Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 16

We’ve made it to the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. It’s been quite a journey. At the beginning of this series, I shared with you all that a decade or so ago I wanted to discover the heart of this letter, so I read Romans over and over and over again. I didn’t pay attention to chapters and verses; I tried to read it as it was intended–as a letter. I came away from that experience with the realization that the heart of this letter is we are all messed up and prone to sin, yet despite that, God loves each and every one of us unconditionally. God proved his love for us in Christ and we are fully accepted by God.

After this current deep dive into Paul’s letter to Rome, I come away with the same conclusion, yet it is now more fully solidified in my heart and mind, and I am once again moved by the depth of God’s love and the beauty of God’s grace for all of humanity. I also come away with a broader understanding of how deeply our treatment of others matters and how often Paul refers to it in this letter. Love (God’s love for us, our love for God, God’s love for others, our love for others) really is the thread that winds itself through this entire letter.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome begins with these words:

 Paul, a loving and loyal servant of the Anointed One, Jesus. He called me to be his apostle and set me apart with a mission to reveal God’s wonderful gospel. My commission is to preach the good news. Yet it is not entirely new, but the fulfillment of the hope promised to us through the many prophecies found in the sacred Scriptures. For the gospel is all about God’s Son… And now Jesus is our Lord and our Messiah. Through him a joy-producing grace cascaded into us, empowering us with the gift of apostleship, so that we can win people from every nation into a faithful commitment to Jesus, to bring honor to his name. May his joyous grace and total well-being, flowing from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, rest upon you. (Romans 1:1-7 TPT)

Paul’s letter ends with these words:

May the grace and favor of our Lord Jesus, the Anointed One, continually rest upon you all. I give all my praises and glory to the one who has more than enough power to make you strong and keep you steadfast through the promises found in the wonderful news that I preach; that is, the proclamation of Jesus, the Anointed One. This wonderful news includes the unveiling of the mystery kept secret from the dawn of creation until now. This mystery is understood through the prophecies of the Scripture and by the decree of the eternal God. And it is now heard openly by all the nations, igniting within them a deep commitment of faith. Now to God, the only source of wisdom, be glorious praises for endless ages through Jesus, the Anointed One! Amen! (Romans 16: 25-27 TPT)

Paul’s letter, from beginning to end is about the good news of Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the love of God offered to all people everywhere through grace.

In addition to that beautiful message, most of Paul’s letters end with some final instructions to his readers; this letter is no exception. His final thoughts to the church in Rome are wise words for us to keep in mind today as well. He writes:

And now, dear brothers and sisters, I’d like to give one final word of caution: Watch out for those who cause divisions and offenses among you. When they antagonize you by speaking of things that are contrary to the teachings that you’ve received, don’t be caught in their snare!  For people like this are not truly serving the Lord, our Messiah, but are being driven by their own desires for a following. Utilizing their smooth words and well-rehearsed blessings, they seek to deceive the hearts of innocent ones.

This is a good reminder. There are many who have added much to the simple message of God’s love. Over and over Paul reminds us that God’s gift of unconditional love has been offered to all of humanity through Christ. Our part is to accept God’s love by believing that it’s true. There are no other requirements. We don’t have to look the same. We don’t have to practice our beliefs in the same way. We don’t have to conform to one another. Our part is to believe that we are radically loved by God. People who are well-loved respond by loving well. Paul had a radical encounter with God and God’s love. It changed the trajectory of his life. He went from being a behavior based, judgmental, violent, angry religious zealot, to a grace-filled, fully accepting, radical believer/follower of Jesus. He tolerated abuse; he tolerated hardship, prison, and isolation. He was radically misunderstood by the religious community as he let go of the Jewish law and grabbed hold of the all-inclusive law of love. Like Paul, when we embrace God’s love, it flows in us, flows through us, and draws others in. Paul encouraged the believers in Rome to hold on to that simplicity and not be led astray by smooth talkers who wanted to add other requirements, or who taught an exclusionary message that led to division. Paul understood that Jesus’ desire was for our unity, not our uniformity, and loving one another well despite our differences would show the people of the world who Jesus is. That’s our goal.

