saw a different way, the way of the kingdom. He wrote in his letter to the Corinthians, “If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” (1 Corinthians 13:3, MSG)

The self-giving love of Jesus showed us a different way of being in the world, showed us how to live a life rooted in love, not law. He also revealed what has always been true of God–He is love. He is kindness. He is grace. He is not disappointed in us. He is not ashamed of us. He doesn’t see us in the shadows of our failures–He sees us in the light of his love.

Do we see God when we look at the person of Jesus? Or do we separate the two, as though Jesus is the good guy and God is the bad guy? I want to offer a couple of verses for us to consider, verses that speak to God’s love toward us before the person of Jesus even appeared in history. These are two verses among so many that illuminate how our Father-and-Mother God feels about us as sons and daughters:

For the Lord your God is living among you.
    He is a mighty savior.
He will take delight in you with gladness.
    With his love, he will calm all your fears.
    He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.
(Zephaniah 3:17)

Every single moment you are thinking of me!
How precious and wonderful to consider
that you cherish me constantly in your every thought!
(Psalm 139:17, TPT)

God delights in us, is glad and rejoices over us, sings over us; is thinking of us constantly, cherishes us… A delighted, joyful, singing God who cherishes us–can you picture it? A face that is ever-toward us, smiling? A love that considers each of us in every moment?

And then, as we’ll see in a few weeks when we get to the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul tells us,

But God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, AMP)

God, in the person of Jesus–the same God who smiles and sings with delight over us–stepped into history and, in an extravagant display of self-sacrificing love and grace, absorbed our murderous violence to conquer the death that held us all captive to bring the world back to life.

That is really, really good news.

I don’t know how you see God or what kind of picture has been painted of him in your mind. I don’t know what has informed your thoughts about how God feels about you. I hope you know he loves you, that he’s not mad at you, that he sings with delight over you. And, from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

“I pray that. . .the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life. Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God!” (Ephesians 3:16a, 17-19, TPT)

May the truth of God’s love wash away all of our distortions, and may the light of Grace scatter the darkness that has hidden his smiling face from us, that we might see him more clearly and know him more deeply.

–Laura

I’m so glad Laura included Hebrews 1:3a in her portion which reminds us that Jesus . . . is the dazzling radiance of God’s splendor, the exact expression of God’s true nature—his mirror image!” Paul wrote in his letter to the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (1:15) It’s so important that we know this truth. God is not “the distant man upstairs”. God is not like Zeus ready to throw lightning bolts of destruction on those he is displeased with. God is not angry. God is not mean. We are each God’s favorite–no one more favorite; no one less. God is love (1st John 4:8). And, so we could really know what God is love looks like, God wrapped himself in flesh and showed up in person.

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. And so the Living Expression became a man and lived among us! And we gazed upon the splendor of his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father overflowing with tender mercy and truth! (John 1: 1&14 TPT)

Paul knew this truth. He knew God had come to us in the flesh to show us who He is and what he’s like. We were created for relationship with him. Jesus came to restore us, to make us whole, and bring us back to the heart of God. It was part of the mystery of God that had been revealed, and Paul was now sharing this news with whomever would listen.

God loves us! God loves us! God loves us!

Jesus is the perfect representation of God’s character–God looks like Jesus, Jesus looks like God. We’ve written it over and over in the past few years–it’s imperative that we get to know Jesus–that we spend time in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). Who was he with? To whom did he demonstrate incredible compassion? Who/what frustrated him? What did he teach? How did he treat the outcast? How did he treat the poor, the rich, the proud, the downtrodden, the religious, the “pagan”, the Roman, the women, the children, the sick, the “sinners”, etc.? How did he handle his arrest? His crucifixion? What did he do after his resurrection? How did he pray? What did he pray? What did he teach about the Holy Spirit (who Paul refers to as the Spirit of Christ)?

When we allow Jesus to be the foundation of this faith called Christ-ianity, we are grounded in God is love! The barriers come down. This agape love leads us to love God in return and love others as a result. Paul knew this. The overall message of Paul’s letters are about inclusion, grace, and God’s love.

With that long introduction I’m going to write out this week’s passage (Romans 3:21-26) from The Passion Translation to give us fresh eyes (read it slowly):

But now, independently of the law, the righteousness of God is tangible and brought to light through Jesus, the Anointed One. This is the righteousness that the Scriptures prophesied would come. It is God’s righteousness made visible through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And now all who believe in him receive that gift. For there is really no difference between us, for we all have sinned and are in need of the glory of God. Yet through his powerful declaration of acquittal, God freely gives away his righteousness. His gift of love and favor now cascades over us, all because Jesus, the Anointed One, has liberated us from the guilt, punishment, and power of sin!

 Jesus’ God-given destiny was to be the sacrifice to take away sins, and now he is our mercy seat because of his death on the cross. We come to him for mercy, for God has made a provision for us to be forgiven by faith in the sacred blood of Jesus. This is the perfect demonstration of God’s justice, because until now, he had been so patient—holding back his justice out of his tolerance for us. So he covered over the sins of those who lived prior to Jesus’ sacrifice. And when the season of tolerance came to an end, there was only one possible way for God to give away his righteousness and still be true to both his justice and his mercy—to offer up his own Son. So now, because we stand on the faithfulness of Jesus, God declares us righteous in his eyes!

As Laura highlighted above, the focus of this portion of Paul’s letter is not all have sinned. Yes, it’s true that all have sinned, but it’s not the focus. The focus is God’s incredible gift of our acquittal in Jesus.

Guess what the Greek word for righteousness is (mentioned 5 times in this passage)? If you guessed dikaiosynē, you are correct. If you’ve been reading our blog for any length of time, you know that we love this word. It means: (the) state of him who is as he ought to be, righteousness, the condition acceptable to God; integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting and comes from the root word dikaios which means: innocent, faultless, guiltless; him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God; equitable (in character or act) (Strong’s Concordance) There is no self-righteousness in dikaiosyne, because we haven’t earned it. It’s a gift from God.

Paul is telling us that we don’t “behave” our way into dikaiosyne by trying to be good enough. He tells us that the law will never get us there. He shares the beautiful good news that God declares us righteous, because God is God and can do that–God in Jesus came and while here provided our acquittal. The Passion Translation words it like this: there was only one possible way for God to give away his righteousness and still be true to both his justice and his mercy—to offer up his own Son.

Laura wrote it out like this: (Jesus) in an extravagant display of self-sacrificing love and grace, absorbed our murderous violence to conquer the death that held us all captive to bring the world back to life...

You all…Paul, as a demonstration of God’s incredible grace, also tells us in this portion that God was being fair (dikaiosyne) when he held back and did not punish those who sinned in times past. (3:25). We don’t talk about this much in our Western Orthodoxy, but in Eastern Christian Orthodoxy, on the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, they celebrate The Harrowing of Hades. Based on Ephesians 4:9–Christ descended to the “deep parts of the earth”; 1st Peter 3:19 and 4:6–Jesus went to “the spiritual realm and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison”; the gospel was preached to the dead; Mt. 27: 52-53 “…graves were opened. Then many… who had died were brought back to life and came out of their graves. And after Jesus’ resurrection, they were plainly seen by many people walking in Jerusalem.” And Jesus’ own words I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. (Rev. 1:18)

What does that rabbit trail have to do with this week’s passage? Everything! In a couple of chapters we are going to read: For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (6:23). If you do a quick Google search of “Jesus conquered death” you will discover a list of more than 100 Bible verses that support that. One of those verses is 2nd Timothy 1:10 in which Paul writes: This truth is now being unveiled by the revelation of the anointed Jesus, our life-giver, who has dismantled death, obliterating all its effects on our lives, and has manifested his immortal life in us by the gospel. (TPT)

This is getting long, and I must bring it to a close–but I’m fired up–my heart is on fire with love for God and a deep desire for everyone to experience it! The good news of Jesus is really good news!! Paul wants us to understand that Jesus has obliterated the “death” consequence of our sin. He has given us life. We don’t earn it, we don’t behave ourselves into it. God declares us absolutely accepted. Why? Because God is love and we are loved and he wants us to live free in Him, without fear because There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. (1st John 4:18) And God wants us to be made “perfect”–which means whole; complete. God wants to make us whole in love. How beautiful is that?

When we embrace this truth–the organic response is awe, gratitude, humility, and deep, deep, love for God. When we live in that space, we are in the perfect position to be made perfect (complete, whole) in love. We are free to draw near to God who is right here, and as we do, he transforms us more and more into the likeness of Jesus; the fruit of the Spirit becomes evident in our lives, people are loved and included, and this world begins to look more like the kingdom of heaven. We’ve been gifted Jesus. We’ve been gifted life. We are fully loved! We are being made whole in love! We are accepted–it’s a gift! That’s good news!!

-Luanne

God's Grace ‹ Waters Church Norwood

The Roman Road Less Traveled: The Bad News

Last week we began our series in the book of Romans. Before we get into this week’s text, I want to remind you that the “book” of Romans is actually a letter, written by Paul, to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses, and Paul never intended for a sentence or two to be pulled from the entirety of his letter and used to clobber people. This week, we travel through some verses that have been used to harm others. We must resist that temptation.

I want to begin with the final verses we studied last week: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

And this reminder:

Salvation = That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

Righteousness = Dikaiosýnēequity (of character or act)The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

And from our Sermon on the Mount series: Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to youLove your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Continuing with the last becoming first theme, I’m going to begin with the final verse from this week’s passage…

Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (2:4 NLT)

Right before Paul talks about the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (changing the way we think), he lists a number of behaviors and attitudes that separate us from God. That list includes: sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. It includes backstabbers, haters of God, the insolent, proud, and boastful. Also, those who invent new ways of sinning, and disobey their parents, refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy... do whatever shameful things their hearts desired...they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptileswomen turned… to have sex with each other, the men… burned with lust for each other, also people wouldn’t worship God or even give him thanks; and some began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like … (From Romans 1: 21-31) That’s quite the list, don’t you think? Everything from gossip to promiscuity is listed. I find myself on this list and I’m going to make the assumption that you find yourselves on it as well.

And just in case we’re tempted to try to evaluate which shortcomings are most offensive and which are least, Paul writes: You may think you can condemn such people, but you are just as bad, and you have no excuse! When you say they are wicked and should be punished, you are condemning yourself, for you who judge others do these very same things. And we know that God, in his justice, will punish anyone who does such things. Since you judge others for doing these things, why do you think you can avoid God’s judgment when you do the same things? 

If these verses frustrate you and you’re ready to give up–remember that this is the bad news part of the letter…but don’t lose hope, the next verse is:

 Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you?… Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? (Romans 2:1-4)

Last week we looked at Romans 1:1-16 which includes Pauls motivation for his ministry:  Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (14 TPT) And, through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship (v.5)… Notice, again, that Paul lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

I’m so tempted to jump ahead in this letter and not leave us in the bad news. I want to head into the territory of Paul’s message that includes: God loves us all exactly as we are–no one is condemned in Christ Jesus, we are all saved by grace and not by our behavior… and we’ll get there.

But for today, remember that Paul is writing one letter. It’s not divided into chapters and verses. Paul is a trained lawyer and in the “bad news” section he is setting up his argument, that ALL of us truly are a mess–we’re all in this together–so that when we get to the lavishness of God’s grace, we’ll realize how beautiful God is and fall deeply in love with God.

So, the bad news of today’s message: We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. We worship ourselves, we worship created things (in our consumeristic society this is a real battleground). Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices, but God never stops loving us. God never stops expressing kindness toward us. God never gives up on us.

One more quick thought before I pass the baton to Laura–Romans 1:18 says, But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness. Ouch! In the NLT translation, there is a footnote after the word wickedness which says “Or who, by their wickedness, prevent the truth from being known. God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who prevent the truth from being known. That little footnote gives this verse a completely new context.

