Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 9

After taking a few weeks off for Advent, we are back in our Romans’ series. As a brief recap, Romans is a letter Paul wrote to the church in Rome. It was not divided into chapters and verses–it is one entire letter, so the context of the entire letter is important. In the first eight chapters, Paul, a trained attorney, has made the case that every human being is messed up, we are all in this mess together, yet God loves all of us deeply and provided the way into relationship with him through Jesus. Our role in this is to believe God.

I read a tweet recently that stated “Salvation is not based on believing the right *things*, but what happens as we trust the right *person*. We’re saved by Jesus Christ, not by theology.” (Brian Zahnd) This is exactly what Paul is teaching the Roman church, and what leads to Paul’s anguish in Chapter 9.

Before I dive into Chapter 9, if you’ve spent much time in the New Testament, you know that Paul sometimes writes things that are hard to understand. Two things to remember: 1. Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God. 2. Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

Let’s remind ourselves that chapter 8 begins with …there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, and ends with neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)

Chapter 9 begins with Paul expressing his anguish over the Israelite’s rejection of Jesus as their long awaited Messiah. Paul is Jewish and highly trained in Jewish law; however, Paul refers to his training as rubbish compared to knowing Christ. (Ph. 3:8).

Paul’s conversion to Christ was radical. He knows he met the real, living, loving, grace-filled God through Jesus Christ and his life is forever changed. He invites others to trust Jesus as well. Gentiles are believing in Jesus, yet Paul’s own people, those with whom he shares his ethnic identity and culture, are rejecting the grace of God through Jesus and choosing the heavy yoke of the law. It breaks Paul’s heart.

He writes: I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel… from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! (Rom. 9:2 & 5)

Paul knows Israel’s history. Paul knows the promise given to Abraham that all nations of the earth will be blessed through Abraham’s lineage. Paul knows Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. Paul knows how to use his knowledge of scripture to prove that Jesus is the Messiah–and yet his people are rejecting that message. He is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.

He finishes Chapter 9 with these words:

So then, what does all this mean? Here’s the irony: The non-Jewish people, who weren’t even pursuing righteousness, were the ones who seized it—a perfect righteousness that is transferred by faith. Yet Israel, even though pursuing a legal righteousness, did not attain to it. And why was that? Because they did not pursue the path of faith but insisted on pursuing righteousness by works, as if it could be seized another way. They were offended by the means of obtaining it and stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written:

“Be careful! I am setting in Zion a stone
    that will cause people to stumble,
    a rock of offense that will make them fall,
    but believers in him will not experience shame. (9:30-33 TPT)

It’s important to note that, despite his questions, Paul is not writing the Israelites off. He begins Chapter 10 by saying: …the passionate desire of my heart and constant prayer to God is for my fellow Israelites to experience salvation. (10: 2). Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.

Romans 9 is a passage that can be confusing, and has been used by some theologians to deem some people are “in” and some are “out”. You could certainly come to that conclusion if chapter 9 were a stand-alone chapter; however, taking the full context of Paul’s letter to Rome into account, we see that in this chapter, he is expressing his frustration over the fact that more Gentiles are coming to faith in Jesus than Jews, he’s frustrated that his own people are choosing tradition and law (their “works” theology) over Jesus. Why is he frustrated? Because he loves them.

Has God deemed them “out”? Let’s look to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus is Jewish. He went to synagogues, taught in synagogues, respected the Jewish faith and traditions, and re-interpreted the Jewish law. In Mark 10, Jesus had an encounter with a rich man. They discuss eternal life and the commandments. The man says to Jesus:

“Teacher, I have carefully obeyed these laws since my youth.” Jesus fixed his gaze upon the man, with tender love (Jesus looked at him and loved him, NIV), and said to him, “Yet there is still one thing in you lacking. Go, sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then all of your treasure will be in heaven. After you’ve done this, come back and walk with me.” Completely shocked by Jesus’ answer, he turned and walked away very sad, for he was extremely rich. (Mk. 10:20-22 TPT) Jesus loved him, and Jesus let him choose.

In another account, Jesus, right before he is arrested and crucified agonizes over Jerusalem. In Matthew 23, he warns that their rejection will lead to their destruction and says in verse 37: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem—you are the city that murders your prophets! You are the city that stones the very messengers who were sent to deliver you! So many times I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me(TPT) Jesus loved them, and Jesus let them choose.

Where am I going with all of this? Do I believe God is supreme.? Yes. Do I believe that God is sovereign and above all? Yes. Do I believe that God is love? Yes. Do I believe that God loved the world so much that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him will not perish? Yes. Do I believe that God demonstrated his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us? Yes. Do I believe that God sent his son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him? Yes. Do I believe that our salvation (our healing, our wholeness) comes from believing in and trusting Jesus? Yes. Do I believe that no one is beyond the reach of God’s love. Yes. Do I believe that we human beings choose all kinds of idols to worship above God? Yes.

The Israelites, who Paul (and Jesus) agonized over, were choosing to worship their tradition, their law, their theology, their own effort. The rich man was choosing to worship his wealth. Did God love them all? Yes. Does God love you? Yes. God is love.

Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.

Adam and Eve hid from God, he came to them.

Cain killed his brother. God came to him.

Hagar was desperate and destitute. God came to her and she (a non-Jew) was the first person to give God a name in scripture; El-roi. The God who sees.

The Israelite nation turned from God over and over and over–he sent prophets and priests, and when they turned back to him, he was right there.

Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus came to him.

Paul persecuted Christians. Jesus came to him.

This is not biblical theory to me—it’s my story. I was a self-destructive mess, God drew me back, and when I turned around, there he was.

God is love and is right here. God, in his sovereignty, gave us freedom of choice. God, in his sovereignty, allows us to bear the consequences of our choices. And God, in his sovereignty, never leaves us nor forsakes us. God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

Return to the Lord your God, For He is gracious and compassionate, Slow to anger, abounding in love. (Joel 2:13)

Return to Me,” declares the Lord of hosts, “that I may return to you.” (Zech 1:3)

Return to your God, Observe kindness and justice, And wait for your God continually… (Hos. 12:6)

Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8)

I have longed to gather a wayward people, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings—but you were too stubborn to let me (Mt. 23:37)

I need to wrap this up, but I desperately want to communicate that God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him. Are we choosing our systems over God? Are we too stubborn to let Jesus be our Lord? Are we agonizing over those who don’t know Jesus’ love? Let’s wrestle it through before our sovereign, supreme, loving, living God whose arms are open wide, ready to receive us and those whom we love.

–Luanne

I don’t know how else to write other than honestly. So I will tell you plainly that, this week, I am hesitant to even begin. By begin, I mean actually start to put my own words on this page… I have spent no less than six hours digging into Aramaic and Greek words, scouring the entire Bible for the words sovereignty (which appears twice, both in Daniel, from an Aramaic word meaning “kingdom,” neither in reference to God himself) and supremacy (which occurs one time in the Greek in Colossians, in Paul’s description of Jesus), and rereading several chapters in books written by theologians much smarter than I’ll ever be about these things. I’ve looked up English definitions to these challenging words. I’ve read a few sermons from well known pastors about the ultimate power, control, and will of God, attempting to reconcile modern Christianity’s obsession over the picture of a mighty, willful, authoritarian God with the picture of God I see in Jesus, the One who bore his image perfectly–and the pictures simply don’t match.