Paul, in his next phrase gives us a hint of how to do this:

I’m so happy when I think of you, because everyone knows the testimony of your deep commitment of faith. So I want you to become scholars of all that is good and beautiful, and stay pure and innocent when it comes to evil And the God of peace will swiftly pound Satan to a pulp under your feet! And the wonderful favor of our Lord Jesus will surround you. (16:17-20)

It’s interesting to note that the word “innocent” means “harmless, free from guilt”; “evil” can mean troublesome, injurious, destructive, not as it ought to be in thought, feeling, action, and Satan can mean “adversary (one who opposes another in purpose or act)” (Strong’s Concordance)

With those definitions in mind, Paul reminds us to keep our focus on all that is good and beautiful, to stay harmless and guiltless when it comes to things that can be troublesome, injurious, and destructive, and from that place of inner peace (shalom) God will crush the adversary who opposes peace and God’s message of love under our feet. It makes me think of Isaiah 52:7 which says:

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation…

(Paul repeats these words in this letter: As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (10:15))

The beautiful feet that carry the message of God’s peace and God’s love crush the opposition; they are not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21). We don’t overcome opposition by divisive, harmful, violent, destructive means. Our feet carry the message of the Prince of Peace who has come to reconcile all people to God. This message is inclusive, it is good, it is beautiful, it is clear. God’s love is available to all. Our part is to believe it’s true, embrace it, and share it.

As we allow God to do work in us, we understand more and more what it means to be the beloved of God. God’s Spirit empowers us to love others as he has loved us, because we see them as God’s beloved too. That love, which is so contrary to the systems and structures of the world, causes people to take notice. Some people will oppose it, some people will embrace it, but no matter the response, we carry the message of grace, of peace, of love, of joy, of a better way that’s available to all.

The one other aspect of Paul’s final chapter in this letter is his greeting to those with whom he has worked in the past. Paul speaks life, he builds others up, he doesn’t forget those with whom he has shared life and ministry. I, too, want to take this moment to thank those of you who faithfully read our blog, who send notes of encouragement, who allow us the joy of being part of your faith journey. It has been my honor to be part of this ministry. I am moving out of state and will become part of another body of faith in another town. I am deeply grateful to City Park Church for their encouragement and trust in this blogging ministry. I’m grateful for the freedom I was given to write as I felt led. And mostly, from the bottom of my heart, I want to thank my dear fellow blogger, Laura. We have grown in Jesus, grown as writers, and grown in friendship over these last years. She will continue to write, and to seek the Lord as to what this ministry will look like in the future. I will look forward to reading her insights and wise words. Please pray for her, and for City Park Church during this season of transition.

I love you, Laura, and have loved being your partner in this space!

Thank you for journeying with us–for entering in. May the God of peace be with you all. (15:33)

–Luanne

Dear brothers and sisters who are reading these words from wherever you are in the world, we are so grateful for you. Thank you for joining us in this space. Luanne and I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to numbers of followers or things of that nature–we didn’t start writing with any intention of making a name for ourselves, and we certainly had no expectation that Enter In would go out into the world far beyond our small community here in Casper, Wyoming. Like Paul, we both love the local church–each congregation that is one small part of the greater body that is the global “Church” of Jesus. We began this blog with prayers and hopes that it would be one way for the church that has been “home” to us to dig in a little deeper to the messages preached each week at City Park Church. Learning that we had hundreds of people from all over the world reading our offerings each week floored us both. We had no expectations that our words would reach places we’ve never been to when Enter In began over four years ago. It is humbling and encouraging to know that as we’ve leaned in and followed the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the gospel–the good news of Jesus and the abundant love he lavishes us with–has gone out to places our feet may never touch. I think that’s so beautiful.

As we’ve studied Romans and as I have read portions of Paul’s other letters alongside this one, it has been impossible to miss how Paul saw the “Church.” He wrote to individual churches, but always referenced other people in other places, and he wrote with the expectation that his readers would see themselves and each other as one small–yet vital–part of the greater family of God.

So I write to you this week with that in mind. I write as your sister, knowing we are connected to our one true Vine–Jesus himself–no matter where we are in the world. I write with mixed emotions, as I prepare to watch my dear friend move on to another community, another part of the family. It feels so fitting, though, that our journey of writing together in this particular space will find its culmination here, at the end of Romans, with the reminder of how connected we all are despite our geographic locations in the world.