As I ponder that footnote, I ponder what truth we prevent from being known. Could it be the truth that God is love. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son…God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.?

Could it be people like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces...?(Mt. 23:13)

Do we do that? Do we try to determine who is in and who is out?

As we continue to work our way through this letter, let’s humbly admit our own shortcomings, face our own bad news and our need for grace. Let’s be committed to offering grace and demonstrating God’s kindness to those around us. Let’s not make it hard for people to know they are welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven exactly as they are. Let’s not be the reason that people don’t know the truth of how extravagantly they are loved by God. Let’s make it easy for people to enter in…

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am so tempted to jump ahead in this letter, knowing that what is coming changes everything about what we think Paul is saying here. I actually planned to do just that–to take us into Romans chapters 3 and 5, and highlight all the good, beautiful news that Paul’s about to share–until I re-read Luanne’s portion. Sometimes we need to wrestle a thing through when what we really want to do is rush past the conflict it creates in our minds and hearts. This week’s focus is on the bad news, so I’ll choose to stay here, in the discomfort these verses create within me.

I want to highlight something Pastor John mentioned on Sunday. He told us about the Polish astronomer, Copernicus, whose assertion in the 1500s that the earth was not the center of the universe challenged everything he and his contemporaries believed about how the universe worked. There were discoveries that hadn’t yet been made, exploration yet to come that would turn things upside down.

Why does that story matter for us as we look at this week’s passage? Because sometimes we come to scripture assuming we know what it means, the one right way to interpret these words that were recorded thousands of years ago in a different culture and time; words that have passed through many different language translations and interpreters’ modifications. We don’t always know what we think we know–Can we agree together to stay humble enough to invite the Spirit to breathe fresh life into our minds and hearts as we consider these hard passages–and all passages–of scripture? Are we willing to see it from a different perspective? I hope so. There is so much to learn, so much to explore… It’s one of the things I love most about our God, the mystery and wonder and vastness of who he is. There’s always something new I haven’t seen before–and learning more about him and his love never gets old. My prayer is that each of us will desire to go deeper, to explore what’s below the surface as we read.

There are parts of this passage that are hard for me, verses that make me pause and ask some questions, because they don’t seem to line up with the character of God revealed in Jesus. It’s important to pause and ask the questions. Because God’s character doesn’t change. He is love. His disposition toward all of his sons and daughters is kindness and grace. All the time. He doesn’t relate to us through condemnation, shame, guilt, or vengeance. We sometimes project those things onto God and make assumptions about how he feels about us–and passages like the one we’re looking at this week can help us build a case for that if we’re not careful.

But as Luanne reminded us, the “book” and “chapters” of Romans is a letter to a people living in Rome at a specific time in history. She wrote last week that it is, “One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love.” It is essential that we hold tightly to the overall theme that Paul himself told us in the very beginning of this letter he was writing about as we pick up different verses throughout the letter. Sometimes we do the opposite–we grab onto a verse here and there with a white-knuckled grip and let go of the context in which the words are written.

With all of that said, let’s take a moment to explore the “wrath” that Paul brings up in this passage. Verse 18 begins with, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven. . .”

But… Paul is writing this letter post-cross, right? Hadn’t Jesus already absorbed all of our sin and violence on the cross and come back from Hades, after setting its captives free, holding the keys to death itself? Is Paul saying that God has wrath to pour out on humanity even though Jesus already conquered sin and death for the world? That doesn’t make sense… So let’s look a little deeper…

As Luanne wrote above, Paul is making a case, and this week we don’t get to see beyond the prosecution’s case against all of humanity. We’ll get there soon, but for now, there’s a long list of things that appear to separate us from God and cause his wrath to be revealed. But, what if wrath doesn’t mean what we’ve always thought it means? What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? I’m not writing as someone who knows the right answers. This passage brings up so many questions within me as I read it. But what if we considered a different perspective and asked God to grow our understanding? Can we do that together?

In the book A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, Brad Jersak offers this regarding wrath:

“Literal human ‘wrath’ combines emotional anger with violent retribution. We describe ‘the wages of sin’ (self-destructive consequences) as ‘the wrath of God’ because we infer sin’s consequences as God’s reaction. In actuality, biblical wrath is a metaphor. It signifies the intrinsic consequences of our refusal to live in the mercies of God.”

Whether we agree fully with this assertion or not, I think it’s worth considering.

With this working definition of wrath, let’s look at the first passage in Ephesians 2:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins. . . gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 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. (Ephesians 2:1, 3-5, my emphasis)

Our sin made us all ‘deserving of wrath’–of the intrinsic consequences of turning away from the mercy and love of God–and that wrath led us all the way to death. But… because of his love, God came to us again–all the way around to where we stood with our backs to him, arms crossed in defiance–and stood facing us in the person of Jesus, who conquered death by his life and now holds the keys to every grave. It’s so beautiful.

Later in this same book, the author says:

“Paul clarifies throughout Romans 1, what had been described in the narrative as active wrath is in fact a metaphor. He defines ‘wrath’ three times as the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of people to their own self-destructive trajectories–even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on others.”

This makes sense to me. God doesn’t actively lead us into–or hand us over to–evil, destructive ways. But as the Giver of free-will, he allows us to choose for ourselves who we will serve. When we choose to live in the inexhaustible mercies and grace of God, we don’t experience ‘the wages of sin’. When we choose to step away from the flow of mercy and choose to live for ourselves–make ‘me’ the center of the universe–there are consequences. Harm is done to ourselves and to others.

Luanne explained the same concept this way:

“We (humanity) have rejected God as the center of it all. We were created to revolve around God, but we’ve exchanged that for revolving around ourselves. . . Our thinking is skewed. God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices. . .”

So, when Paul–called by some the “Apostle of Grace”–lists the things that God “gave them over” to, he is telling his readers that there are intrinsic consequences to choosing to live a self-centered life. Outside of the flow of God’s mercies (which he never shuts off, but we can choose to live in ignorance of) we find ourselves on a path that leads us to indulge in all kinds of excesses. He writes of the evils that result from selfishness, and includes sexual indulgences that are unnatural to how a person is designed. I do want to note that throughout his list, Paul is not identifying a specific community or group–he is writing an exhaustive list of the consequences of choosing a self-focused, self-indulgent life that doesn’t exhibit the kingdom principles of loving God and loving others.

Finally, as we’ve written about so many times before, we need to be aware of our own filters as we read scripture, and commit to reading everything through the lens of Jesus. Even the writings of Paul, as brilliant and wise and stirring as they are, must be read through a Jesus lens. Does our understanding of a particular passage line up with the nature of God revealed in Jesus? Do our filters line up with kingdom values and the way of self-giving love modeled by Jesus? Do we have an agenda as we read certain parts of our Bibles? Are we searching for something that will back up our positions and personal convictions? Or are we bringing everything back to the good news of Jesus? He is the foundation of our faith. He is the perfect Word who was with God and was God from the beginning, through whom all things were made. (John 1:1-3, paraphrased)

As I close, I’ll say again, I don’t have the answers. I’m wrestling through things I don’t understand, as we all are. What Luanne and I hope to do in this space is dig in and give all of us space to explore what’s buried in the depths. Ultimately, our hearts are totally captured by Jesus and his kingdom, and our desire is to learn and grow into kingdom people who carry his heart to the world around us. What we write here evidences our wrestle, our processes, as we journey with Jesus. We hope you will dig in and do your own exploring, trusting the Spirit as your guide. There is much to be found if we’re willing to learn and listen and grow.

This week’s message brought us what appeared to be some bad news. But this passage is one small portion of a complete letter, and the theme of this letter is grace. Hold on… there’s so much more to come.

–Laura

Paul and the Letter to the Romans, Part 3 | by Church of God, AIC | Medium

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

Last week we wrapped up our series that covered the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Sunday, we started a new series that will take us through the book of Romans, believed to be the last of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. Before we dive into this letter, let’s consider the author–Paul (previously known as Saul)–as well as the historical and cultural context into which this letter was written and received.

The book of Acts introduces us to a man named Saul. We first hear about him at the trial and subsequent stoning of Stephen, a servant-leader in the early church. “…Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:58b, 59b, NIV) Who was this young man named Saul? Later, in a letter written to the Philippians, he writes of himself:

I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. (Philippians 3:5-6 TPT)

Saul’s credentials identify him as one of the most religious, zealous men of his day. Acts chapter 9 tells us that he breathed out “murderous threats” against followers of Jesus and arrested and imprisoned as many of them–men and women–as he could find.

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. (Philippians 3:7-8, TPT, emphasis mine)

What caused this about-face? How did the murderous, arrogantly righteous Saul become enraptured by the singular passion of knowing Jesus as his Lord? He had an encounter that changed everything. Acts 9 tells the story, which we won’t go into here, but encountering the risen Jesus altered this young man’s course for the rest of his life. Encounters with the real Jesus have a way of doing that…

It is believed that the letter to the Romans was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, around 56 AD. He addresses both Jewish and Gentile believers in his writings, and makes it clear that he is including all those in Rome who are loved by God (Romans 1:7). He expands this thought, as we’ll see throughout the coming weeks, to make clear the power of God to bring salvation to all who believe, without exception. It is important to note, as we begin, that the church grew out of a Jewish culture, in a land under Roman rule, where Greek intellectualism was becoming more and more prevalent. As Pastor John emphasized Sunday, knowing the context as we dig into scripture is extremely important.

Author Tim Stafford wrote in his introduction to Romans in Zondervan’s God’s Justice Bible:

“Paul brings good news about a new king for the ages, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. . . All people, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, are called to put their faith in him. . . to be filled with his Spirit, and as God’s new people to live a life pleasing to him–a life of justice. This new people become the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. We live, Paul says, in the final act of God’s story. . . For Paul, justice is bigger than politics or sociology, as important as those are. Justice is cosmic, summed up in the reign of Jesus and a world set free.”

This is the set up for the book we’re about to explore. It is packed with theological ideas and stirs questions and considerations that still leave many theologians confounded today. That means the Spirit has new things to teach us, as the Spirit always does, if we’re willing to lean in and learn.

So (finally!), let’s begin…

In Sunday’s message, Pastor John outlined the attitude with which Paul carries himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and what we, as modern-day followers of Jesus, can learn from his example. He covered the first seventeen verses of Romans chapter 1. If you’re at all familiar with the way Paul writes, you know that seventeen verses is a lot of words. So I won’t include the whole passage here. Rather, before I wrap up my portion, I want to come back to something I touched on earlier…

The only reason we have the book of Romans and all of Paul’s other letters in our Bibles today is because Saul had a real, life-altering encounter with Jesus. Without that experience, the Apostle Paul would have remained the zealot Saul, and we might not even know who he is today. What a tragedy that would be. Fortunately, for him and for us, we follow a Jesus who doesn’t disqualify any one of us because of our stories, but rather pursues us in the midst of our mess to infuse and transform our stories into clarion calls for the kingdom of God.

It is precisely because of who Saul was before he met Jesus that he was able to reach the world as Paul, a (willing) slave to Jesus and his ways; called, set apart, and empowered by the Spirit (whom I’ll call Grace, taking my lead from author and theologian Bradley Jersak) to carry the gospel of salvation (we’ll look at this word in more detail in just a moment…) to the world. As Pastor John articulated in his message, we may not have the ‘credentials’ we think we need to do the work we are called by God to do, but our encounters with Jesus transform us. Our encounters, our stories–they speak. Our stories become our credentials.

Back to salvation… this is a word we’ll encounter frequently in our study of Romans. It’s a word that has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the Church, one that is important to our understanding of faith and the work of Jesus in our lives. So I want to revisit what the word means in scripture.