Before I say anything else, I want to be clear– I am wrestling this week, not with any one point or any one person’s interpretation, but with the scriptures themselves, which I believe we are both invited and encouraged to do. Wrestling with words we don’t understand, asking God our hard questions–as Paul does in chapter 9 of Romans, and throughout his writings–honors both the text and God, because it means that it matters to us to get it right. None of us are smart enough to ever get it all right, however, so our lives ought to be spent wrestling, asking, growing, learning–it is an ongoing journey. If we think we’ve gotten it, we will become stoic, unteachable, unwilling to listen–even to the revelation of the Spirit. I don’t ever want to get there, and I’m assuming you don’t either.

Luanne articulated many things beautifully. I’d like for us to look at some of them again before moving on. She reminded us that:

Paul states over and over that the law brings death, Jesus brings life and we are radically loved by God.

Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 12:2)

there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. . . neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:1 & 8:38-39)

He [Paul] is wrestling this through, expressing his frustration, and asking his “why” questions.

Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.

Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.

God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

. . . God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him.

Luanne reminded us of the scope of Paul’s letter and the rawness of his wrestling; his love for his people, and his belief that the God who will one day restore all that’s been broken really does desire that ALL people turn toward his love. I, too, believe that this is what Paul was getting at in this challenging portion of his letter. Unfortunately, as Luanne also mentioned, this portion of his letter to the Romans has been misrepresented and used by many in damaging ways. In fact, much of today’s exclusionary theology can be traced back to a few early theologians’ expositions on this particular text. I want to share with you what pastor and theologian Bradley Jersak, PhD wrote regarding this passage, because he articulates it in a way that makes sense to me:

“Some disciples. . . parade Paul’s reflections in Romans 9 as an example of God’s will-to-choose. They see Paul bombarding readers with a series of Old Testament passages to assert God’s freedom, and so he does. But these interpreters exploit the text to pose the utter willfulness of God to hate, exclude and condemn–the flip side of God’s grace. . . If read through the lens of absolute will, this passage seems to describe a God worse than retributive and vengeful, because those attributes are merely angry reactions to wicked people. But these paragraphs (Rom. 9:13-21) don’t say that. They go further. They actually suggest that God made some people wicked–created them to be damned goats–in the first place, because he willed it. And if he then punishes them for it, don’t cry foul! Who are you to judge God? This interpretation of Romans 9 hails God’s sovereign will in pre-choosing (electing) some to salvation and actually creating others for the sole purpose of damnation–why? To glorify himself as we cower in gratitude. . .

Do we really believe that is Paul’s intent in Romans 9? The reason he wrote the epistle? The point and flow of his argument? Ludicrous! That approach makes nonsense of Paul’s life mission and his purpose in writing Romans. Worse, it represents God as unjust, unholy and unloving. Because this text is so critical to one’s view of God’s love and will, and because it’s misread when isolated, let’s pause to see its piece in the bigger puzzle of Romans.

-Paul begins Romans with the content of his ministry: ‘the Gospel of God’ (1:1-4)

-He describes his call to bring the good news of God’s faithfulness to all nations (or Gentiles) (1:5)

-He proceeds to argue at length for the universality of the gospel’s availability and significance. He announces the inclusion of Greeks and barbarians, Gentiles and Jews (starting in 1:14-16), even those in Rome.

-Thus, the apostle’s theme is the universal availability of divine salvation to all: past, present, and future. Understanding the arc of Paul’s argument opens up what he’s doing in Romans 9-11 by addressing Israel.

-Throughout his letter, Paul quotes his opponents and their favorite exclusion texts, then turns those same texts against them (a method called ‘diatribe’). In Romans 9, Paul takes passages his adversaries have used to paint God as a willful hater, but he applies them to magnify God’s freedom-in-love to graciously extend salvation to the Gentiles.

-Then Paul answers another question: Does God’s faithfulness include Israel, even when they’ve rejected Christ? Yes, God is free-in-love to save them also!

-God’s redemptive plan–his freedom rooted in love–is irrevocable and his mercy will reach the Jews, just as it had also been reaching the Gentiles.

Given the context, we at least know this: Paul’s enemies never accused him of preaching a willful and exclusionary God. Their angst was always about his message being too gracious, too inclusive and too willing to save anyone. Their God–not Paul’s–was the ‘goat-hater’ of raw will.”

As Jersak asserts, it would be ludicrous for us to read Romans 9 and decide that Paul meant to paint us a picture of an unjust, unholy, and unloving God. We must remember that Paul was highly educated in the Hebrew scriptures, and he was a skilled lawyer–a master in the art of argument. He said of himself in his letter to the Philippians:

It’s true that I once relied on all that I had become. I had a reason to boast and impress people with my accomplishments—more than others—for my pedigree was impeccable. 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. 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! (Philippians 3:4-7, TPT)

Paul was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the premier teachers of the Law in his time. Before attaining the honor of learning at this rabbi’s feet, Paul would have had to complete his educational prerequisites at an impressive level. This education included memorizing–word for word–all 39 books of the Jewish scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. His knowledge of the scriptures he referenced in his letters was thorough. So we can be confident that he was not flippantly tossing around verses. There was purpose in every word he wrote.

I want to focus on one specific word he wrote, and it relates to the last verse I included from the Philippians passage above: “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!”

All of Paul’s education and accomplishments–which were vast–he regards as nothing compared to knowing Jesus. Hold onto that…

Pastor John spoke to us about two words in particular: sovereignty and supremacy. I mentioned both briefly in my introduction. I won’t spend any further time on sovereignty–my study of this word has left me frustrated and confused by its frequent usage within Christianity, as it does not appear in scripture even one time in relation to God and Jesus. I don’t know enough to discuss it further, so I will continue to study it on my own and I encourage you to do the same.

Supremacy, however, I will briefly touch on. A word search reveals that it appears in some of our English translations exactly one time, in Colossians 1:18: And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. It is Paul who wrote it in its Greek form, prōteuō, meaning “to be first, to hold the first place.” It appears in a verse sandwiched between verses about how God was revealed–and pleased to be so–in Jesus. I want to show you this passage from the Message paraphrase because Eugene Peterson wrote it so beautifully:

We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

The NIV translates verses 19-20a this way: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things

This is why Paul was happy to forsake all that had previously made him who he was, to count it all as nothing. He had met the fullness of God in the person of Jesus. He knew personally that God doesn’t willfully exclude any, but wills that all come to him–he was one of those ‘all’. He grieved that some had not yet turned toward the love that, as Luanne gorgeously stated, had already turned toward them, but he knew that there was nothing powerful enough to separate us from the love of God in Jesus. He had experienced that love firsthand, and was desperate for everyone else to experience it, too. He wrote of Christ’s supremacy in his letter to the Colossians to explain that Jesus was–and had always been–first. Before all. The one who bore the original purpose of God in creation, the first of all who would be reborn among the dead as the reconciling of all things to himself began with his resurrection.

This is the supremacy, the first-ness of Jesus, with whom Paul was so enamored. He knew that Jesus was, as the gospel writers testified to, the image of God himself. He emphasized that God was pleased to have his fullness–all of his God-ness–dwell in Jesus. We understand through the writings of Paul that the character of God, his divine attributes, are most clearly demonstrated through the person of Jesus. So when we get to hard passages like Romans 9, we must remember the broader context in which it is found. We must remember, to borrow Luanne’s words once again, that: Christianity is founded on Jesus, so when difficult to understand passages come through someone other than Jesus, or seem contradictory to the teachings of Jesus, we look to Jesus–the author and perfecter of our faith.

Or, as pastor and author Brian Zahnd loves to say, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We haven’t always known this, but now we do.