I love the way Luanne summed up the verses of chapter 16. I love her overview and takeaways from this letter that has both challenged us and taken us even deeper into the heart of God. I have nothing more to add to the discussion of this week’s passage beyond what she already wrote. I love these words that she gave us above:

“Our feet carry the message of the Prince of Peace who has come to reconcile all people to God. This message is inclusive, it is good, it is beautiful, it is clear. God’s love is available to all. Our part is to believe it’s true, embrace it, share it. As we allow God to do work in us, we understand more and more what it means to be the beloved of God. God’s Spirit empowers us to love others as he has loved us, because we see them as God’s beloved too. That love, which is so contrary to the systems and structures of the world, causes people to take notice. Some people will oppose it, some people will embrace it, but no matter the response, we carry the message of grace, of peace, of love, of joy, of a better way that’s available to all.”

Luanne… your feet will carry this beautiful message that you embody so completely to the new place God is leading you. Your wisdom and grace, your deep love for Jesus and people, your insights and depth and your gorgeous way with words have been a gift to all of us. Our partnership in this ministry has been one of the many ways you have been a gift to me. Writing with you has been a joy from day one, back when we had no idea how this thing would develop or where it would go. Thank you for taking this journey with me–you are right, we have grown in so many ways. I look forward to seeing all the places God takes your feet and how he will use your gifts in the future. Our love, blessings, and prayers are with you as you go. I love you deeply, and have loved being your partner as well.

To our readers, I echo Luanne’s request for prayers for myself and our church as we move into this time of transition. I am not certain where Enter In is headed, and will take a few weeks off as I process the changes that are happening within our church body and also pray through what’s next. Please also pray for Luanne, as she and Pastor John move toward the new space God is calling them into.

Thank you for joining us in walking the Roman Road Less Traveled. This series has been both a wrestle and a delight as we have explored together what these words from long ago have to say to us today.

Blessings to each of you, dear friends. May we carry well what we have learned and never cease to grow in our understanding and awe of our great God of love and grace who holds us all as dearly loved children within his connecting, forever embrace.

–Laura

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Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 14

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law…“Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8, 9b-10)

Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (13:14)

As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, I want to again remind us that Romans is one letter; it was not written with chapters and verses in mind; therefore, I wanted to revisit the end of chapter 13 before heading into chapter 14. Looking at what comes before and after helps us keep things in context, and reminds us that the entire theme of Paul’s letter to Rome is about God’s love, grace, and acceptance, no matter who we are or what we’ve done/do, and his encouragement for us to clothe ourselves in Christ as we learn to love others no matter who they are or what they’ve done/do.

With that in mind, chapter 14 leads us right out of chapter 13 into the territory of not judging other believers who have different convictions than we do. The first four verses of Chapter 14 read:

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.  One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.  The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted themWho are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.

Whew. I imagine each one of us can be indicted by those verses. Do we judge Jesus’ followers who practice their faith differently than we do? Do we judge Jesus’ followers whose faith in Jesus leads them to make different life choices than we do? Do we judge Jesus’ followers in any way, shape, or form?

Pastor John made an excellent point when he talked about judging others. He said to judge is a form of idolatry. We place ourselves in the role of God and make our own determination about who is acceptable and who isn’t–who will stand and who will fall. It’s not our place. Up to this point in the book of Romans, we have learned that God accepts us based on his grace, not on our behavior, and we are asked to do the same for others. When we turn Christianity into a behavior based religion and then police the behavior of other people, we’ve lost our way.

Do you recall the moment after Jesus’ resurrection when Peter and Jesus were walking together and talking about Peter’s future? John was following at a distance, and Peter asked Jesus “What about him?” Jesus reply was: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me. (Jn. 21:21-22). In other words, you focus on your personal relationship with me, and let others do the same. My relationship with them is not yours to question or to judge. I think that’s what Paul is trying to communicate in Romans 14.

Pastor Beau, in his prayer at the end of Sunday’s service, prayed that God would remind us that we’re not asked to conform to one another; we’ve each been uniquely designed and created with beautiful diversity. Pastor John reminded us over and over, and Pastor Beau returned to it in his prayer, that we are invited into unity in Christ, not uniformity. This is such an important point to remember. Conformity into the likeness of one another is not the goal. Being transformed into the image of Christ through our personal relationship with him, and loving others as we’ve been loved is the goal.