In a message Pastor John preached a couple of years ago, he told us that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. I wrote in my portion of the blog that week:

“The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute. The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal. So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

We were in the book of Philippians that week, not Romans, but the Greek word Paul uses in chapter 1 of Romans that is translated into the English word “salvation” is the same word defined above, soteria. On Sunday Pastor John emphasized the safety and security, the invitation into wide open spaces and freedom that is implied in a thorough understanding of the salvation Paul is writing about in this letter. Wholeness, a balm that leads to healing, safety, security, and freedom for all, for everyone–this is the definition of salvation we’ll be referring to during this series. Salvation, as John said in his message, is never about “behavior modification.” That was never God’s idea. Humanity superimposed that framework onto the healing work of Jesus.

However… when we encounter the living Jesus, when his life enters our stories and brings us to life, the healing and wholeness his love brings changes everything–including our behavior, especially identifiable in the way we treat others. Paul writes in Romans 1:14: Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (TPT)

What does he mean when he says that love obligates him? Furthermore, what does it mean for him to identify himself as a slave of Jesus? Don’t these words seem counterintuitive to the idea of salvation that we identified above? It certainly doesn’t sound like freedom, does it?

It is helpful to look at what the word translated “obligates” means in the original language. The Greek word, and its root forms, means to owe, be bound, offer the advantage, and can be used metaphorically to mean, “the goodwill due.” I like that last one best. Because when we encounter the love of Jesus and that love begins to grow in us, we want others to encounter him, too. If I am learning to love my neighbor (all others) in the same way I am loved by Jesus, then I will naturally want to offer in goodwill what I myself have received by grace.

Brad Jersak writes in his book, A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith,

“By the Grace (transforming energies) of the indwelling Spirit, love becomes a law of nature–our new nature. . . Triune Love is a divine verb Who entered space-time history through the Incarnation. Divine Love necessarily appears or it is not love at all. That act of love is Jesus Christ–the eternal Word enfleshed as perfect, cruciform Love. . . Jesus repeatedly insists that our identity in him be expressed in the Way of our being, humbly demonstrated when his Grace-energized life lifts us up just as he was lifted up–to give ourselves unselfishly, to forgive others supernaturally and to co-suffer with others according to Christ’s compassion and empathy. (Note: Grace is another name for the Holy Spirit, just as Word is another name for Jesus Christ. The transforming Grace who lives in us bears the fruit of love. In fact, all of Grace’s gifts and fruit are expressions of love.)”

“Love becomes a law of nature–our new nature” when we have a personal encounter with Jesus. It is his love and goodness in its power and fullness that so captivates our beings. Enraptured (the literal meaning of “fear of God”) by his love, we willingly choose the same surrendered, self-emptying, cruciform ways of living and loving that Jesus himself modeled. Our willing enslavement is perhaps better understood in terms of a covenant relationship. He has promised and demonstrated his perfect faithfulness, his unconditional love, his with-ness to us; he’s offered us the cup of his love in the manner of a marriage proposal, inviting us to commune with him forever, to allow his life to be born within us and produce kingdom fruit for the world. He himself is irresistible. Paul’s identifying himself as a slave to this Jesus is evidence both of the change in Saul-now-Paul, and also the captivating love and Grace he encountered on that road to Damascus.

My fingers are cramped from typing that last section, because the words flowed out faster than I could write them, like a fire within my bones that had to get out. That passion, that energy, is Grace, the Spirit of Jesus that I have encountered on the most unlikely days, during the ugliest seasons, in the midst of the most destructive choices I’ve made in my life. There are so many labels I could give myself, so many points along the way that I “should” have been disqualified from God’s call on my life to carry his kingdom within this messy, broken vessel. But those labels, those choices–they don’t define me, so I won’t even mention them here. Because I have encountered Jesus and his healing, freeing salvation over and over and over again. And his love has become my law of nature as he changes me and grows life where death once reigned.

There is so much more I could say, so many stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for another week. It’s about time I wrap up my portion and hand this over to Luanne. So I’ll conclude with this… Part of our call as Jesus-followers is to leverage who we are–our stories–and all that we have to carry Jesus to the world. Living as our real selves–with our scars, failures, and every part of our histories–is what makes us effective kingdom-bearers. Our stories are to be leveraged for the kingdom of God. Saul was not disqualified. I am not disqualified. You are not disqualified. We are set apart and empowered by Grace, as slaves only to Jesus, to carry the kindness and love and story of God to the world around us. I think that’s so beautiful.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of setting us up for this series, and I’m not going to add much to what she wrote; however, it is deeply important that we understand Paul’s greeting and the first portion of the letter he wrote to real people in order to set the stage for the rest of the series. A lot of these verses are familiar to us; let’s commit to willingness–willingness to see things through a new lens; to resist the temptation to settle into familiar interpretations, and to pick and choose verses. Paul’s overall message is inclusive and grace-filled…sometimes we miss that. Here we go…

I’m going to be super honest here–people I love have been hurt by verses from the book of Romans; there are scriptures in the book of Romans that have been pulled out of context and used to “other” and harm people, so I want to throw out a reminder–when Paul wrote this letter, it was not divided into chapters and verses. It was written as one long letter. Ten or eleven years ago, I decided to read it as a letter. I read it over, and over, and over again. I read it in multiple translations. I listened to it read to me. I don’t know how many times I read/heard it, but what I came away with is this: Every human being on the face of the planet is messed up. God, through Jesus, entered our mess, introduced us to his all encompassing grace and his incredible unconditional love—for all of us. No one is left out of God’s love. As we move through this book–we must resist the temptation to pull a verse here or a verse there out of context in order to fit a narrative or agenda. Romans is one whole letter with a beautiful overall message.

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

A couple of things to note: In Romans 1:5 Paul writes through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship… Notice that he lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

Continuing in verse 5–the grace that came before the ministry of apostleship empowered Paul …to call all the Gentiles… for his (Jesus) name’s sake. This is a huge statement. Before Jesus, Paul was a fanatical, war-mongering, violent, self-righteous, zealot. After getting to know Jesus, not only does Paul tell the Jewish people that Jesus is their Messiah, he tells them that they are accepted by God; that God’s way is the way of grace; therefore, they are accepted right now. He tells them they are set free from the weight and impossible expectations of the law. And he extends that message to the Gentiles as well.

If you close your eyes and picture “the Gentiles”, who do you see? I most often see people who look like me, which is an inaccurate picture. The Gentiles include every single person who is not Jewish. Revelation 7:9 gives us the description: I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Do we picture this great ethnic diversity when we picture Paul’s audience? The ministry of Paul was ground-breaking. It was radical. It was inclusive. And it was God-called and God-ordained.

Another thing to note: Paul didn’t set himself up over the Roman believers. In verses 11 and 12 he writes: I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

We are all in this together, and each one of us has gifts to bring to the table. We mutually encourage one another. I am deeply grateful to have friends who both challenge and encourage me by what God is showing them, and who allow me to to do the same. New lenses, new understanding, stretching our faith, growing as we share stories of our unique life experiences and what God is teaching us through those experiences–it’s all part of being God’s kingdom-people.

And one last thing to remember as we move through this letter–the most famous verse from this greeting: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

Laura wrote this beautiful definition of salvation based on the original language: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

The power, the energy of God brings healing and wholeness to everyone who believes, then three times Paul writes… righteousness….righteousness…righteous.

What does Paul mean by righteousness? You all, it’s the same word dikaiosýnē that we wrote about in The Sermon on the Mount series. Jesus used this word twice in that sermon: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosyne) for they will be satisfied. And seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (dikaiosyne)…

Dikaiosýnē; equity (of character or act). The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

In some Bibles, the word dikaiosýnē is translated as the word justice–that’s how it is in my Portuguese Bible–blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; seek first the kingdom of God and his justice. It’s hard to grasp the full meaning of this word, since it’s not native to our language, but it encompasses being rightly related to God, being rightly related to others, equity—-shalom…

Equity can be hard for us human beings to grasp. We like to earn/deserve things and compare ourselves to others. We want things to be fair. To the Jews of the day, the fact that God included the Gentiles in the kingdom; the fact that Jesus wasn’t just their promised messiah but the messiah for the whole world; the fact that the Law they had sought to obey in order to have a relationship with God wasn’t required of Gentiles; it all seemed unfair. The first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t seem fair. God’s way is the way of equity. Through Jesus, all have the same access to the kingdom of God; to God’s love; to God’s grace…it’s all about God opening the Way to all of us. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t choose who is worthy and who is not. We must pause here and think: is there anyone that you or I think is not included–at least not until they change?

God’s way is not our way. God’s way is not based on human behavior–ours or anyone else’s. God’s way is wide open to everyone everywhere. That’s why it’s such good news!

So Paul says…I’m not ashamed of this inclusive message of God’s healing and wholeness. It’s in this gospel, this good news, that we see the real God. We see God and experience God’s love and grace. We extend to others, for the sake of Jesus, this ministry of grace and love–and it happens as we live by faith.

The righteous will live by faith (NIV) . The just will live by faith. Those wholly conformed to the will of God (dikaiosyne), will live by faith.

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome. Together, let’s explore the Roman Road Less Traveled.

–Luanne

Poetry of the day: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874-1963) —  Steemit

Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know we’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount for months. Since last spring, Pastor John has been taking us through Jesus’ sermon slowly, digging into a few verses each week. Why? Why would we take so many months to study these three chapters of scripture?

It’s because the sermon on the mount is Jesus’ primary teaching on what his kingdom followers are to look like. It’s Jesus’ manifesto. What does that mean? The definition, according to Merriam-Webster states: Manifesto is related to manifest..which means “readily perceived by the senses” or “easily recognized”. . . Something that is manifest is easy to perceive or recognize, and a manifesto is a statement in which someone makes his or her intentions or views easy for people to ascertain. Jesus is making clear who his followers are to be, and how we will be recognized.

Before we get to this week’s verses, let’s briefly recap: Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down to teach. He begins with the beatitudes–blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers….blessed are the persecuted for Jesus’ sake… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven… they will be comforted… they will inherit the earth… they will be filled… they will be shown mercy… they will see God…, they will be called children of God… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next comes You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, followed by Jesus’ statement that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, which is followed by his first therefore.

Therefore–anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven

Jesus then moves into the six You have heard it said…but I say to you...statements, where he reinterprets their understanding of the law, reminding them that it’s always about the heart rather than their behavior. He reminds his followers to be reconcilers, to be faithful, to be quick to offer grace, to be loving toward all–especially our enemies. His second therefore comes in the middle of this section…Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. (5:23-24) Again, Jesus is highlighting the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. When there is conflict, we lovingly address it. Blessed are the peacemakers—it matters.

Following this, he talks his hearers through three pillars of their faith: give, pray, fast. They would have been familiar with these actions, but again, Jesus is reinterpreting their understanding. Give to the needy, pray and fast in secret…do these things as part of an intimate relationship with God, not to be “seen” by others.

Next: Store up treasures in heaven, keep your eyes on God, seek God’s kingdom first and foremost and don’t worry; God will take care of you. Jesus third therefore comes in this section. Right after he says you can’t serve both God and money” he teaches Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. . .. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  (6: 25)

Jesus teaches his listeners– don’t judge others–ask, seek, knock, learn to discern, and the Golden rule: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.

Following this, Jesus teaches us to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life, teaches us to discern false prophets who can be recognized by their fruit and then his fourth therefore:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…(7:24)

You all, it is so important that we hear the words of Jesus, not the words someone else told us about Jesus. There is a stream of Christianity in the United States today that does not look like Jesus. It is known for being mean, judgmental, exclusive, divisive. It “others” people and determines who is in and who is out. There are others who teach that the evidence of God’s favor is worldly wealth–treasures on earth. There are some who teach that the kingdom of heaven is aligned with worldly power and if one is going to be “in” one must align oneself with that power’s philosophy.