–Laura

Image of the Invisible God | Apologeet.nl

Peace & Joy

Peace. What is it? How do we find it? How is it connected to joy? On Sunday, Pastor John led us into the last chapter of Philippians, and he focused on the parts of the passage that speak to us about peace.

“My dear and precious friends, whom I deeply love, you have truly become my glorious joy and crown of reward. Now arise in the fullness of your union with our Lord. . . Be cheerful with joyous celebration in every season of life. Let joy overflow, for you are united with the Anointed One! Let gentleness be seen in every relationship, for our Lord is ever near. Don’t be pulled in different directions or worried about a thing. Be saturated in prayer throughout each day, offering your faith-filled requests before God with overflowing gratitude. Tell him every detail of your life, then God’s wonderful peace that transcends human understanding, will make the answers known to you through Jesus Christ. So 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. Follow the example of all that we have imparted to you and the God of peace will be with you in all things. . . I know what it means to lack, and I know what it means to experience overwhelming abundance. For I’m trained in the secret of overcoming all things, whether in fullness or in hunger. And I find that the strength of Christ’s explosive power infuses me to conquer every difficulty. (4:1, 4-9, 12-13, TPT)

Both occurrences of “peace” in the above passage are translated from the Greek eirēnē. Eirēnē is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Shalom. Shalom is one of our favorite words at Enter In, which you already know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time. It means wholeness, completeness, it carries within it a sense of equity, and the restoration of all things to their original design; it also means to destroy the authority of what is causing chaos. When Paul tells us that peace will guard us, and that the God of peace will be with us, his words are pregnant with meaning–all of the meaning of the word Shalom that he was deeply acquainted with as a dedicated scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. Peace in this context goes far beyond the white-dove-on- a-Christmas-card kind of peace we’re familiar with. It’s everything Shalom means… and more.

Let’s look at more words from Paul, from his letter to the Ephesians:

For He Himself is our peace and our bond of unity… (AMP)

Our reconciling “Peace” is Jesus! (TPT)

For Christ is our living peace. (JB Phillips)

(Ephesians 2:14, emphases mine)

Jesus IS. OUR. PEACE. I wrote about this verse recently, about how it takes my breath away every time I consider it. Peace is not conditional or circumstantial. It is not a fleeting emotion, or something we have to strive or grasp for. Peace is… Jesus. I’ll never, ever get over that. Again, the word here is eirēnē. Jesus is our eirēnē. Our Shalom. What does it mean for Jesus to be our Shalom?

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows—
light! Sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings. The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants— all their whips and cudgels and curses—Is gone, done away with, a deliverance as surprising and sudden as Gideon’s old victory over Midian. The boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood, will be piled in a heap and burned, a fire that will burn for days! For a child has been born—for us! The gift of a son—for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. His ruling authority will grow, and there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings. He’ll rule from the historic David throne over that promised kingdom. He’ll put that kingdom on a firm footing and keep it going with fair dealing and right living, beginning now and lasting always.”
(From Isaiah 9:2-7, MSG)

I love The Message paraphrase of these verses. What Eugene Peterson translated “Prince of Wholeness,” we more frequently see translated “Prince of Peace,” especially at Christmastime. Both are an accurate translation–the original Hebrew word here is–you guessed it–Shalom. The incarnation of Jesus was the embodiment of the hope the prophets of Israel said would come. The Shalom they longed for, the restoration they believed for–when Jesus was born, that Shalom, that eirēnē, became flesh that would dwell among us, that would tear down dividing walls and reconcile all things. And we would not only have access to this peace–it would live within us and be produced by us, a fruit of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus…

“. . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace (eirēnē), forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23, NIV)

We can have peace this Christmas, this day, and every day–even in 2020, even when divisions widen and a pandemic plagues the earth, even when so much feels broken beyond repair–because peace is not a feeling. Peace is a person. A perfect person. The God-man himself. Peace is Jesus. He is Emmanuel, God with us and God in us. He himself is our peace

This morning’s reading in one of my advent devotionals connected beautifully the concepts of peace and joy. It feels like a great way to wrap up my portion:

“The joy spoken of and so prevalent in the life and teachings of Jesus is something perennial, an immutable, unstealable, internal peace, that, like a friend, simply stays regardless of what’s happening. It allows us to feel secure in the shaking, to laugh when everything hits the fan, and to experience abundance even when we should be lacking. Today, don’t feel any pressure to be happy, but do feel invited into great joy.” (Low, Pavlovitz)

Do feel invited into great joy… because we have a friend, a peace, who remains with us regardless–forever. Grace, joy, and Shalom to you, dear friends…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote so much, I am tempted to not add anything; however, a few thoughts are floating in my head, so I’ll continue.

After reading Laura’s portion, I am stirred deep within by this thought: What if we could truly grasp the concept of shalom, of eirēnē–what if we could really understand that Jesus is the embodiment of shalom and we are the embodiment of Jesus, how different would things be?

Like Laura, I love the Eugene Peterson paraphrase of Isaiah 9:6 and his choice to translate the familiar title “Prince of Peace” as “Prince of Wholeness”. The word wholeness causes me to think of John 3:17 which says For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. “Save” is the Greek word “sozo”. It is used over and over in the New Testament and it means heal; made whole. So, God did not send Jesus into the world to condemn the world, but to heal the world, to make it whole through him. He is the Prince of Wholeness, and we are invited to participate with him in our personal healing and wholeness and in his ministry of healing and wholeness in the world. Saving the world in Jesus, healing the world in Jesus, bringing wholeness to the world through Jesus, is our mission as his church, his ecclesia, his called out ones.

Revisiting Philippians 4, this week’s passage, Paul addresses a conflict between two women in the Philippian church. Paul pleads with them to “be of the same mind in the Lord” (4:2) Unity is important to Paul; he knows Jesus taught that our love for one another shows the world who Jesus is and what his followers are like (Jn 13:35). Encouragement toward unity under our one Lord (Gal 3:28) appears in many of Paul’s letters. In his letter to the Romans he writes: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Rom 12:18) Sit with that for a moment.

Think about the phrase as far as it depends on you… Unfortunately, in this life there are some conflicts that won’t be resolved, but have you done your part? Each of us is encouraged to do our part in seeking healing and wholeness. I’ll say it again, we are participants in the ministry and mission of the Prince of Peace–the Prince of Wholeness. Are we seeking peace? “Peace” in Romans 12:18 is the verb form of eirēnē, and includes the definition make peace, cultivate peace; harmony. Jesus’ peace, healing and wholeness are not static. Jesus’ peace is developed and worked–cultivated– like soil before planting. It leads to harmony–not sameness, but wholeness in our differences, like a chord in music. Are we doing what we can to cultivate peace? Are we like-minded in Jesus? Do we have the same mind in us that was in Jesus? (Ph 2:5) Are we renewing our minds in Christ by changing the way we think or are we thinking like the world? (Rom 12:2) Are we cultivating peace in our inner lives? Are we cultivating peace in the world?

Paul, right after addressing the conflict, seems to switch gears and says “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!” Did you know that rejoice (chairo) doesn’t only mean “be glad”, it also means “be well; thrive”? I didn’t know that until just now when I looked it up. Could that be the definition Paul has in mind? Could “be of the same mind in the Lord” and “Be well; thrive in the Lord always…” be connected? I can certainly see the connection, especially paired the words that follow: Let your gentleness be evident to all

Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit and evidence that we are well and thriving in the Lord. Even when conflict arises, can we be well, thrive in the Lord, speak gently, be kind, seek harmony, seek peace? We all know that it’s not easy, but Paul reminds us in that same verse, the Lord is near. We are not left alone to figure this out. Jesus is right here, and he will empower us to bear the fruit of the Spirit when we abide in him. How beautiful is that? The results don’t belong to us, but have we done what we can do?