As Paul continues through chapter 14, he brings up other areas of possible division such as different ways to observe the sabbath, holy days, or not observe them at all, and eating meat or not; he reminds the church that even in their differences, each of these people are giving thanks to God, living for the Lord, and will die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (v. 8). Can we accept that? Can we accept (with sincere love) those whom God accepts? And who does God accept? Everyone who embraces his gift of grace through Christ.

Paul brings his point home in verses 13-15 when he writes: Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.

What is Paul’s point? Don’t judge; instead, act in love and be sensitive toward those who have different convictions than you. Paul reminds us the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit...Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. (vs. 17 & 19).

What will lead to peace in the body of Christ? How can we build one another up? How can we edify one another? This is what we need to focus on.

As chapter 14 draws to a close, Paul writes So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (v. 22). In other words, don’t sow division, don’t judge, don’t condemn, don’t exclude, don’t provoke…

Pastor John reminded us of a few things at the end of his sermon that can help us move toward unity:

  1. Recognize that we are all part of the same family.
  2. Recognize the beauty in the different ways we seek to honor God.
  3. Recognize we all have been offered grace when we all should have been judged
  4. Recognize we are not God.

Living in this space requires humility. It requires an openness to learn about others and from others. It requires letting go of black and white thinking. It requires considering a different perspective. It requires grace.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, gives us clues on how to do this:

 I plead with you to walk holy, in a way that is suitable to your high rank, given to you in your divine calling.  With tender humility and quiet patience, always demonstrate gentleness and generous love toward one another, especially toward those who may try your patience.  Be faithful to guard the sweet harmony of the Holy Spirit among you in the bonds of peace being one body and one spirit, as you were all called into the same glorious hope of divine destiny. For the Lord God is one, and so are we, for we share in one faith, one baptism, and one Father And He is the perfect Father who leads us all, works through us all, and lives in us all! And he has generously given each one of us supernatural grace, according to the size of the gift of Christ. (Eph. 4:1-7 TPT)

What if the message we began portraying to the world had less to do with conforming to the likeness of one another (i.e. worship this way, live this way, make these choices, sing these songs, exclude these people, accept these people, etc.) and instead portrayed the love of Jesus for one another, and every one else?

What if our social media feeds were filled with messages of God’s hope, love, encouragement and acceptance rather than all of the issues that divide us?

What if we began to celebrate the beautiful diversity portrayed by different cultures, ethnicities, denominations, faith practices etc. in the body of Christ rather than feel threatened by or superior to it?

What if we trusted God enough to lead us all, to work through us all, and to live in us all? (Eph. 4:6)

What if we trusted the Holy Spirit to work in all of us, giving us the desire and power to please God? (Ph 2:13)

What if we let go of our judgments and followed Jesus’ admonition to Peter: ...what is that to you? You must follow me? (Jn. 21:22)

What if we really followed Jesus who tells us by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (Jn. 13:35)

What if we made every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification? (Rm 14: 19)

What if?

–Luanne

As I ponder Luanne’s words about this week’s passage from the book of Romans, I am once again confused about how this book has been represented by so many different people. Truly. Paul is wordy, yes. And when we look at individual verses, I do understand how things have been misconstrued and misinterpreted over time. But I keep thinking to myself as we read and study, He’s saying the same thing… Over and over, in so many different ways, so that we don’t miss it: Jesus. Grace. Transformation. Unity. Love. Love. Love.

And yet…

Instead of landing there–where I truly believe Paul intended his readers to land–we end up skipping whole sections and pulling words out of context–and completely missing the point.

This week’s passage is one I haven’t often heard preached on in its entirety. Certain verses from this chapter are often pulled out, but I’ve rarely heard it preached in context. I am grateful Pastor John took on the whole chunk, knowing it may be difficult for us to digest. It is challenging because it puts us in our place as the created ones. Paul reminds us that we are not God. We are not in charge of who’s in and who’s out and what’s required to remain in good standing. We don’t love that, do we? We want grace for ourselves–but do we want the same grace for others? Paul simply cannot imagine not extending the grace we ourselves have received to the world around us. So he exhorts us all to live and love as we have been loved. His letters let us know that he can’t imagine living any other way than in the way of Christ, the one who totally transformed his life. It’s almost like he’s saying, “Friends!!! Do you see how loved we are by God? How accepted, embraced, and wanted we are?? It’s AMAZING! Wouldn’t all of life and all of our relationships be so much better if we just treated each other the way God treats us? Let’s do that!”