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

Jesus is about the inward transformation of his followers. That transformation comes as we spend time with him–as we immerse ourselves in his words–as we seek first his kingdom.

Therefore–if anyone hears these words of mind and puts them into practice...

Are we hearing the words of Jesus? Are we practicing what we learn?

Pastor John reminded us that Jesus isn’t creating a separate, conduct based, Christian culture. He is forming a regenerated, redeemed culture, who return to the culture they came out of living lives so inviting that others are attracted to Jesus–others will discover who Jesus is by who we are.

Who we are…

Are we beatitude people? Are we sermon on the mount people? Are we salt and light?

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock… (7: 24-25)

These words of minethese words from this sermon–and lives them out, is building on The Rock–and living this kingdom-minded way is wise and keeps the chaos of this world from destroying us.

One last thought before I close. The sermon ends with Matthew letting us know that the the crowds were amazed at his teaching,  because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (7:28-29)

Then chapter 8 begins with:

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” (v.1-3)

Jesus taught on the mountainside, came down and demonstrated what it means to put his words into practice. In the midst of the large crowd following him, Jesus gave his full attention to one sick, oppressed, outcast man. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, if you listen well to my words, and pay attention to who I bring across your path, if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

Are we willing? Will we sit with Jesus, hear his words–and then put them into practice?

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us, even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence, experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

–Luanne

As I read through Luanne’s words, I prayed about where to go and how to wrap up my portion of our final sermon on the mount message. She covered what Pastor John brought before us on Sunday in a beautiful and comprehensive way, so I’m going to do something a little different.

We began this series in April, and we have now written tens of thousands of words about this sermon that has captivated our hearts. So I’m going to revisit the words we’ve written over these many weeks, and remind us all of the journey we’ve taken together. For the sake of readability, I won’t indicate who wrote what in each paragraph or which week it was pulled from–the snapshot below contains a combination of my words and Luanne’s in fairly equal measure.

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping at what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.

This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

Our “being” is not what we do. It’s who we are–our very essence.  Remaining connected to Jesus is the key to the beatitude way of being, leading to the natural outflow of “flavoring” the world with his principles, his ways, his heart, his love, him.

When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love… Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of beingas God originally intended. Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word…Jesus Christ himself.

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

 The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way. . . So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth. Do we want that?

Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected-to-the- vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him. The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. . . We are asking God to daily–every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, to let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and to be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

. . .We have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount: What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded that the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation. We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit-filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like… This is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. . . Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated. . . So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

We continue to come back to the same things during this series, because Jesus continued to say the same things. Throughout the whole sermon. Over and over, in different ways, so as to clearly invite all of his listeners into the kingdom he presented. It seems he really wanted us to hear his heart–which is always full of love toward all, a cruciform, self-emptying love that always moves toward others. His focus was not death and destruction, but on life and abundance. He came as the image of the invisible God, the God who IS love. So Jesus, then, is the embodiment of love. And he invites us once again to join him on this narrow way of abiding in him so that his life can grow in us and produce good fruit that can be shared with the world around us. God never gives up; however, in order for God to work in us, we must choose the narrow way, the abiding way. We must remain connected to God–abide in God’s love, abide in God’s presence, abide in The Vine, then the power, the energy of transformation that allows us to produce the Spirit’s fruit and carry out God’s loving will is made evident to those around us.

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us–even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence–experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

So, what will our response be to all that we’ve learned over the last five months? Are we willing? Do we really want to live like this? Is Jesus our first love? Do we really want to live according to the ways of the kingdom? Knowing all that we know now? Can we envision a new tomorrow full of life and hope and flourishing for all? Are we willing to remain connected to the Vine until his life in us produces kingdom fruit for the world around us?

Our answers to these questions matter more than we know. The trajectory of the Church in the U.S.A. and her witness to the rest of the world will be set by our collective response to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is the Word. The Light. The image of God and the embodiment of Love itself. His kingdom is here. It is now. And it changes everything. Let’s join him.

–Laura

Sermon on the Mount: Being Over Behavior

Last week, we looked at the “Golden Rule.” Luanne connected it to Jesus’ emphasis on the commandment to love and phrased it this way: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you. It is important that we keep that in mind as we continue into this week’s passage. For the sake of continuity, I decided to back up one verse and begin this week’s passage with Matthew 7:12, our concluding verse from last week.

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:12-23, NIV)

This is not an easy passage. Pastor John laid out several points for our consideration, but the point that stood out to me was that the choices we make impact our Christlikeness. We have the freedom to make our choices, but there are consequences to each choice we make, and our lives produce evidence of these choices. I would like us to look at the Message paraphrase of our passage, too, because it causes me to think a little differently about some verses that I am fairly familiar with.

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get. Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention. Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook. These diseased trees with their bad apples are going to be chopped down and burned. Knowing the correct password—saying ‘Master, Master,’ for instance—isn’t going to get you anywhere with me. What is required is serious obedience—doing what my Father wills. I can see it now—at the Final Judgment thousands strutting up to me and saying, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit. You’re out of here.’” (MSG, emphasis mine)

I happened to be reading a book that mentioned these verses during my quiet time on Sunday morning. Regarding the narrow gate and the broad gate, the author wrote:

“I regularly hear this passage interpreted as though Jesus were saying the in the end, very few will “be saved and go to heaven.” That’s not what Christ is referring to at all. Read it again. “So whatever you want people to do to you, do just that to them. Yes, that is what the law and the prophets are all about. Go in by the narrow gate. The gate that leads to destruction, you see, is nice and wide, and the road going there has plenty of room. Lots of people go that way.” (Matthew 7:12-13) Regardless of our faith profession or final destiny, our Lord is summarizing his takeaway from the Law and the Prophets–he’s describing the Jesus Way in this life in terms of the famous “Golden Rule.” He laments that most people–even most Christians–opt out of the Way that leads to life and instead, face the tragic self-destructive results of following the violent mob on the broad path. . . So, practically speaking, the Jesus Way truly leads to life, which includes human flourishing now and eternal life beyond.” (A More Christlike Way, A More Beautiful Faith, by Bradley Jersak)

Jersak suggests that Jesus is summarizing the Law & the Prophets–this Jesus Way he has been laying out in the sermon on the mount–in terms of the “Golden Rule.” He, if my understanding is correct, is asserting that Jesus is once again inviting his listeners to join him on the path he has been laying out–the way of the kingdom. Jesus’ goal is always to bring life, not death. His heart is always for all those who hear his invitation to follow him on the path of life, to “bring us a continual revelation of resurrection life, the path to the bliss that brings us face-to-face with him.” (Psalm 16:11, TPT, adapted)

Interestingly, Jesus may have intended a different understanding with his usage of the word we see translated “narrow” in our passage than what we most often think of. The word in the Greek means “strait,” as in a narrow passage of water, but its root word means to make to stand, make firm, establish, and also… to abide.

I got a little giddy when I read that definition, because abiding was already on my mind when I heard Pastor John talking about producing good fruit. To view this passage with that definition in mind is more than a little fascinating to me. I looked up many of the words in this passage, and it would be easy for me to get lost in the weeds trying to present them all to you. So I will summarize what I learned from Strong’s Greek Lexicon and offer the perspective I gleaned, fully aware of my own limitations–I am no theologian, nor will I pretend to be. Instead, I want to offer what made my heart burn with love for Jesus all over again, because it felt true to his character, to his way of being in the world, as I learned…

Jesus invites us to love our neighbors as ourselves and do to others what we would have them do to us, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. He follows this statement with, “Enter through the narrow gate,” or, the firm, established way, where we can abide and stand. The wide gate, the broad way, is like an open square, a spacious, wide, empty expanse–a gaping opening or chasm. It’s hard to imagine abiding in a gaping chasm. The second time in the passage that Jesus speaks about a small gate and narrow road, the word translated narrow is different in the Greek. It has roots that mean troubled, afflicted, a worn way, and at the deepest root–a Greek word spelled trauma (blew my mind a bit…)– wounding.

When I read “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life” in light of this second definition, I can’t help but think about the self-sacrificing, cruciform way of love that Jesus modeled and has been inviting us into throughout the entire sermon on the mount to this point. He invites us to abide, knowing we’ll need to remain connected to him as we live his way–a way that includes afflicting and wounding as we pour out our life and love for others in his strength. Traveling on this path, abiding with Jesus, is the only way to live a life that produces good fruit. John 15:5 tells us:

“I am the sprouting vine and you’re my branches. As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you—but when you live separated from me you are powerless.” (TPT)

In her beautiful book, Chasing Vines, Beth Moore writes, “The job of the branch is to abide. Fruit is assured to every branch that fulfills its singular task: abide in the Vine. . . You need not worry that all this abiding will get boring. There’s no getting used to Jesus. One of the best parts of abiding in Christ is staying close enough to catch a glimpse of what he decides to reveal. Abide in Me. If you’re willing, you’ll never quit learning. We forget that He came to be Immanuel, God with us. Abide in Me. Work with Me. . .

Of course when I read that last line, Matthew 11 came to mind again. Because it’s in me and it bubbles up so often:

Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. (Matthew 11:29, TPT)

Beth goes on to write, quoting Dr. Gary M. Burgeons:

“What are the outcomes of this sort of life? The fruit Jesus expects from the branches is first and foremost love. . . This spiritual awakening, this transforming encounter does not always lead to fantastic signs and powers. . . It leads principally to a life that has features of Jesus’ life running through its veins.”

Our transforming is not about fantastic signs and powers–I’m remembering the Message paraphrase of our passage, specifically, ‘Master, we preached the Message, we bashed the demons, our God-sponsored projects had everyone talking.’ And do you know what I am going to say? ‘You missed the boat. All you did was use me to make yourselves important. You don’t impress me one bit.” No, the fruit of abiding, according to Dr. Burgeons, is “a life that has features of Jesus’ life running through its veins.”

Moore goes on to write,

Did you catch that? Abiding inevitably leads to love. A life that is lived in intimacy with Jesus is a life that lived in love. Abounding in love is possible only when we abide in Him. . . Love God. Love people. That’s what we’re here to do. “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (Galatians 5:22). Without love, all fruit is plastic. The fruit of our lives, in all its forms and manifold graces, is truest to the Vine when it’s generously extended and accessible to stagers and aliens of any kind. Our fruit is sweetest to the Vine when it extends a direct advantage to the disadvantaged and to the orphan, to the widow and to the poor. Our fruit best reflects the Vine when it deliberately leaves room at the edges–for the marginalized, the cornered, the oppressed, the mistreated, the harassed, and the abused. That’s where Jesus went, and that’s who Jesus sought. “As he is so also are we in this world” (1 John 4:17).

Brad Jersak wrote about the Jesus Way. Beth wrote about where Jesus went and who he sought. We are filtering all of this through the “Golden Rule” and way that Jesus presented, Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you. And if we follow the narrow way that is cruciform, others-focused Love, by remaining connected to the Vine and being willing to have his life reproduced in us, we will bear good fruit, fruit that will grow in abundance and can be offered to others.

“Without love, all fruit is plastic.”

That line speaks truth. I won’t include 1 Corinthians 13 again this week, but it applies, as it often does. We are utterly bankrupt without love. Love keeps on loving… How? By abiding. It’s all about being, not behavior.

I didn’t go into detail about our influences and filters, false prophets, or doing vs. not doing the will of God. I also didn’t get into the discussion on judgement that this passage stirs. My word count is already a little ridiculous, and I need to wrap up my portion. But even if I had leaned into all of the points in the passage, I’m not sure I would have landed anywhere different…

We continue to come back to the same things during this series, because Jesus continued to say the same things. Throughout the whole sermon. Over and over, in different ways, so as to clearly invite all of his listeners into the kingdom he presented. It seems he really wanted us to hear his heart–which is always full of love toward all, a cruciform, self-emptying love that always moves toward others. His focus was not death and destruction, but on life and abundance. He came as the image of the invisible God, the God who IS love. So Jesus, then, is the embodiment of love. And he invites us once again to join him on this narrow way of abiding in him so that his life can grow in us and produce good fruit that can be shared with the world around us.