The rest of this week’s passage addresses anxiety, circumstances, contentment, partnership in ministry, taking care of one another’s needs, and confidence that the Lord will supply all we need in him, but I’m not going to dive into those things. I want us to sit with what Laura focused on-Jesus is our peace, and contemplate where we are with that. Are we well in Jesus? Are we thriving in Jesus? If we are, we will experience his shalom, his healing work of wholeness in our lives, and we will be harmonious instruments of his peace to those around us.

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 despair, 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.
Amen.

Prayer of Peace: St. Francis.

As we celebrate Christmas in a few short days, may we lean into our gentle, approachable, loving, humble Prince of Peace. May we thrive in him, be healed in him, be made whole in him, become like him, and cultivate God’s Kingdom of Peace on the earth.

Jesus is our peace.

–Luanne

Jesus Alone Offers Peace and Hope

Joy: Press On; Grow

Look at how much encouragement you’ve found in your relationship with the Anointed One! You are filled to overflowing with his comforting love. You have experienced a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit and have felt his tender affection and mercy. So I’m asking you, my friends, that you be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. Walk together with one harmonious purpose and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy. (Ph. 2:1-2 TPT)

Our passage this week is actually from Philippians 3, and we’ll get there, but I think it is important to sit with Philippians 2:1-2 for a moment. Reflect on your relationship with Jesus, the Anointed One. Has it encouraged you? Are you filled to overflowing with his comforting love? Are you experiencing a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit? Have you felt the Spirit’s tender affection and mercy? If not, take some time and ask God to meet you in this space.

It’s been a hard year on many fronts. I have found myself wanting to pull away, to self-protect, to “shrink” many times during this last twelve months; however, when I take the time to lean into God (who Richard Rohr refers to as The Trinity of Love), and spend time in that intentional space, I soften. The softening allows me to get more in touch with my actual feelings, and allows me to be more human being than doing. The softening allows us to move toward being joined together in perfect unity with one heart, one passion, and united in love. The softening allows us to move toward walking together with one harmonious purpose. Those are the things that filled the Apostle Paul’s heart with unbounded joy. Why? Because the people of Jesus look like Jesus and the world experiences the joy of Jesus.

Philippians 2 continues with Paul encouraging the Philippians to be imitators of Christ and what that looks like. It’s always worth it to read through that passage; however, in this blog post we will move on to Chapter 3.

As weird as it seems, Pastor John has chosen Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Advent series. Why? Because a recurrent theme in this letter is joy. On the night of Jesus’ human birth, an angel spoke to the shepherds and said: “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10). We are part of the all people who are offered the gift of great joy because Jesus lives in and among us. Paul had experienced that joy personally, and his desire was for everyone to experience the joy that comes with knowing Christ.

Chapter 3 begins with: My beloved ones, don’t ever limit your joy or fail to rejoice in the wonderful experience of knowing our Lord Jesus!

Do you ever limit your joy? I do. Why do we do that? Researcher and author Brené Brown says of joy: “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience, and if you cannot tolerate joy, what you do is you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” In other words, we limit our joy. Brown says people who have a “profound capacity for joy” are those who don’t shy away from joy but instead feel grateful in the joy. She writes: “Instead of using [joy] as a warning to start practicing disaster, they use it as a reminder to practice gratitude.” Hmmm. Sounds similar to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18: Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Without question, life is hard, bad things happen, and leaning into joy is hard. All true. Or is it? It’s true if we believe joy is dependent upon us and our circumstances. How did Paul hang on to joy? How did Paul hang onto joy while writing this letter from a Roman prison. How did Paul hang on to joy while he was isolated from people he loves. Paul was a “go-getter”, a guy on the move, yet had been stopped in his tracks and locked up. How can he have joy? What nuggets does he teach us in chapter 3? Let’s look.

Paul writes: I don’t mind repeating what I’ve already written you because it protects you—  beware of those religious hypocrites who teach that you should be circumcised to please God.  For we have already experienced “heart-circumcision,” and we worship God in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit, not in laws and religious duties. We are those who boast in what Jesus Christ has done, and not in what we can accomplish in our own strength. (3:1b-3)

I imagine in every generation since Christ’s ascension there have been those who want to lay down a list of rules for Jesus’ followers. Things like: you have to pray these words, you have to study the Bible this way, you have to go to this type of church, you have to avoid these certain behaviors, you have to avoid these certain people, you have to do it like us or you’re doing it wrong. Paul says–don’t fall for that. We don’t worship God through a set of prescribed rules…we worship God in the power and freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Paul goes on to describe how very good he was at following all the religious rules–if anyone could boast in doing it right (according to man-made standards), it was him. I don’t know if we can fully grasp how privileged and powerful Paul was–and how much he used that privilege and power to elevate himself and oppress those who worshiped differently than he did, especially those who had met Jesus. And then, Paul met Jesus. His encounter with Jesus changed the entire trajectory of his life–so much so that he writes to his Philippian friends: 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. My passion is to be consumed with him and not clinging to my own “righteousness” based in keeping the written Law. My “righteousness” will be his, based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ... I continually long to know the wonders of Jesus more fully…(3: 7-9, 10a TPT)

Wow! This is Paul’s secret. He is completely enamored with Jesus. He has experienced freedom from religious law, and has come alive in Christ. Oh, Lord Jesus–may this be our experience with you as well!

Paul admits: I haven’t yet acquired the absolute fullness that I’m pursuing, but I run with passion into his abundance so that I may reach the purpose that Jesus Christ has called me to fulfill and wants me to discover. I don’t depend on my own strength to accomplish this; however I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead.  I run straight for the divine invitationlet us all advance together to reach this victory-prize, following one path with one passion. (3: 12-14a; 16 TPT)

Or in the more familiar language of the NIV:  I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me

Joy comes from pressing on toward Jesus. Joy comes from knowing Jesus. Joy comes from pursuing Jesus. Joy comes in Jesus. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit of Jesus. Joy can be experienced no matter the circumstances because joy is based in Jesus.

One more thing before I pass the reins to Laura–Paul’s letter makes it abundantly clear that a relationship with Jesus is dynamic; it is not static. When we are in a real relationship with Jesus, we have a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. Friendships that deepen are friendships that grow and change over time. To be a Christian, to be a Christ follower, means to be one who grows and changes over time. This growth happens as we stay close to Christ, rooted in Christ, grounded in Christ.

As we grow in Christ, our fruit will look like Christ, and the things Paul wrote about in Philippians 2:2 will happen. Our personal deepening friendships with the Holy Spirit will allow us to be joined together in perfect unity—with one heart, one passion, and united in one love. [We will] walk together with one harmonious purpose (and you will fill my heart with unbounded joy)...And our hearts will be filled with unbounded joy and we will fill the world with unbounded joy by living out the good news that because Jesus came to earth, great joy is available to all of us.

And friends–it’s not about obeying man-made religious laws, or trying to make all of Jesus’ followers across the nation and across the globe, who represent every ethnic group and culture look the same, act the same, interpret scripture the same, sing the same songs, etc. It’s about rejoicing in the freedom that we and others have found as we experience an ever deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. It’s about learning with and from one another. It’s about growing to love Jesus who is reflected in all of this diversity and beauty across the earth. It’s about loving others and leaning in to the things that matter to God’s heart. We are free to do all of this. It is for freedom Christ has set us free–free to be uniquely who we’ve been designed to be–and free to reflect an aspect of his nature and character through our unique design. This kind of freedom, that comes from our deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit, is full of great joy and that is very good news.