I’m aware that I took a lot of liberties with that short paraphrase of Paul’s thousands of words. But I really do think that’s his point–especially in this chapter of Romans. Let’s revisit a couple of the verses Luanne included, as a reminder of Paul’s actual words:

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently. . . Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.

(Romans 14:1, 4, MSG)

The way that Eugene Peterson paraphrased verse 4, the highlighted portion above, makes it pretty clear, doesn’t it? God is the one who invites. God is the one who welcomes. God is the one who corrects and teaches. God doesn’t need our help to be God.

These words are a reminder that we don’t know it all. If we embrace that truth, it will keep us humble and seeking. There is an ignorance that is desirable to attain. I know that sounds odd–who wants to be called ignorant? Stay with me here, though…

In her latest book, Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, professor, author, and theologian, summarizes some words from 15th century saint, Nicholas of Cusa:

“There are at least three kinds of ignorance that show up in those who seek God, he says.

First, there are those who do not know that they do not know. They think they know everything they need to know about God.

Then there are those who know that they do not know but who think they ought to know. They know that they don’t know everything about God, but they’re still trying to remedy that.

Finally, there are those who know that they do not know and who receive this learned ignorance as God’s own gift. It relieves them from the terrible burden of thinking they have to know everything God knows. It frees them to live in a state of perpetual wonder. It saves them from ruling out new life for themselves and those they love on the grounds that they know how things work and life like that isn’t possible. This is very high-level ignorance, Nicholas says. Those who accept it do not know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but they can live with that because they trust that God does.”

Taylor goes on to write, “We are the people who don’t know how things work but who trust that God does, whose high-level ignorance frees us to live in unusual ways and say unusual things… What will that look like? How does it work? Who will be there and who will not? Hear the good news: we do not know–and we can live with that, because we trust God does.” (Always a Guest, pg. 182-183)

I love the idea that “learned ignorance” frees us “to live in a state of perpetual wonder.” I also want to live into a trust that accepts that there are just some things I don’t know. What a beautiful space to exist within… the Knowing of God…

Pastor John told us on Sunday that there are 88 different churches here in Casper, Wyoming. He reminded us that some congregations worship in charismatic ways, while others lean into liturgy, and he mentioned that there are things in every denomination that are unique to them, things that don’t always make sense to others. Each church does things a little differently, just as every family functions in their own way. He reminded us that this expansive tree with all kinds of diverse branches has one source–Jesus. Any time branches are mentioned, I automatically find myself in the gorgeous landscape of John 15. Sunday was no exception. Let’s remind ourselves what Jesus said about what matters most:

“I am a true sprouting vine, and the farmer who tends the vine is my Father. He cares for the branches connected to me by lifting and propping up the fruitless branches and pruning every fruitful branch to yield a greater harvest. The words I have spoken over you have already cleansed you. So you must remain in life-union with me, for I remain in life-union with you. For as a branch severed from the vine will not bear fruit, so your life will be fruitless unless you live your life intimately joined to mine. 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.” (John 15:1-5, TPT)

Jesus makes it abundantly clear here that fruitful living is not achieved by getting our theology just right, adhering to this rule or that, or by looking at all the other branches around us and judging how we measure up. He says nothing about tending to or criticizing other branches, either. Fruitful, abundant-life living is achieved one way: by living connected to our Source, the vine that is Jesus himself. We don’t grow ourselves. We don’t tend or prune ourselves, we don’t even clean ourselves up. Our streams of fruitfulness do not depend on our own efforts, or on our perfect understanding of theological principles. Getting it right is not part of the equation–because there is no equation. Jesus doesn’t give us a formula for understanding the kingdom, he invites us into a family, knowing that all of us together will more fully represent the God who made us all so beautifully diverse as unique expressions of the vastness and wonder of all that he is.

Isn’t that what Paul has been getting at in this letter?

Make every effort to… Love others… offer (and receive) grace… Model Christ…

Pastor John asked us on Sunday, “Can we extend grace to what we don’t understand?”

We can’t figure it all out, friends. There is no black and white list of how to worship God perfectly, how to live perfectly, how to explain the mysteries of God succinctly and rightly. Our God is much too big for the boxes we want to house him in, too expansive to fit into one worship style, too magnificently brilliant to be limited to one right way of thinking.