If we choose to abide, to walk with him and learn from him, growing in his ways, the product will be good fruit. If we choose to walk in our own way, in a broad, spacious chasm where we can’t be rooted and established because we’re trying to do it all on our own for our own glory, all we’ll ever produce is plastic fruit. We can’t eat that. Or share it. That way will leave us starving, lonely, weak, and unable to stand. Too much time disconnected from the Vine leaves branches dry and dying, unable to sustain or produce life. These are the natural consequences of choosing not to abide. The choice is ours, and we will be known by our fruit…

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of reminding us that Jesus’ entire message and ministry were founded in love. Always love. If we stay connected to the vine, if we abide in the vine, if we remain, our lives produce love. Jesus tells us in John 15:5: I am the vine, you are the branches; if you remain in me you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.

As Laura wrote above, The Passion Translation words it like this: I am the sprouting vine and you’re my branches. As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you—but when you live separated from me you are powerless.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote after the word branches that reads: The branch of the Lord is now Christ living in his people, branching out through them. The church is now his lampstand. . .

With abiding in Love as our foundation, and the reminder that Jesus teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves and do to others as we would have them do to us, and with the acknowledgment that we are not to judge, but are to be discerning, let’s look at the next verses:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.  By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (7:15-19)

I think we can get deceived into thinking that we are smart enough to determine who is a false prophet and who isn’t, but Jesus warns us in Matthew 24, that many will stop following me and fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many lying prophets will arise, deceiving multitudes and leading them away from the path of truth. (v. 10-11)

…and the verse from that passage in Matthew 24 that haunts me …the love of many will grow cold. (v. 12)

So Jesus tells us how to avoid being deceived– how to discern false prophets; it’s by their fruit. What does the New Testament teach us about fruit?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Or to get a fresh perspective, the TPT interprets it like this:

But the fruit produced by the Holy Spirit within you is divine love in all its varied expressions:

joy that overflows,

peace that subdues,

patience that endures,

kindness in action,

a life full of virtue,

faith that prevails,

gentleness of heart, and

strength of spirit.

Never set the law above these qualities, for they are meant to be limitless.

(Galatians 5:22-23)

We cannot behave our way into the fruit of the Spirit–abiding in the vine leads to inner transformation, inner transformation leads to Holy Spirit fruit.

Backing up again to last week—God doesn’t place us in the role of judge; God does; however, give us discernment. False prophets, and false teachers don’t bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit. (And I’m just going to say, we are all teachers…our lives teach.)

Jesus goes on to say:

 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Jesus was not one to mince words–but remember–he was never being cruel. Jesus, the image of Love, was all about the Father’s will, and is teaching us God’s heart, God’s desire, God’s way, God’s love- not just for us, but for the world.

So what is it about these false teachers that causes Jesus to say “I don’t know you?” We have to back up a bit–what has Jesus been teaching that his followers look like all throughout the Sermon on the Mount? They are poor in spirit, compassionate (mourn), meek, they hunger and thirst for “diakosyne” (righteousness, justice, equity), they are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and sometimes persecuted for looking like Jesus…

So why will Jesus say I don’t know you to some who say to him–but I did all of this in your name? Pastor John said it beautifully– “Kingdom people look like me (Jesus)–you didn’t look like me, so I didn’t recognize you.”

Do we look like Jesus? What is the fruit of 21st-century American Christianity? Does it look like Spirit fruit or has our love grown cold? Does the world experience the love of God through us? Do the tax collectors and sinners, the outsiders of our day know that Jesus loves them just like they are–and not only that–do they know he wants to hang out with them, to be with them? Do we model that? Jesus’ people look like him?

If the answer is no–don’t despair–all is not hopeless. Philippians 2:13 in the NLT says: For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him.

God never gives up; however, in order for God to work in us, we must choose the narrow way, the abiding way. We must remain connected to God–abide in God’s love, abide in God’s presence, abide in The Vine, then the power, the energy of transformation that allows us to produce the Spirit’s fruit and carry out God’s loving will is made evident to those around us.

Pastor John summed it up like this: God is inviting us to live a better way. Jesus is showing us how–he offers to transform us as we abide in him. Our inner character (that comes from abiding) changes how we live life. It’s not about professing— it’s about living. It’s not about “do”–it’s about “be”.

I am the sprouting vine and you’re my branches. As you live in union with me as your source, fruitfulness will stream from within you. . .

–Luanne

Preventing Problems In Grapes - How To Treat Common Grapevine Pests And  Diseases

Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

One of the things I love about scripture is there is always more than what we see at face value–there are layers and layers to discover, and new lenses through which to see. It never gets old.

Our passage this week is Matthew 7:1-12. The last verse is one that, even people who don’t follow Jesus know well: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV)

We’ll come back to the little word “so”, which is sometimes translated “therefore”–but I want to spend a moment on the last clause–this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Remember that Jesus is teaching on a hillside. His audience is Jewish–the Law and the Prophets are what their belief system is founded upon. In this entire sermon, Jesus has been teaching them that rather than the “dos” and “don’ts” they’ve subjected themselves to in their faith, there is a different way. It began with the beatitudes, and moved through being salt and light, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” statements and more–each one addressing the transformation of the heart and the valuing of others. There are 12 verses in this week’s portion of chapter 7. “The Golden Rule” is in verse 12 and we’re beginning there, because while Pastor John was preaching, the Law and Prophets phrase leapt out to me. Why? Because this isn’t the only time Jesus said these words.

In this very sermon, right after the salt and light portion, and right before the “you’ve heard it said” statements, Jesus told his audience: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (5:17).

And in Matthew 22, we learn …an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (36-40)

Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He teaches us that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the greatest commandments and the Golden Rule: “Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you. (TPT), Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you...or as J.B. Phillips wrote in his translation, treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like…this is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

With that as our foundation, and backing up to a verse from last week’s sermon, Matthew 6:33–seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and God will take care of the rest…, let’s look at Matthew 7:1-11.

I don’t think I’m going to write a lot of commentary…I’m just going to put the commandment to love and the Golden Rule next to the verses.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Okay, This one might need a little commentary because this dog and swine thing seems so bizarre in the middle of this beautiful sermon. Jesus has just taught us not to judge and nitpick another’s shortcomings–is he now telling us to decide who is a dog, who is a pig, and withhold sacred things from them? Would that make any sense in light of the rest of what he’s teaching? No. So…what could this mean that’s not that?

I read a number of thoughts around this, and some don’t take the context into account, but others say that Jesus is not teaching us to judge, but to be discerning. One said “Do not persist in offering what is sacred or of value to those who have no appreciation for it,…” (Expository Files, April 2000) Pastor John said be careful about how you convey the precious to others. He went on to remind us that if we see others as “dogs” and “pigs” we’ll treat them like “dogs” and “pigs”, they’ll reciprocate and the precious will get trampled. When I think of it that way, and think of it in light of not judging others, and in treating others the way I want to be treated, this makes sense to me.

I work in a secular environment with at risk teenagers. The best way for me to share my relationship with Jesus at work is to love people and treat them well. Then, because of the relationship we’ve established over time, some of them will trust me enough to share “the hard”. I can tell them that I believe in Jesus and I pray for them. Sometimes that leads to deeper conversations–sometimes not, but I’ve not yet had anyone ask me not to pray for them. Sometimes it even leads to tears. Those moments are sacred, but they’re not forced. People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. I’m a Jesus-follower and I cringe at pushy gospel presentations. Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated.

So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred.

The discernment insight leads right into the next verses: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

And then: Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

The IVP Bible Commentary explains that “Jesus adapts a standard Jewish argument here called qal vahomer: arguing from the lesser to the greater (if the lesser is true, how much more the greater). Fish and bread were basic staples, integral to the diet of most of Jesus’ hearers; they do not stand for the fineries of the wealthy.” Good parents give good, life sustaining things to their children, not things that will harm them; how much more is that true of God–who always loves us, and always treats us as he wants to be treated… SO (therefore), in EVERYTHING, do to others what you would have them do to you.

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

We love God by loving others. 18th century theologian John Wesley summed this passage up by saying, “The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

I thought I had an idea of what I would be adding to the blog this week… Until I read Luanne’s masterfully woven words. She captured so beautifully the main points of this passage and connected them to everything we’ve been learning over the last five months. What I find so interesting is how, as we dig into these words from Jesus week after week, we find that everything he taught circles back to what it means to be one who lives out the love of God according to the kingdom Jesus brought to earth.

We could dig into any one of the verses from this week’s passage and take it apart word by word; we could talk about what it means to judge and to be judged by God in the manner we judge… Or, we could do exactly what Pastor John and Luanne did: filter every bit of it through the main point, holding onto what Jesus really desired his listeners to understand. Luanne identified above what that main point is: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Love God with our whole heart. Love our neighbors (which, we remember, includes all others) as we love ourselves. Seek first the kingdom–find over and over again that when we seek, we find Jesus–and live according to the ways of that kingdom that Jesus modeled. As we seek the upside-down kingdom and are molded into the image of Jesus, our King, that kingdom comes alive in us and we carry it to the world around us.

These are the concepts we continue to land on as we study the sermon from Jesus. It matters that we understand the main points, and beyond simply understanding, that we allow ourselves to be changed by them as we embody the words and ways of the One we follow. It matters so much. Why? Luanne explained exactly why with these words:

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness.

As I read through her portion, that line caused me to pause. The words came off the page and everything in my heart responded, Yes and amenThis is the whole point, friends. We can know the scriptures, be able to define the Greek roots of words, hold our own in theological debates, stun people with our head knowledge of Jewish culture and the customs of that time. But nobody is going to come to Jesus because of our well-designed arguments. It is his kindness that leads to repentance–to the willingness to see things a different way, change our minds, and begin a journey with Jesus–not pushy, clumsy appeals to say yes to the gospel, not defending our faith against the ways of the world, not mean, ugly judgments of how hell-bent “they” are if they don’t listen to “us.” It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his life growing roots in us that produces good fruit for us to offer the world around us. That’s how people meet Jesus and fall in love with him–the same way we did.

Love your neighbor as yourself, and do… The only other thing I want to highlight is the way Jesus presented the “Golden Rule.” As Pastor John emphasized in his sermon, Jesus did not focus on the negative, on what not to do. He didn’t say “Whatever you hate, whatever makes you angry, whatever you don’t like–don’t do that to others.” No. He said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This directive does not allow us to be apathetic rule-followers. We don’t get to say, “I didn’t treat them badly,” and think we’re living in obedience, because Jesus didn’t tell us what not to do. He told us to do. To go do good. That’s what love does.

And… as we do good to others, as we love, we find that we move forward, we grow. Moving toward others according to Jesus’ ways of love grows our capacity to love more, which makes us more like him. It’s how the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Simply choosing to not do bad, to not be unloving, will not birth the kingdom within us or around us. What speaks a better word to the world around us is our embodiment of the heart of Jesus. “For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.” (John 13:35) And what does love look like? Let’s refresh our memories…

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, TPT, emphasis mine)

Love never stops loving… Love keeps moving, keeps doing good to others.

As I paused a moment ago, the prayer of St. Francis came to mind…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is dispair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
 

As I ponder this prayer in light of what we are discussing this week, I can’t help but consider the word instrument. Its roots go back to a Latin verb that means “equip.” I love that, because this prayer then reads in my mind: Lord, equip me to do your peace; equip me to sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy. And when I think of an instrument–whether in the musical sense, or as a specialized tool used for an intricate, delicate process–it strikes me how useless an instrument is if it’s not set into motion. It may be beautiful sitting stagnant in place, and certainly does no harm by simply staying put. But it only puts good into the world when it is played, when it is utilized. The kingdom cannot come by us simply choosing not to do bad to one another. We must actively do good and choose love, which is always active and moving.