–Luanne

What does it mean to know someone? We use the word “know” often in conversation to describe so many different situations. It is important as we consider this beautiful passage from Paul that we have a grasp on what “knowing” meant to him. Chapter three begins with this verse:

My beloved ones, don’t ever limit your joy or fail to rejoice in the wonderful experience of knowing our Lord Jesus! (TPT)

The word Paul uses in this verse has a root word in the Greek that means: to learn to know; come to know; get a knowledge of; perceive, feel; to become known; to become acquainted with. The same word was also used as a Jewish idiom to refer to sexual intercourse–an interesting point when we consider how many times the Bible records Jesus–who was raised Jewish–using this word. I mention this to emphasize the depth of connection implied with this kind of knowing. The intimacy and vulnerability the word carries are worth noticing here. Here are a few of the times Jesus used this same word:

“I am the Good Shepherd. I know my own sheep and my own sheep know me. In the same way, the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (John 10:14-15a, MSG)

“If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” ( John 14:7, NIV)

And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Savior, the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and he will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you will know him intimately, because he will make his home in you and will live inside you.

(John 14:16-17, TPT)

Eternal life means to know and experience you as the only true God, and to know and experience Jesus Christ, as the Son whom you have sent. (John 17:3, TPT)

But continue to grow and increase in God’s grace and intimacy with our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. May he receive all the glory both now and until the day eternity begins. Amen! (2 Peter 3:18, TPT)

All of these verses speak of an intimate knowing, an ongoing relationship. Take a look at this footnote included in The Passion Translation of the 2 Peter verse:

“The Aramaic does not use the imperative but makes it more of a decree: “You continue to be nourished in grace and in the intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Messiah, and of God the Father.” Spiritual growth is yielding to the grace of God and having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately. In time, we grow into his beautiful image.”

Spiritual growth is yielding to the grace of God and having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately... Read that again… Maybe one more time… How gorgeous is that? We grow spiritually as we yield–what does that mean here? In The Greek, yield simply means I give way. Webster’s unabridged dictionary expands the definition: to admit to be true; to allow, permit, grant passage to; to comply with; cease opposition; to be no longer a hindrance to…

You all, this is not where I was going–I did not expect to find this little footnote in a verse I wasn’t even looking for, but here it is, so we’re going to stay here a minute… Spiritual growth happens when we choose to no longer be a hindrance to, to cease opposition toward, to grant passage… to what, again? The grace of God. Spiritual growth happens when we grant passage to the grace of God. To grant passage to where? To ourselves. There was a second part, too… having passion to know Jesus Christ intimately.” Where does passion to know Jesus come from? A collision with Grace. Somewhere we collide with Grace, and we get to choose whether we oppose and hinder the work of Grace in our lives, or grant Grace passage into the depths of us. When we choose to admit that God’s grace is true and we comply with that truth, our passion to know Jesus intimately grows. And then? In time, we grow into his beautiful image.”

Pastor John described this intimacy as “connection that pulls you into relationship.” I love that. We all know what that’s like, right? When you make a connection, and something about that point of contact draws you deeper, pulls at you to come back, come closer, connect again. It is how relationships are born, and with every point of connection, relationships grow.

Luanne wrote it this way, “Paul’s letter makes it abundantly clear that a relationship with Jesus is dynamic; it is not static. When we are in a real relationship with Jesus, we have a deepening friendship with the Holy Spirit. Friendships that deepen are friendships that grow and change over time. To be a Christian, to be a Christ follower, means to be one who grows and changes over time…”

I will wrap this up soon, but I want to go back to one of the definitions of the root word Paul used that I mentioned earlier, to become known.” I think this one scares us a bit. I know it can make me uneasy. And when we’re thinking about human relationships, there’s good reason for that discomfort. Allowing oneself to become known–intimately known–by another involves risk. It is profoundly vulnerable, and leaves us woundable, which is really what vulnerable means: “susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm.” (Oxford Dictionary) Who among us wants to sign up for that?? I suspect that some of you can feel a tightening in your chest as you read that definition. Maybe that’s just me…

Putting ourselves in a position that we are fully aware leaves us open to attack, harm, pain, betrayal…we resist it. I resist it. But if we refuse to be vulnerable, to pull away–like Luanne wrote about in the beginning of her portion–rather than lean in, we cannot experience the intimacy that only comes with being soft, open, exposed. Sometimes, with one another, we will regret our choice to be vulnerable. Sometimes we will be hurt. Sometimes we will wish we hadn’t opened so far, hadn’t let someone so close. But, sometimes… we’ll find connection. It’s what we crave. It’s what we are all built for–whether we want to admit it or not. Because it’s what we already have, what existed in the Trinity of Love before any of us ever came to be. It is the nature of God, the nature of Love itself. When we lean into the possibility of connection with one another, it can go either way. We will be hurt and disappointed at times. But when we lean into connection with Jesus, when we’re moved by Grace toward deeper intimacy with the Living Expression (John 1, TPT) alive within us, we will not be left wanting.

There is a Love who knows us fully, because that Love formed us, lives within us, and wants us–always. Love pursues us and keeps coming back for us–Love never rejects us. There is nothing hidden from Love’s sight, nothing so ugly within us to make Love turn away, because we were seen and known before we came to be–we have never once been out of Love’s gaze. We don’t have to be afraid, we are already known–that side of the relationship is not a mystery. Jesus has chosen to know us, fully, in every intricacy that makes us each who we are. But we don’t yet know him fully. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12, NIV) There is mystery to explore, there are treasures to discover as we grow in knowing Jesus. If we embrace the mystery, continue to yield to Grace, and if we are passionate about knowing Jesus intimately, we will grow in our knowledge of him, in our relationship with him, and into his beautiful image. What a powerful, lavish love. I am kind of undone by it all. Within a love like this, there is fullness of joy–despite what is going on around us. Maybe this is what Jesus meant when he spoke these words:

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. (John 15:9-11, MSG, emphasis mine)

That is my prayer for us as we continue on in this season of Advent, that we will make ourselves at home in Jesus’ love, that his joy will be our joy, and that our joy will be whole and complete as we remain intimately at home in him.

May you be blessed with fullness of joy as you journey, friends.

–Laura

Fullness of Joy 16 – "God > Our Hearts" - Cross Connection Church

Joyful No Matter What

One of my many Advent readings is Ann Voskamp’s The Greatest Gift. This is the eighth year I’ve picked up the beautiful blue and white book in December and it’s become a space that feels like home. Today’s reading is about Abraham on Mount Moriah, how God not only stopped him from sacrificing his son Isaac, but also provided a ram in the thicket to be the sacrifice that day. Genesis 22:14 tells us that “Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide.” Ann writes of that naming:

It is a thing: to call a place ‘The Lord Will Provide.’ It is a thing to name where you live Provision, to name the place you call home “The Lord Will Provide.” To take your tired hand and turn the knob of that front door marked Provide and step right into the widening vista of Advent and find that the literal translation of “to provide” means “to see.” God always sees, and He will always see to the matter. Your legs may be weary and your heart may be heavy and your questions may be many, but whatever you are facing, it is always named Mount Moriah: the Lord will appear. The Lord sees. And He will see to it. And He will be seen.”