Isn’t that a relief?

If we had to have an explanation for every grand idea of God; if we had to be able to explain scientifically every miracle that Jesus performed on earth or be able to give bullet points on how exactly a dead body is resurrected in order to be counted faithful, we’d all be doomed, right? I would! I can’t begin to understand–much less explain–the mysteries of God. And I am so glad I can’t. It keeps me where I need to be… a branch dependent on the Vine, very aware that I am not God and I don’t have to know. As I experience Jesus in the ways he reveals himself to me, the way I worship, pray, and live changes. It will never look exactly like the way someone else chooses to worship, because we each get to have our own beautiful relationships with God and we express ourselves differently. I love that. We can absolutely learn from each other as we all grow–being willing to listen and learn something new is completely different from judging our differences.

Luanne asked us a series of questions at the end of her portion, including this one:

What if the message we began portraying to the world had less to do with conforming to the likeness of one another (i.e. worship this way, live this way, make these choices, sing these songs, exclude these people, accept these people, etc.) and instead portrayed the love of Jesus for one another, and everyone else in the world?

She also wrote, Conformity into the likeness of one another is not the goal. Being transformed into the image of Christ through our personal relationship with him, and loving others as we’ve been loved is the goal.”

The message is consistent, friends. Throughout scripture, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and–we hope–here in this blog: It’s all about love.

–Laura

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 13

The last time we wrote, we discussed Romans 11, which ends with this beautiful doxology:

Who could ever wrap their minds around the riches of God, the depth of his wisdom, and the marvel of his perfect knowledge? Who could ever explain the wonder of his decisions or search out the mysterious way he carries out his plans? For who has discovered how the Lord thinks or is wise enough to be the one to advise him in his plans? Or: “Who has ever first given something to God that obligates God to owe him something in return?” And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen! (Romans 11:33-36 TPT)

We discussed the mystery of God, and explored the grace and love that reveal his heart toward us:

 “Just as God’s grace is born out of who he is–Love itself–so our grace is born out of us also embodying the love of God toward one another. We aren’t the manufacturers of grace, nor does love have its origin in humanity-thank God. We are vessels that carry and outshine God’s love and grace that we have encountered.

We landed on the truth that real love and real grace look like Jesus.

Then we took last week off, but because Romans is one continuous letter, I don’t want to move onto this week’s material without connecting what we studied last week.

What we call chapter 11 ended here: And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen!

The very next words Paul writes, the beginning of chapter 12, are:

Beloved friends, what should be our proper response to God’s marvelous mercies? I encourage you to surrender yourselves to God to be his sacred, living sacrifices. And live in holiness, experiencing all that delights his heart. For this becomes your genuine expression of worship. (Romans 12:1-2, TPT)

From here, Paul encourages the body of the Church–one whole made up of many parts–to embrace and honor their individual gifts and use them to keep the body functioning well. As Pastor Aaron preached about, there is a call for all members of the body to work together in harmony (vs. 3-8). Then Paul gives us a list of what our relationships with all people ought to look like when we’re functioning as a healthy body under the leadership of Christ. I am going to include the full list here, and I’m using the Message paraphrase, because it invites us to think differently about verses that might be fairly familiar to us:

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle. Don’t burn out; keep yourselves fueled and aflame. Be alert servants of the Master, cheerfully expectant. Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder. Help needy Christians; be inventive in hospitality. Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.” Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good. (vs. 9-21, emphasis mine)

I included so much of chapter 12 because it is so, so, so important that we keep this letter in context as we move into another set of verses that have been widely misused and taken out of context. We have discussed the importance of remembering that Romans is one continuous letter in nearly every post we’ve written during this series. We don’t mean to be redundant. There is a reason we keep bringing it up. It is because a few verses, pulled away from their original context, can be used to do so much harm. We have seen this throughout history. Scripture has been used to justify slavery, patriarchy, sexism, racism, militarism, nationalism–even genocide. None of those represent the heart of God. None of those were facets of Jesus’ character as he walked the earth revealing God to humanity. So we have to be so careful that we don’t misuse the scriptures that are meant to lead us deeper into God to keep others away from experiencing his love–which is often the disastrous result of taking scripture out of context.