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

“The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

She thinks that’s Jesus’ point in this passage. I agree with her. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit

Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

That’s much easier said than done, right? Yet, it is what Jesus explicitly teaches his followers. What are these words from Jesus doing here, in the middle of the sermon on the mount? And how can we actually not worry?

As we prepare to walk through some of what Pastor John set before us, I’d like us to remember what Jesus has been teaching through his epic sermon to this point. He is revealing to his listeners a new way–the way of his kingdom. He is reminding those with ears to hear that, more than behavior modification, he is after heart transformation. The condition of our hearts matters more than anything we say or do externally, because our hearts are what lead us, always. Hearts that are willing to learn and grow, hearts that make space for his kingdom to grow inside of them, produce good fruit.

This week’s passage is not a sharp turn away from these things that Jesus has reiterated over and over to this point. It is deeply connected to the rest of his teachings. I think that might be easier to see in these verses if we look at them backwards, because the key point–what everything else hinges on–comes at the end. If I were to summarize this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) backwards, it would read like this:

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Matthew 6:33 tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I believe this is the verse the rest of the passage hinges on. And I won’t pretend for one second that this isn’t a hard teaching. Many of the verses in our passage are so familiar because they’ve become clichés, happy phrases we see on notecards and couch pillows. These are not easy teachings. Nothing Jesus has taught thus far in the sermon on the mount is easy. But his teachings are simple, in that they’re not complicated or designed to trip us up. Remember, we learned that his yoke–his teachings as our ultimate rabbi–is light and not burdensome. Let’s carry that understanding with us as we dig into this week’s passage.

Is Jesus saying that if we seek his kingdom above all else, we will escape trouble and hardship and have everything we need in this life? I don’t think so…

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as his crucifixion nears. He assures them there will be trouble. Makes it pretty clear that there’s no escaping it. But he also tells them that in him they can have peace. He tells them, even before his death and resurrection, he has overcome the world.

So what does it mean when Jesus says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, we’ll have all we need? And how do we not worry when he guarantees that this life will bring us trouble?

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

We find Jesus. Our daily bread. The rabbi whose yoke is unlike any other.

If we seek the kingdom above all else, we will always be led straight into Jesus’ arms. I am slightly concerned about sounding redundant here, but God won’t let me get away from this. The entire sermon on the mount unveils the kingdom and every bit of it points us back to the One who’s doing the teaching.

What does it mean that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find Jesus? And how does that keep us from worrying? Look with me at Revelation 1:18. Jesus says,

“I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (NLT)

If Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave, what is there to fear, really? Even if the worst comes, he is Lord. Even over death.

I don’t mean any of that to sound superficial or easy, because I know it’s not. This life is painstakingly hard. Our hearts are broken over and over. Suffering is part of each of our stories. Which is why it is so key to remember that we are loved, held, pursued, and rescued by a co-suffering God, revealed in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

Pastor John talked to us on Sunday about rescue, how our limitless God comes for us. He also asked some questions that aren’t easy to answer, at least not for me. He asked if God has ever abandoned us, let us down, not shown up? Has he ever walked out on us? I wish I could say no to all of these questions. But there are still loose ends in my story, times I did feel let down by God, moments when he didn’t show up–at least not in a way I could see. Some parts of my story have found resolution over time–but sometimes it is only in looking back that I can see I wasn’t ever abandoned, because it sure felt like I was in some of my most desperate moments.

I wish that I could say that as my faith has grown and my maturity has deepened, I have ceased worrying. But that wouldn’t be true. The things of this world can feel so big–at any given moment there is much to be concerned about globally, nationally, politically, economically, ecologically, relationally, personally. There are issues accosting every part of our humanity, because in this world there is so much trouble.

And this is where it is essential to remember Jesus’s words, “Take heart. I have overcome the world. I hold the keys to death and the grave.”

Jesus’s assurances don’t deny our struggles and pain, but they do remind us that we are humans with limitations, living in a toilsome world that Jesus has already overcome.

There are parts of my life that to this point lay unresolved. Things I don’t understand–yet. But for every one of those moments, there are multiple stories of rescue, times when my God has shown up and revealed the voice, heart, presence I needed at just the right time. Because the truth is, our God never leaves us alone. Even when we run in fear or anger or confusion, we never reach the edge of his gaze, his hand, his pursuing love.

Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

To choose to focus on our worries is to elevate them, to worship the power of our own (unproductive) thinking, which leaves us spinning. Nothing changes by placing our minds on these concerns, by allowing our thoughts to consume us. All that changes is our own emotional, mental, and physical health. To worry actually takes hours off our lives. It harms us.

Instead of setting our minds on such things, we are exhorted to,

“. . .keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” (Philippians 4:8, TPT)

Or, in other words,

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33, NLT)

Seek first the kingdom. Find Jesus there. He has overcome this troublesome world, and he holds the keys to death and the grave. So don’t worry. His love conquers all our fears.

–Laura

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday it’s God who gives us life. When he said that, the chorus from the song Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters came to mind: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise.” Your breath. God’s breath in our lungs. Pause for a second. Inhale deeply. The air, the lungs, the muscles that allow the breath to happen…it’s all a gift–or millions, and millions, and millions of gifts, from God, that happen all the time.

Which of us by worrying can add a single moment to our lives. Which of us by worrying can even provide our own breath? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can’t “make” any of it happen. God gives life, and breath, and designed us for every movement, every thought, every emotion. He’s given us the ability to reason, to learn, to grow. He’s given us talents and gifts. Each of our five senses are gifts. He’s given us a spirit so that we can connect with the Spirit of God. We are completely and totally dependent upon God for the design and functioning of our very beings. Yet we worry. We think: What if God isn’t really enough? And then fall for the lie, and live as if it all depends on us.

Laura and I took last week off, but I’m going to go back and retrieve the verses that come right before the worry passage and then paste in Laura’s inverted paraphrase from above so we can see these two passages together. Matthew 6:19-24 (TPT) reads like this:

Don’t keep hoarding for yourselves earthly treasures that can be stolen by thieves. Material wealth eventually rusts, decays, and loses its value. Instead, stockpile heavenly treasures for yourselves that cannot be stolen and will never rust, decay, or lose their value. For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. The eyes of your spirit allow revelation-light to enter into your being. If your heart is unclouded, the light floods in!  But if your eyes are focused on money, the light cannot penetrate and darkness takes its place. How profound will be the darkness within you if the light of truth cannot enter! How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t worship the true God while enslaved to the god of money!

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Laid out this way, it is easy to see the connection between the two passages. We seek treasures on earth, Jesus wants us to seek first God’s Kingdom. We seek money so we can take care of ourselves, Jesus tells us God will take care of us. Jesus warns us that the pursuit of stuff, the love of money, our focus on the kingdom of this world will lead our hearts away from God, and he reminds us to store up treasure in heaven, which The Passion Translation footnote defines like this: Heavenly treasures are eternal realities, such as loving others and doing good, revealing truth, and bringing Christ’s light to the world. None of these “treasures” can be stolen or ever lose their value.

So we have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount. What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded, and Laura reminded us above, the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation.

I think we can all admit it’s a struggle. We vascillate between worry and faith, between seeking our kingdom and God’s kingdom, between living for ourselves and living for others, between self-strangulation and Spirit transformation.

We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Laura beautifully reminded us that the whole sermon on the mount points us to Jesus–no matter what things look like on this side of the veil, he is with us and will never let us go.

Seek the kingdom of God above everything else, for your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure.

–Luanne

Ian Barnard | Words, Cool words, Lettering

Sermon on the Mount: A Call to Forgive

Before we look at this week’s verses, it is imperative we remember that throughout the entire Sermon on the Mount up to this point, Jesus has been teaching us how to “be”–how to “be” in the world, how to “be” in relationship with God, how to “be” in relationship with others. “Being” this way comes from the deep inner work of the Holy Spirit in our inner being–it’s a heart matter–and that deep inner work happens as we spend time with Jesus, as we learn from him, as we allow his way of thinking to become our way of thinking, and his way of being to become our way of being.

Pastor Beau, in last week’s sermon, reminded us that Jesus teaches:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT)

I was blown away by what Pastor Beau taught us regarding the word “yoke”. Laura wrote in last week’s blog: In ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, are easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.

Keeping all of that in mind, let’s look at this week’s verses–verses that many commentaries don’t even attempt to tackle.  Keep in mind that Jesus has just taught his followers to pray the Lord’s Prayer and he follows up that powerful, beautiful prayer with these words:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Mt. 6:14-15)

Where does your mind go when you read those verses? Does it make God seem cruel? Does it make you think that you don’t have a chance? Does it seem out of character? If you answer yes to any of those questions, this is the perfect time to remember that the scriptures weren’t written in English and our English translations don’t always get us to the heart of the matter… so we dig deeper. 

Digging deeper is actually a practice that was considered noble. In Acts 17:11, Luke wrote: The Jews of Berea were of more noble character and much more open minded than those of Thessalonica. They were hungry to learn and eagerly received the word. Every day they opened the scrolls of Scripture to search and examine them, to verify that what Paul taught them was true. (TPT)

Back to this week’s verses–what is Jesus teaching? Does God withhold forgiveness? 

Jesus taught us, just a few verses before, to pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We tackled those verses a couple of weeks ago in the blog, and learned that, based on the Greek word for forgiveness, this phrase could be read: let go of what we owe you as we let go of what others owe us. 

The same Greek word, aphiēmi, is used in this week’s passage, so could this week’s verse be read like this: For if you let go of what other people owe you,  your heavenly Father will also let go of what you owe him. But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will not let go of what you owe him… ?

Pastor John reminded us that our attitude toward others reflects our attitude toward God, and our attitude toward God reflects our attitude toward others. We can go all the way back to the Ten Commandments and see that God’s heart is that we live in right relationship with him, and right relationship with others. The Ten Commandments are all about relationships. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. To do so doesn’t minimize what we’ve been through, but we don’t carry the burden of another’s actions when we choose to release them into God’s hands.

Unforgiveness creates a barrier between us and others, and us and God. Disconnection is not God’s way. We can’t offer an openness to God and refuse to offer grace to others. We can’t bless God and curse others. Jesus’ brother James wrote, We use our tongue to praise God our Father and then turn around and curse a person who was made in his very image!  Out of the same mouth we pour out words of praise one minute and curses the next. My brothers and sister, this should never be! (James 3:9-10 TPT)

And later in that same passage he wrote: Wisdom from above is always pure, filled with peace, considerate and teachable. It is filled with love and never displays prejudice or hypocrisy in any form and it always bears the beautiful harvest of righteousness! Good seeds of wisdom’s fruit will be planted with peaceful acts by those who cherish making peace. (3:17-18)

These verses remind me of what Jesus taught in the beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon on the mount: 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.. 

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God…

It’s all connected. 

When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do. If we look at the story of the prodigal son, the youngest son created a barrier between himself and his father by leaving the father’s care and squandering what he’d been given. The oldest son created a barrier between himself and his father by refusing to celebrate the younger son’s return and by holding onto his anger at his father’s grace toward his younger brother’s actions. The father went to both with an invitation to come home–a desire to restore relationship with both

Could this week’s verses be read…For if you let go of what other people owe you,  there is no barrier between you and your heavenly Father, But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will allow the barrier between you and him to remain?

When I write it that way, it makes sense to me. God has not created the barrier, I have. God will come to me, he will invite me home to his heart, but I can’t bring the barrier with me. If I choose to harbor unforgiveness, if I choose the opposite of the beatitudes, if I choose not to be salt and light, I choose the barrier–I choose a heavy yoke. I choose separation. 