Have you ever named a place based on your experience of God’s presence there? Ann nailed it–it is a thing. An audacious, bold proclamation that says “This is who God was and is and will be forever.” Abraham didn’t name the place “The Lord Did Provide,” as in, that one thing, that one time. His naming is one that rings true set against the history of ages past and the history that hasn’t been written yet. As much as I love the name Abraham chose, I love the meaning behind it that Ann shares with us even more. “To provide” literally means “to see.” God sees. Fully. Completely. From the biggest, broadest overview down to the tiniest detail of your tiniest cell–He sees. And He will see to it. Even here. Even now.

Pastor John spoke to us on Sunday about the juxtaposition of joy and pain. He said that Christmas tends to be a challenging season for many during normal years. This year has been anything but normal, and the challenges of this season seem exacerbated for everyone. He asked us if there are things we would like to see change, asked us what we wish was different. He shared some of his own answers, and left us to ponder our own. He then led us into Philippians, a letter Paul wrote while in prison, while he was disconnected and isolated from those he loved and longed to be with. We might expect that a letter written under such circumstances would be full of themes like sadness, longing, hopelessness, fear, and even desperation. But the dominant theme in the letter to the Philippians is joy.

Paul models throughout this letter a way to live free, hopeful, connected, and joyful regardless of circumstances. How? We could hypothesize that Paul was just one of those positive, glass-half-full types who could reframe any situation with some well-meaning “Christianese.” We might even scoff a little and attempt to brush off what can sometimes feel like platitudes and tone-deafness in a world that is literally coming unhinged in every possible way. I don’t think that’s the right lens, though. Here’s what I think…

I think Paul was utterly and completely convinced of the nearness of God. I think he was intimately acquainted with our ever-providing, all-seeing God, and that the withness of this Jesus who had radically changed his life was more real to him than anything else. I think Paul knew well that exploring the depths of sorrow and grief is the very thing that expands our human capacity for joy–that you cannot fully know joy unless your heart has known the icy grip of pain. Based on what we know of the human condition and what we saw modeled by Jesus himself, I think it is safe to assume that Paul’s public rejoicing and positive exhortations were born of a private wrestling with his God.

It is a fight to hold onto joy.

It is a battle to stay above the crashing waves of fear and doubt and hopelessness. It takes grit to face each day with a stubborn determination to rejoice. And I’m not talking about the fake, put-on, platitude-infused kind of rejoicing. I’m talking about chara joy, the kind that results from deep gratitude, the kind that is a fruit of the Spirit abiding within us as we live connected to Jesus, our true Vine. Paul’s joy was this kind of joy, one that thrives regardless of circumstance… because it doesn’t depend on us. It is the joy of Jesus–our Living Word, the Living Expression of God, the Light of Advent--alive in us, steady in the depths even when waves crash on the surface.

Real joy can handle our pain, our questions, our tears. It does not negate our grief; it invites it to come inside and stay awhile–to be held within Love’s embrace. Joy knows what we sometimes forget, and beckons us to lean in to hear the whisper: He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. He sees. You’re not alone. Paul knew he wasn’t alone, and he also knew that the presence of God has the power to change any situation. He knew the truth: good work is done in the meantime, in that “interim; interval between one specified time and another” (Online Etymology Dictionary). The meantime... we are in that kind of liminal space right now. We’re not in the before times and we haven’t yet made it to the after. We are in the sticky, undefined tension of the middle. Jesus’ whole human life took place in the meantime, friends. Between being at home with the Father and Spirit in the beginning, and getting back home again after his death and resurrection, was the messy middle of living on the earth as a man. He was the interval between one specified time and another, his human life marked that interim space. What beautiful work was done there…

God can do beautiful work in this difficult, interim season as well. Just as he did while Paul was imprisoned and isolated. Paul was grounded in Christ; Jesus was the source of his joy. So he was able to focus outward and look up–even in the messy middle. Even when he faced so many unknowns. I think that’s really what Pastor John wanted us to hear on Sunday. Yes, times are hard. Yes, we all wish so much was different. And… God is with us. His presence is provision, his vision holds us always in his gaze. He walks with us and ahead of us into the unknowns of this life. Even here, even now.

So ask yourself the questions John asked us. What would you like to see change? What do you wish was different? Lean into the arms that are already holding you, whatever your answers might be…

“In the thin air of Advent, you may not even know how to say it out loud: “I thought it would be easier.” And your God comes near: I will provide the way. You may not even know who to tell: “I thought it would be different.” And your God draws close: I will provide grace for the gaps. You may not even know how to find words for it: “I thought I would be. . . more.” And your God reaches out: I will provide Me.

God gives God. That is the gift God always ultimately gives. . .” (Voskamp, The Greatest Gift)

God gives God. That is reason to rejoice…

–Laura.

Laura wrote above: Paul knew he wasn’t alone, and he also knew that the presence of God has the power to change any situation. He knew the truth: good work is done in the meantime

She spoke of living in “liminal” space; the in-between. It made me think of borderlands. Borderlands are those spaces in-between. Borderlands can be a melting pot of cultures, of traditions, of people. When I lived in Brazil we often spent time in a city located on the border between Brazil and Bolivia. There was a fabulous open air market on the Bolivian side, so we would cross the border from time to time to shop. We would leave Brazil, and cross the borderland—a bridge that did not belong to Brazil or Bolivia—it was in between. Once we made it through the Bolivian checkpoint, the language changed, the style of dress changed, the food changed, the music changed, even the body type of the people changed, and all we had done was taken a short jaunt across the borderland–which I guess could be seen as both places or neither one.

We live in a spiritual borderland. We have left our before Christ life– we are in Christ, but the Kingdom of heaven has not yet been fully realized. This is where we live–the middle. And as Laura wrote above, this is where Paul found himself. Is it possible to thrive in that space–or is it just a waiting ground? Paul had learned to thrive.

Pastor John expressed on Sunday that a sermon out of the book of Philippians seems odd for a Christmas message; however, without the Christmas story, without the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ there would have been no Paul, and he would not have had reason to write about joy—without Christ, there would have been none. As Laura wrote above, joy is an element of the fruit of the Spirit. Joy is not based on our circumstances.

When the angel spoke to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth, the angel said: “Don’t be afraid! I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people.” (Luke 2:10) Paul had experienced that great joy. Once he met Jesus, his entire life had been swept up into embracing God’s love, and sharing the good news of God’s love, and acceptance, and grace, and transformation, and joy, and beauty, and so much more… He shared about it everywhere he went no matter what his circumstances were. Paul (as Saul) had been a slave to the religious law, but once he encountered Jesus, he found freedom and came fully alive. He wanted everyone everywhere to experience that same great joy.

Laura did a beautiful job of writing about joy above, yet she also wrote: It is a battle to stay above the crashing waves of fear and doubt and hopelessness. It takes grit to face each day with a stubborn determination to rejoice. And I’m not talking about the fake, put-on, platitude-infused kind of rejoicing. I’m talking about chara joy, the kind that results from deep gratitude, the kind that is a fruit of the Spirit abiding within us as we live connected to Jesus, our true Vine. Paul’s joy was this kind of joy, one that thrives regardless of circumstance… because it doesn’t depend on us. It is the joy of Jesus–our Living Word, the Living Expression of God, the Light of Advent–alive in us, steady in the depths even when waves crash on the surface.

the chara kind of joy…the kind that results from deep gratitude…

Deep gratitude.

Here we are. The global pandemic is still raging across the world. People are dying at alarming rates. Economies and personal livelihoods are being affected. We aren’t gathering together. We aren’t hugging. We aren’t traveling to visit those we love. We are wearing masks as a way to care for one another and slow the spread, but we can’t see one another’s faces. On top of that, in this nation we have political unrest, deep division, racial inequities, systemic injustice, and polarized mindsets making it difficult to have “real” conversations about meaningful things that could lead to change. Can we have joy that’s real and face reality at the same time?

Paul did. We can learn from him. Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from prison. He wrote many of his letters while incarcerated. We can read how Paul’s relationship with the Philippians began in Acts 16. As a quick recap, Philippi was a Roman colony. Paul and his companions were looking for a place to pray, but instead, found a group of women and began conversing with them, one of whom was Lydia. She became the first person in Philippi to believe in Christ and invited Paul and his companions to stay in her home. Paul and Silas had trouble in Philippi when they freed a slave girl from demon possession resulting in loss of revenue for her master. They were attacked over the loss of revenue, ordered to be beaten, and after being severely flogged were thrown in jail. In jail, despite their wounds, they sang and prayed while the other prisoners listened. A violent earthquake shook the jail, the doors opened, and all those who could have escaped remained. The jailer was about to commit suicide because he thought they’d escaped, but when he learned they hadn’t he took them to his home, took care of their wounds, fed them and became a follower of Jesus. Acts 16:34 tells us the jailer was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household.

So when Paul writes his letter to the church in Philippi, these are the people to whom he is writing. He writes: I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy  because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now(Ph. 1: 3-5) Gratitude and joy. Paul is not focused on his own circumstances. His focus is Jesus, his focus is sharing Jesus with his prison guards, his focus is encouraging his friends in Christ. He tells the Philippians he knows Jesus will complete the work he began in them. He tells them his joy comes from knowing that sharing the love of Jesus is their priority too, and he thanks them for their partnership. He tells them that even in chains, he has them in his heart and they share being recipients of God’s grace together. He also tells them that he longs for them.

He writes this beautiful prayer:

I continue to pray for your love to grow and increase beyond measure, bringing you into the rich revelation of spiritual insight in all things. This will enable you to choose the most excellent way of all—becoming pure and without offense until the unveiling of Christ. And you will be filled completely with the fruits of righteousness that are found in Jesus, the Anointed One—bringing great praise and glory to God! (Ph. 1:9-11 TPT)

Then Paul writes about being in actual chains in actual prison. This isn’t a metaphor. He’s in a Roman jail, in chains. He has no rights. He has no idea if he’s going to be executed or set free. He’s not ignoring what’s true about his physical state of being; however, he is in control of his thoughts and attitude and chooses to focus on “things above”.

Former prisoner Andrew Medal wrote: Nobody can take your mind prisoner if you don’t allow it. We are all free to think and feel how we choose. Be wise in your choices.

Paul refuses to be a prisoner in his mind and attitude. His priority is Christ. He admits that to die and be with Christ would be a good thing, it’s actually what he desires; however, while he lives his priority is Jesus, introducing others to Jesus, and encouraging those who already know Jesus to keep going, to keep growing, to keep loving, to keep sharing. His letters encourage us to do the same.

Where are our minds, our priorities, our focus in this borderland space? Is joy possible in this season of isolation, of division, of struggle, of challenge? It is. The angels announced that good news of great joy for all would be the result of Jesus’ birth. They announced this to unimportant men, on an unimportant hill, in an unimportant town under Roman occupation. Good news. Great joy. Even for them.

At Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, after speaking to them about vines and branches and remaining connected to him, he said: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be completeMy command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. (John 15:11)

So what is the key to joy no matter the circumstances? Jesus. Embracing his love, remaining in his love, sharing his love, encouraging others in his love. Being his love.

Right here, right in the middle, we have a home in Christ. We belong. We are lavishly loved. Jesus is here.

Good news.

Great joy.

For all.

–Luanne

Joy Christmas Free Stock Photo - Public Domain Pictures

Roman Road Less Traveled: Spirit Life

Sometimes a footnote will stop me in my tracks, which happened to me this week as I was reading through our passage in Romans 8. As is my custom, I read multiple translations in order to get a more full understanding of the context, especially passages that are already familiar to me so that I won’t settle into thinking I already know what they say. There are always new things to mine in scripture; always deeper layers to uncover. Right in the middle of this week’s passage,The Passion Translation’s verse 9 footnotes allowed me to see something I hadn’t seen before:

But when the Spirit of Christ empowers your life, (FN “makes his home in you.”) you are not dominated by the flesh but by the Spirit. And if you are not joined to the Spirit of the Anointed One, you are not of him. (FN This is an unusual Greek clause that can be translated “If anyone is not joined to the Spirit of Christ, he cannot be himself.” A similar construction is used in Luke 15:17: “The prodigal son came to himself.”)

Here’s how it reads with the footnotes substituted in: But when the Spirit of Christ makes his home in you, you are not dominated by the flesh but by the Spirit. And if you are not joined to the Spirit of the Anointed One, you cannot be yourself. (Romans 8:9 TPT)

Sit with that for a moment. Without the Spirit of Christ, we can not be our true, God-designed, selves. Without the Spirit of Christ, we live a false identity. Embracing God’s gift of love makes us real.

The Romans recap leading us to this point includes Paul reminding us that we’re all a mess, all separated from God as a result of our choices, but God loves us, has always loved us, will always love us, and demonstrated his love when Jesus died for us. The way for us to no longer be separated from God is to believe God. Coming into relationship with God in Christ “baptizes” us into Christ’s death (to the law) and resurrection (to life in the Spirit), and the process of transformation begins. We are no longer married to the law, we are now married to Jesus.

But wait–that’s too simple–what about my past? What about all those poor choices I made? Don’t I owe God something?

This week’s chapter, Romans 8, begins with the answer to those questions:

So now the case is closed. There remains no accusing voice of condemnation against those who are joined in life-union with Jesus, the Anointed One. (8:1 TPT)

Or in more familiar language: Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,

Such beautiful, profound truth. God has given us the gift of God’s very being. Life is no longer about us trying to be good enough by obeying all the dos and don’ts. When we are joined in life-union with Jesus, when Jesus makes his home in us, the breath of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and begins the work of returning us to ourselves–the selves we were originally intended to be at the beginning–the Genesis beginning.

The Holy Spirit is an incredible gift. Jesus told his disciples: “Loving me empowers you to obey my commands. And I will ask the Father and he will give you another Savior, the Holy Spirit of Truth, who will be to you a friend just like me—and who will never leave you. The world won’t receive him because they can’t see him or know him. But you will know him intimately, because he will make his home in you and will live inside you. (John 14: 15-17 TPT).

The footnote after the word “Savior” in the above translation explains: The Greek word used here is paráklētos, a technical word that could be translated “defense attorney.” It means “one called to stand next to you as a helper.” Various translations have rendered this “Counselor,” “Comforter,” “Advocate,” “Encourager,” “Intercessor,” or “Helper.” However none of these words alone are adequate and fall short in explaining the full meaning. The translator has chosen the word Savior, for it depicts the role of the Holy Spirit to protect, defend, and save us from our self and our enemies and keep us whole and healed. He is the One who guides and defends, comforts and consoles. Keep in mind that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, our Savior. The Aramaic word is paraqleta, which is taken from two root words: (1) praq, “to end, finish, or to save,” and (2) lyta, which means “the curse.” What a beautiful word picture, the Holy Spirit comes to end the work of the curse (of sin) in our lives and to save us from its every effect! Paraqleta means “a redeemer who ends the curse.”

Gorgeous! But how does this happen?