You all, I’ve lived in that space–I’ve created barriers as I’ve tried to self-protect by harboring resentment, unforgiveness, and a “you owe me” attitude. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. No doubt, forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus. Corrie Ten Boom wrote,  “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart”  

She forgave Nazis who killed her family and locked her up in a concentration camp during World War 2. She knew something about being owed a debt that can never be repaid. And she knew the heavy weight of carrying unforgiveness. She wrestled, she battled, she returned to God again and again asking for help, and she let it go as an act of the will–then, over time, the temperature of her heart changed. 

My own hard forgiveness journeys have been a battle of the will. I asked God to help me let offenses go and surrender them to him. I didn’t “feel” it, but I desired it. I would have to remind myself over and over that I had made the choice to forgive and push away thoughts that would lead me back into the spiral of bitterness. Over time, and with intentionality, true forgiveness happened. In some of those journeys, relationship was restored, in some, it wasn’t; however, at this moment I can say that I have sought to heed Paul’s words: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)  

Do I have to check my heart many times a day? Yep. Do I have to confess that I have not loved God with my whole heart and have not loved my neighbor as myself many times a day? Yep. 

But when I think of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and when I think that he offered us forgiveness while we were still his enemies, when I remember that he wants us to love others as he has loved us, and when I remember his goodness, his kindness, his grace–how could I not offer it to others? And in offering it to others, the walls come down.

–Luanne

I am finally starting to write after much prayer, after reading dozens of articles and the few commentaries I could find, after looking up Greek words, and scouring the scriptures. This week’s passage is HARD, as both Pastor John and Luanne identified. I don’t know if these verses used to be as difficult for me, because I used to understand God and salvation in a transactional way, rather than in the relational and transformational way in which I’ve come to understand my faith as I continue to journey with Jesus. But these verses sound pretty transactional, right? If we don’t… God won’t. Or something like that.

Gratefully, Pastor John, in his sermon, gave us some things to consider as we seek to understand Jesus’ words. Luanne expanded on his points as she reminded us to connect these verses to what we read just prior (what we know as The Lord’s Prayer), and also about what we learned last week about Jesus’ yoke not being hard to bear. She explained what it looks like when our refusal to forgive creates a barrier between us and our experience of God’s forgiveness, which I want to come back to in just a bit. She also wrote, …forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus...”

This is where I want to begin, because I don’t believe forgiveness is possible in our humanness. I believe it is possible only as we “align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus,” like Luanne said. Forgiveness is born in–and then can flow out of–us as we are formed more and more into the likeness of Christ. Philippians 2:13 comes to mind as I think about becoming more like Jesus:

For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure.(Amplified Bible)

The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God.

I am reminded of another hard verse that we explored six weeks ago:

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48, NLT)

I wrote these words that week regarding this call to be perfect, and I think they fit well here, as we wrestle with another difficult call from Jesus:

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

I would say the same about forgiveness… On our own, our forgiveness–like our love–has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way. He gave us a new yoke–one we never carry alone. Just as we are not called to find a way to love perfectly outside of the perfect love of God, I don’t believe we’re being told to forgive without accessing the divine forgiveness of God. There is no other way for us to truly forgive.

And here is where our own will, which Luanne wrote about above, comes into play. She explained that, “When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do.” When we choose not to access the divine forgiveness that is readily available to us–which we carry as recipients of that forgiveness–we choose to replace the yoke of Jesus with the yoke–the burdens, regulations and rules–of the offense and the offender we are refusing to forgive. Yikes.

While there are teachings that hold to the belief that God’s forgiveness of us is dependent on our forgiving others first, this is not what I believe Jesus is saying here, not what I hear Luanne saying above, and not what I heard Pastor John teaching us on Sunday.

My understanding is that God’s forgiveness is whole, complete, finished and stands outside of and above all human actions. The God of the universe is not dependent on my ability to forgive others before I am forgiven. However, my ability to experience that forgiveness and to live in the freedom I have been offered can absolutely be hindered by my unwillingness to forgive.

Unforgiveness creates barriers, replaces the yoke of Jesus with an oppressive yoke of offenses and offenders, and can make it difficult to live in step with the unforced rhythms of grace. This yoke cloaks and overshadows us–it attempts to hide us from the light of God’s love. Now, God’s love is too bright, too powerful, too warm and ever-present to be denied, so it still breaks through as he constantly pursues our hearts. But our experience of his love is limited by the barriers we have erected. And if we’re not allowing much of his love to come in… there won’t be much of his love pouring out of us, either.

As John 13:35 reminds us, we are known as disciples of Jesus by our love for others. It really is all connected. Jesus has expressed in so many different ways during the sermon on the mount how vital it is that we love God, love others, and live according to the ways of the kingdom. This week’s passage once again emphasizes the same thing in a different way.

I will admit, this passage is still a struggle for me to wrap my mind around. Digging in has helped, but I expect these to be words that I wrestle with a bit every time I read them. I also trust that the Spirit of grace will continue to reveal truth and speak to my heart as I continue to journey with Jesus. That said, I’d like to leave us with beautiful words from someone far more learned than myself, a brilliant pastor and theologian whose insights are rivaled only by his kindness and commitment to cruciform love. I hope that these thoughts from Brad Jersak stir your heart to dig deeper, to linger longer, to be enraptured by the beauty of the One we follow as we all continue to grow and be formed into the image of Christ…

“The Gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness… Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… And if God is quiet at all, it’s because I’ve jammed my fingers into the ears of my heart. Yet somehow, I still can’t shake the feeling that God is there, watching, waiting, perhaps grieved, but if he ever seems ‘mad’ or ‘absent,’ again and again I find the real blockage is my own filters or projections–my pride or shame–distorting the presence of Love. The truth is, God is always there. And here. And now. The pure fire of divine Love is longing for you, my friend, his beloved–not merely waiting, watching or even following, but in vigorous, stalking pursuit…

I hear the voice of Grace say, “Oh, Brad, you aren’t merciful yet–certainly not to your haters. It’s not yet engrained in your character–mercy is not yet who you are. But I’ve given you the Grace to participate in Abba’s transforming mercy. You could begin by becoming an agent of Abba’s Grace, one act of mercy at a time. Freely you’ve received it, now freely give it away. Abba in his mercy pardons and forgives, so pay it forward. Receive Abba’s kindness and give it away. You might not feel merciful yet; but as you share Abba’s little mercies one day at a time, lo and behold, one day you find that you have become a mercy-bearer. It is who you are. You didn’t generate it… you received it; you obtained that mercy-trait of Christ as a Beatitude from Christ.” To summarize, we receiver by Grace what we could never muster on our own: Abba’s mercy for our debtors. And we become mercy in our nature as we freely distribute the mercies we receive from Abba. The reality of our Grace-transformation is revealed most thoroughly by the mercies we show our enemies.

(excerpts from: A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, p. 294-295; A More Christlike Way, A More Beautiful Faith, p. 170-171)

–Laura

Chapter 9 |

The Lord’s Prayer #3

We will begin this week where we left off last week…

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

(Matthew 11:28-30)

Pastor Beau started Sunday’s sermon with the same verses I closed out my portion of last week’s blog. As he prepared to preach, he didn’t have any idea what Luanne or I were writing about–yet, God was already leading him to connect the same dots. I love it when that happens! He read us these verses out of Matthew 11, and then shared with us a brief summary of Matthew 1-6. He reminded us of what Pastor John has taught us to this point from the sermon on the mount, highlighting the many places Jesus invites us to think differently, to see things a new way, to prepare our hearts to encounter his kingdom. (The last few blog posts include summaries if you’d like to revisit the material we have been learning.)

Beau challenged us to, once again, set aside what we have become familiar with and be willing to let God teach us something new. He emphasized the importance of coming to familiar passages–like The Lord’s Prayer–with open hearts and minds. He reminded us that, throughout the entire sermon on the mount, Jesus is introducing an upside-down kingdom. This now-familiar prayer is no exception.

He read us the prayer, and then explained it in a similar way to how I wrote about it last week. His focus was on how each line connects us to Jesus. When he finished walking us through the lines of the prayer, he said,

“The Lord’s Prayer is a moment to pause, to breathe… Trying too hard to check boxes off a list becomes overwhelming. We forget that we’re asking God for Jesus in this prayer.”

He then took us back to Matthew 11, only this time he read it from a different translation:

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

(Matthew 11:28-30, NLT, emphasis mine)

I highlighted the word yoke because what Beau shared with us about this word blew my mind on Sunday… When we think of this word, what generally comes to mind? The wooden piece of equipment placed on the backs of oxen so they can pull a plow, right? I’ve heard plenty of beautiful, informative sermon illustrations that employ this interpretation of the word. But what Pastor Beau shared was brand new to me.

Apparently, in ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, were easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.

Yes, I audibly gasped as I listened to this new teaching about one of my favorite passages of scripture. And it makes so much sense.

In The Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to daily--every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for the yoke of our rabbi. And we are guaranteed that in that yoke, in the set of teachings we desire to model our lives after, we will find rest for our souls. I will never get over the beauty of our Jesus, the kindness of our God, the fresh revelation of the Spirit that leads us beyond our own understanding.

Pastor Beau asked us to breathe in Jesus, so that we could exhale Jesus into the world. He asked us to consider what burdens we are carrying, and then he shared that during this season of unknowns there has been a song that has ministered deeply to his heart. He paused in his sermon to share it with all of us. Here are the words:

I’m caught up in Your presence
I just want to sit here at Your feet
I’m caught up in this holy moment
I never want to leave

Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You

Oh, I’m sorry when I’ve just gone through the motions
I’m sorry Lord when I just sang another song
Take me back to where we started
I open up my heart to You

I’m sorry when I’ve come with my agenda
I’m sorry when I forgot that You’re enough
Take me back to where we started
I open up my heart to You

Take me back, take me back, take me back to my first love…

I just want you
Nothing else, nothing else
Nothing else will do

I’m caught up in Your presence
I just want to sit here at Your feet
I’m caught up in this holy moment
I never want to leave

Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You

“Nothing Else” by Donzell Taggart–

As I listened to this beautiful song, the words, “I’m caught up in Your presence, I just want to sit here at Your feet…” grabbed my attention. I couldn’t help but think of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha worked away in the kitchen. Luke 10: 38-39 tells us:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 

(NLT, emphasis mine)

Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, soaking in his presence–taking on the yoke of her rabbi… We don’t have time here to go into all the reasons this scene was such an affront to the culture of that day, but it was so significant. It is also a beautiful illustration of what Pastor Beau taught us on Sunday.

The yoke of Jesus–his ways, teachings, leadership–is unlike any other yoke. We may carry many yokes–volumes of teachings, full of rules and expectations that don’t fit and are burdensome and heavy to carry–but we need only carry one.

Jesus teaches us to pray a prayer through which we ask God daily for Jesus. And when we ask for Him, when we position ourselves at his feet soaking in his presence, he shares with us his way. He carries his yoke with us so we can watch how he does it–all of “it”, and learn from him. Our souls long for this yoke, to be still and breathe in the Holy rest Jesus offers us. He is our daily bread, all that we need, and he longs to fill us with himself.

As I close this week, I find myself praying the same words I prayed last week:

My prayer for us is that we are formed and transformed as this prayer that Jesus gifted us becomes part of our daily lives–as He, himself is woven deeper and deeper into the core of who we are…

–Laura

Matthew 11:28-30 - I Will Give You Rest - Free Art Download ...

The Lord’s Prayer-Part 2

There is so much in this week’s few verses, that I almost hate to take the time to recap. Fortunately, Laura and I are a team, so, I trust between the two of us, we’ll cover it as well as we can–and hopefully create a hunger for each of you to dig in even more deeply.

Last week in our Sermon on the Mount series, we began to dig into the first few phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s prayer comes in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on When you give…When you pray…When you fast–the three pillars that keep us connected to God and to community. Let’s remind ourselves what Jesus says about prayer:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
 Give us today our daily bread.
 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matthew 6:9-13)

Last week we dug into the significance of God as our Father, of the hallowedness of God’s name, of His kingdom and His will being done on earth as in heaven. This week the verses turn toward us. It’s significant to note that the verses don’t turn toward “me”. Each of us is part of a greater whole, a kingdom people who God wants to use to bring His kingdom of love and light to the world.

Pastor John pointed out that it seems odd that we’ve just addressed and honored God and his desires and then we say “give us”. In our English understanding, it’s almost as if we say, God, you’re great and awesome and your kingdom and will matter a lot, but now, I’m going to demand some things from you…give me my bread today…

So, digging in a bit to what Jesus is actually teaching us to pray is a good idea. In the address of the Lord’s Prayer, the word hallowed is an imperative verb. I don’t think I knew it was a verb until Pastor John pointed it out. I’ve always thought of it as an adjective describing God’s name, so this is something new to ponder. I love that. As is my practice, I looked it up for myself in the concordance, and sure enough…it’s an imperative verb. What it means is that we hallow, acknowledge, separate from profane things God’s name today, tomorrow, and for always. It’s an action that we carry out.

“Give” in the phrase Give us this day our daily bread, similar to hallowed is an acknowledgment, a declaration, that it is God who provides for us. The really interesting word in this passage, however, is daily. 

The Greek word “daily”, found in the Lord’s Prayer in Luke and in Matthew, is not found anywhere else in the Bible. Scholars and commentators have been puzzled for centuries about its actual meaning. It was not a word commonly used in the Aramaic language. I find that fascinating! What was Jesus trying to communicate in using this obscure word? I read through a number of different commentaries and, like Pastor John, can see that the most common understanding falls in line with “now, tomorrow, and continuously”, so the phrase can be thought of as God, you provide now, tomorrow and forever; you are the God who gives, who provides, who will never stop.

Even the word “bread” is discussed heavily among biblical scholars…was Jesus teaching about actual bread? Daily sustenance? Spiritual sustenance? Many scholars believe this was a declaration of dependence upon God for life–not a desire for opulent living (more than enough), nor a desire to be destitute–just a humble and grateful dependence upon God for all of our daily needs.

This makes sense to me in light of Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and a verse that we haven’t yet come to in the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 6:31-33, Jesus teaches So don’t worry and don’t keep saying, ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink or what shall we wear?! That is what pagans are always looking for; your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your heart on the kingdom and his goodness, and all these things will come to you as a matter of course. (J.B. Phillips)

More familiar translations say Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.  

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him.  Looking at the lives of Jesus and his disciples, they traveled constantly.  Jesus was basically homeless. For sustenance, sometimes they fished, sometimes they ate in the home of friends, sometimes they ate in other people’s homes. Sometimes they slept in gardens, sometimes they were in the homes of friends or family–they were rich in relationship, they were rich in community, they were rich in spiritual matters: they weren’t rich in material goods, yet they never went without what they needed for life and sustenance. God provided daily what they needed as they traveled sharing the good news of God’s loving kingdom being right here, right now. God promises to do the same thing for us when we seek His kingdom first.

The next phrase: Forgive us our transgressions as we forgive those who transgress against us, is also (not surprisingly) filled with deep meaning.

The one word sin in our English translations is one of five words found in the original languages. “Sin” can mean:

  1. Missing the mark
  2. Crossing the line
  3. Slipping up
  4. Knowing right and choosing wrong
  5. That which is owed

In the Lord’s Prayer, number five is the word used, so the phrase can be prayed, God, you forgive us that which is owed, as we forgive those who owe us something. 

Jesus asks us to pray this prayer on a daily basis, so each day we have the opportunity to acknowledge that we haven’t done life perfectly, we haven’t lived up to our responsibilities, we owe something,  and we can bring that to God. We don’t come to God in shame, but with honesty and humility. In one of the prayers that I pray most days of my life (sometimes multiple times a day), there is a portion that states: I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. 

Basically — God, I own it. Will you please forgive me? (And God will–he already has).

Then, we acknowledge that we desire to forgive those who owe us; those who haven’t lived up to our expectations, who owe us an apology, an explanation, an acknowledgement of how they hurt us,  or something else.

Jesus wants us to forgive like he forgave–even if they don’t ask. Oooo…this can be hard!

Pastor John encouraged us to hold in our thoughts the way God treats us. Romans 5 reminds us that we were enemies of God, we hadn’t asked for forgiveness or reconciliation and yet, God loved us, initiated relationship with us, and forgave us, without our asking when he placed himself on the cross in the person of Jesus.

That’s how God wants us to be. When we harbor anger and bitterness it destroys community. When we choose grace instead of entitlement or getting even it changes the world. When we forgive this way, we embody the beatitudes, we let go of our understanding, our rights, and listen to Jesus teach us, you have heard it said, but I say...  We become the answer to Jesus’ prayer…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.

When we pray these forgiveness words daily, acknowledging their meaning and desiring their fruit, the behavior of others doesn’t stick to us anymore. We learn to let the offenses go; we leave others in God’s hands, and we become transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ as a result.

As we dive deep, there is plenty to ponder in these two phrases. I’ll leave the third phrase to Laura.

–Luanne

As I begin to type my portion, I am sorting through hours of thoughts… I have no idea where this is going to go yet, so I’ll start by bringing you into the space I’m in right now…

I am pondering the third phrase of this week’s message, the meanings I discovered as I prepared to write, and I’ll get there–but not yet. When I opened the website I always use to find definitions for the original Greek words used in our scriptures (Blue Letter Bible), my eyes landed on their verse of the day. I’ve never before noticed that part of this particular webpage. Today, it was Ephesians 2:14, For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” When I read the words, I paused, because this verse has been meaningful to me for many years. I remember the room I was in nearly a decade ago when it struck me that Jesus doesn’t simply give us peace, but He IS our peace. If we have him, if he lives within us, we always have peace. I was thinking about the verse a day or two ago, and here it was again, reminding me…

I moved on from there to dig into the meanings of the words in our passage. As I studied, I remembered something I had written about in this blog previously and set off to find that post. Scrolling through dozens of posts from a couple years back, my eyes landed on a highlighted verse. It was Ephesians 2:14. Again. As I read the familiar words again, these lyrics floated up from the quiet music I have on: “Be our peace… Christ our peace…”

Hmm. Okay…

I continued scrolling, looking for one specific post, and found myself caught up in our words from seasons past. Tears spilled down my cheeks as I read pieces of Luanne’s heart and my own captured in pictures painted with words from days gone by. Each post took me back to the time it was written, to the circumstances that we found ourselves in during those moments in time. I read about the kingdom, about love, about Jesus and how everything really does revolve around him and his way of love. We’ve written the same thing in different words over and over again. And woven into these recurring themes are threads of our own lives, our stories, lessons learned, the concepts we are still wrestling with–the ways our experiences illustrate the truths that have come to define our lives.

This blog chronicles both our church’s and our own daily walks with God. Luanne shared above that “daily” in this week’s passage most clearly means, “now, tomorrow, and continuously.” She continues, telling us that the words Give us this day our daily bread, “…can be thought of as God, you provide now, tomorrow and forever; you are the God who gives, who provides, who will never stop.” The words I read from days gone by, they chronicle our daily seeking of the God who is our provider. Through the joys and the pain, the thread is God’s great love and his kingdom coming to and through us.

Just a minute ago, as I wrote about Jesus being our peace, these words floated up from the song that played “randomly”: “Your peace will make us one…” 

Friends, even as I type in this moment, I’m not sure where the Spirit is taking us. But I am paying attention…

Let’s jump back into our verses and we’ll see where we end up…

The last phrase from Sunday’s passage is Matthew 6:13:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

The Message paraphrases it this way:

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

Again, there is much for us to explore in these few words. “Lead us not into temptation” is an interesting line that can trip us up a bit. As we consider what Jesus is saying to us here, it is important to remember these words from his brother James:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed…” (James 1:13-14, NIV)

What Pastor John identified on Sunday is that the statement “Lead us not into temptation…” is a declaration of our need for God to lead us rather than us leading ourselves. As we pray these words, we are acknowledging that where we lead ourselves is often nowhere good, and we need to be led away from those things that would bind and cause pain. The Message captures this idea above when it says, “Keep us safe from ourselves…” 

The second half of the verse is, “…but deliver us from the evil one.” Many English translations of this verse don’t include the word “one,” and simply read, “deliver us from evil.” A deep dive into the original Greek tells us that the broader “evil” is the working definition with a deeper root being a word that means “pain.” We’ll come back to that in just a moment… There is another word we need to look at first. It is the word deliver. What do you think of when you hear that word? Rescue? Birth? Save? It does mean all of those things in our English usage of it, but none of those capture what it means in this verse. It does, in its root form allude to a rescue, but a rescue that occurs by “drawing to oneself… like the flow of a current.” How beautiful is that? 

Back to evil… I mentioned that the word “pain” is a deeper root than “evil.” There is a deeper root word, though, and I find the meaning of this deepest root word so significant to our discussion of The Lord’s Prayer as a whole… The word that becomes “pain” and then “evil” is, in its original form, “poor.” And it means, “to toil for daily subsistence.” 

Luanne just wrote about asking God for our daily bread, to be our provider today, every day, forever. And the prayer finishes with words that mean (if you’ll allow my paraphrase):

“We need you to lead us away from the things that would bind us. Save us from ourselves. Rescue us from our pain–from our poverty, our toil for daily subsistence–by drawing us like a current to yourself.”

These words, built out of the definitions of the original root words, sound a whole lot different from our understanding of “temptation” and “evil”, but it flows a whole lot more with the preceding parts of the prayer, doesn’t it?

Before I close this out, I want to paint one last word picture…

Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus lists one phrase as synonymous with the verb “toil.”

“Sweat blood”

This is the one synonymous phrase given for this word. Wow. We are to pray–in declarative form–God, draw us like a current to yourself, away from our struggle for daily survival, away from sweating blood. Lead us your way. Give us what we need each day, every day, forever, as you always do. Help us to offer forgiveness as you have. 

Jesus, in The Lord’s Prayer is teaching us how to ask God for HIM. I am fairly undone as I consider all that we’ve looked at and studied here…

Our holy, huge, sovereign yet personal, intimate Father—Your kingdom come…

The kingdom comes through Jesus…

Your will be done…

God’s will looks like Jesus…

Give us our daily bread, the bread we need today, every day, forever…

Jesus is our bread of life…

Forgive us as we, through you, forgive…

The forgiveness of God hung on display in the person of Jesus on the cross…

Lead us in your way…

Jesus is our way, our truth, our life…

Draw us like a current to yourself…

Jesus is the way to the Father…

Away from our toiling, away from sweating blood for our daily survival…

Jesus sweat blood as he prepared to empty all of himself that we might be saved–made whole. He toiled, he sweat blood, on our behalf, that he might become our peace.  

The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. 

There are many antonyms to the word toil, but one stood out to me among the others: rest. I’ll wrap this up with a passage that has become a recurring theme in my life, one I have included so many times before, out of Eugene Peterson’s gorgeous Message paraphrase:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Come to Jesus, always to Jesus, daily and forever to Jesus, “For He, himself, is our peace…”

The Lord’s Prayer does what the Sermon on the Mount does, what all of scripture does: It points us back to Jesus–our way, our truth, our life, our daily bread and living water. And as we come to our Father on the current of Jesus our Savior, we are delivered into the image of Christ as we become “an anticipation of the age to come” (Expanded Lord’s Prayer, Brian Zahnd), as the Kingdom comes through us. 

My prayer for us is that we are formed and transformed as this prayer that Jesus gifted us becomes part of our daily lives–as He, himself is woven deeper and deeper into the core of who we are…

–Laura