When Nicodemus went to Jesus for a night time Q&A session, their conversation went like this:

 …unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

“What do you mean?” exclaimed Nicodemus. “How can an old man go back into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Jesus replied, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.  So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’  The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.” (John 3: 3-5 NLT)

A little later in this conversation, Jesus reveals to Nicodemus that this new life, our real life begins when we believe: For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17 NLT)

Mystery–it can’t be explained, which bothers many human beings. We want to be able to explain God and how it all works, how to do A, B, C, and wrap it up in a nice neat package. Jesus says–believe the truth–God loves you more than you’ll ever have the capacity to understand; you don’t do a thing to earn that love. Embrace the mystery, and live your life in the flow of Jesus’ resurrected breath.

I’ve written it over and over and over again — when we lean in to the mystery of the Trinity, intentionally ask, seek, knock, converse, commune, make time for God–we are changed. I don’t know how it works, but I know in my own life it didn’t come by human effort–yet I am not who I used to be, and I’m not who I am going to be. I am being re-created more and more into the being God designed me to be. The process won’t be complete on this side of time, but it’s begun, it’s happening, and it’s beautiful.

Are there days when I don’t feel like I’m God’s masterpiece being formed? Absolutely. Are there days when I want to resist the work of the Spirit; the nudges, the conviction, the drawing me out of my comfort zone? Absolutely. Are there days when I blow it? Yep. Paul reminds us in his first letter to the Thessalonians that we can quench the Holy Spirit and he encourages us not to do that. (1 Th. 5:19) Are there days that I quench the Holy Spirit? Sure do.

But the Holy Spirit draws me back home over and over. God’s love is home; it’s where we live, where we abide, where we remain. Jesus says to us If you remain (live) in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit (the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal 5:22); apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

And we are free to live, not according to our flesh, but by the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit, and the mind controlled by the Spirit finds life and peace. (Romans 8: 4, 6)

Spirit-filled people look like Jesus, they love others with the love of God, and invite others home to become all they were designed to be.

We live in Christ–the Spirit of Christ lives in us. We are like fish who live in water, are filled with water, breathe in water, exhale water, are surrounded by water, have no life apart from water.

In us, the very Spirit of God–the breath of God– gives us life. We live in God, are filled with God, breathe in God, exhale God, are surrounded by God–we have no life apart from God. In Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) In him we become real.

And what’s our part? Draw near, believe, and embrace the mystery.

–Luanne

My friend wrote gorgeous, stirring words. Let’s take a moment and breathe some of them in again…

Embracing God’s gift of love makes us real. God’s love is home; it’s where we live, where we abide, where we remain. When we are joined in life-union with Jesus, when Jesus makes his home in us, the breath of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in us and begins the work of returning us to ourselves–the selves we were originally intended to be at the beginning–the Genesis beginning. I am being re-created more and more into the being God designed me to be. The process won’t be complete on this side of time, but it’s begun, it’s happening, and it’s beautiful. Spirit-filled people look like Jesus, they love others with the love of God, and invite others home to become all they were designed to be. Draw near, believe, and embrace the mystery...

I love the thought that embracing God’s love makes us real. I can’t help but think of abiding here, how remaining connected to our Vine (Jesus) and embodying his life (the vibrant, energetic Spirit flowing through us) is what guides us into who we were created to be. Luanne wrote that the work of the Spirit is returning us to ourselves, to the selves we were before we embraced selflessness and selfishness (neither side of that spectrum is healthy), to the selves we were when we were marvelously, intricately fashioned into being (Psalm 139). Before anyone else told us we were anything but wholly loved and held and treasured.

Life on this earth changes us; the structures and systems of this world tell us stories about who we are and who we should be. The pain, fear, and powerlessness that invade our lives cause us to reach for some sense of stability and control, and we often find that in the structures of the law that eventually imprison us.

But Jesus

Jesus, the “Living Expression,” as The Passion Translation so disarmingly and stunningly defines him, comes into our stories to set us free, to set things right, to make us whole again…

In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning. And through his creative inspiration this Living Expression made all things, for nothing has existence apart from him! Life came into being because of him, for his life is light for all humanity. And this Living Expression is the Light that bursts through gloom—the Light that darkness could not diminish! (John1:1-5)

The Living Expression who made all things is in the business of restoring all things back to their original design. He bursts through the gloom of living married to dead laws, draws us to himself, joins us to his life of love, invites us to abide, to remain in that love, and to grow into our true selves. To shed the false selves we have put on over time (Could this be part of the pruning process…?) and become who we already are.

As I read Luanne’s words earlier and pondered where I might go in my portion, running through my head was the bridge of Jason Upton’s beautiful song, Home to Me (Maybe click the link if you need a moment to exhale?) :

You are where we all have come from
You are where we long to go
We have journeyed far from Eden and we are coming home
So let our eyes be filled with wonder
Let our lives be filled with song
Let the way of Jesus lead us back where we belong
You are home to me

We have journeyed far from Eden, from our beautiful beginnings, and we are on a journey back home. The Spirit life, the way of Jesus, leads us there.

These words from Luanne went deep into my heart:

I am being re-created more and more into the being God designed me to be. The process won’t be complete on this side of time, but it’s begun, it’s happening, and it’s beautiful.

She is identifying that she is in process and acknowledging that it’s ongoing regardless of what stage of the process she is in. Did you catch the last part? I am going to pair it with the beginning and cut out the middle so you can see what I see when I read these words:

I am being re-created. . . and it’s beautiful.

It is beautiful. She is beautiful. I am beautiful. You are beautiful. We are all somewhere on the continuum of returning to the original goodness and wholeness that we have lost along the way. But beautiful doesn’t begin with completion. What is beautiful is the process of becoming. And God thinks so, too, or he wouldn’t spend so much time invested in our growth:

“…God’s delight is not just in the fruit; He’s not interested in results alone. He elates in the entire process of fruit bearing. He relishes the mirthful participation of His image bearers, the Imago Dei, in a divine work. A sublime work… God likes watching things grow.” (Chasing Vines, Beth Moore)

We are the divine, sublime handiwork of God. How often do we pause to think about that? Maybe take a moment now…

Is it hard? To look at your self, in process, and call what you see beautiful? It is for me, some days more than others. I think that’s why I love what my very beautiful friend wrote so much. She didn’t leave room for debate or qualifications or shame or self-doubt. She said, I am being re-created. . . and it’s beautiful. Period. Why? Because it is the truth. We were formed in Love, by Love, and for Love, that we might outshine that Love to others so that they can hear Home beckoning them to return to their true selves, too.

We bear the image of the Living Expression, and we are also individuals, uniquely and magnificently formed, one self among many. Only we can be our selves. It is life in the Spirit that reminds us of and returns us to who we really are so that we can do what only we can do on this planet. And when we begin to see that as beautiful, to name our process with kindness and truth the way Luanne did, it changes things. We are more aware of the beauty in each one, more invested in their flourishing and concerned for their well-being, more committed to making sure they know that they can come home, too. The invitation is for all–for each and every beautiful one. These verses out of Psalm 36 express that invitation to all:

O God, how extravagant is your cherishing love!
All [human]kind can find a hiding place
under the shadow of your wings.
All may drink of the anointing from the abundance of your house.
All may drink their fill from the delightful springs of Eden.
To know you is to experience a flowing fountain,
drinking in your life, springing up to satisfy.
In your light we receive the light of revelation.

(Psalm 36:7-9, TPT, emphasis mine)

Drinking in the life we are offered, embracing and embodying the love that constantly pursues our hearts, is how we become real. Luanne invited us to draw near, believe, and embrace the mystery. May we all do just that as we journey on…

–Laura

Led By The Spirit – God Like Fire Ministries