Pastor John opened his message on Sunday by telling us about his trust in and respect for scripture. He added that what he doesn’t so easily trust are many interpretations of scripture. He referred to others’ interpretations and also discussed the way we each interpret what we read through our own understanding. I agree with him on both fronts. As individuals, we must be discerning and committed to listening well to the voice of the Spirit over other voices that want to tell us how to think about a particular verse or passage. We also must remember that our own limited understanding is not a reliable source of interpretation–especially when we consider passages that have been widely misunderstood–and even used to cause harm–for centuries. I am reminded of the exhortation found in Proverbs:

Place your trust in the Eternal; rely on Him completely; never depend upon your own ideas and inventions.
Give Him the credit for everything you accomplish, and He will smooth out and straighten the road that lies ahead. And don’t think you can decide on your own what is right and what is wrong…
(Proverbs 3:5-7a, Voice)

A more familiar translation of these verses says, “Lean not on your own understanding.” When we look at Romans 13, it is important that we don’t lean on our own understanding. Our understanding is informed by our own context–where we live, our culture and upbringing, our political beliefs, family structures, and life experiences. I hope that as we continue to learn and explore difficult passages, we will each grow in our ability to recognize these things in ourselves, and how they inform our opinions and understanding of what we read.

The first seven verses in Romans 13 address how we as followers of Jesus are to relate to “governing authorities.” I looked into the original meaning of the words Paul used in these verses, and while I don’t have time to go into all that I found, I will say this: I don’t think these verses mean what we think they mean… I have already written a lot of words and don’t have the time to go into a full discussion about what I discovered, but I will say this–the word translated “authorities” in our scriptures is defined by Strong’s concordance in four main ways. The last definition Strong’s gives is the only one that has any inkling of government-like authority. The other definitions relate “governing authorities” to an idea much more like a “higher power.” Interestingly, submission to the guidance of a higher power is much more in line with what Paul outlined as the way for followers of Jesus to live in the previous two chapters than a hard turn into political discourse and government leaders would be.

We have to remember, again, that Paul was a skilled lawyer, and he was writing to people living under Roman rule–the most powerful government in the world at that time. Of course he would write in terms that made sense to them. But if we’ve learned anything at all about Paul, it is that there’s always more than meets the eye in his writing. We have to be willing to dig deeper to uncover what he’s really getting at, and doing so means stepping away from the way we’ve always understood some of these verses, and making sure that our conclusions do not stand in opposition to the character of God revealed in Jesus. We absolutely cannot use the voice of Paul to silence the voice of Christ, which we have discussed so many times here.

Pastor John asserted that this is not a political passage. I agree wholeheartedly, though it has been, and continues to be, widely used as such. After these first seven verses, Paul makes his way back to familiar territory that connects the whole thought to the rest of the letter. He writes things like:

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except your outstanding debt to continually love one another, for the one who learns to love has fulfilled every requirement of the law. (13:8, TPT)

And he finishes out this passage with the exhortation to, “. . . clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.” (13:14)

Again, this letter was not originally broken up into chapters and verses, so I thought I’d peek ahead at the first verse of what we call chapter 14. It says: “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do.” Then Paul goes on to talk more about how we relate to one another–it’s all about living as imitators of Jesus in relationship to others. The same thing Paul has been writing about since the opening lines of this letter. Considering the themes that are clearly threaded throughout the entire manuscript, wouldn’t it be odd for Paul to depart from those ideas for seven short verses to address the actual (and often unjust and oppressive) government they were living under? I think that would be odd. And I will continue to dig in and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal truth to me about what these words really mean, because I know my own understanding is limited, and I don’t want to remain in that place. I hope you’ll do the same as we continue this journey of discovery together.

–Laura

I’m so glad that Laura revisited Chapter 12 and reminded us again that what we call “the book of Romans” is actually a letter that is not separated into chapters and verses. Chapters and verses help us with our “study” of scripture, but can also be a detriment because we have a tendency to come to chapters or subheadings and assume that the context of that section stands alone. It doesn’t.

Pastor John reminded us that we have a tendency to center ourselves or our culture when we read scripture, bending the interpretation to fit our reality and our desires. This type of understanding can lead to scriptural justification of abuse and oppression which, as Laura mentioned, is never the intent of God’s heart. Romans 13:1-5 is that type of passage and has been used by oppressors and those wanting to align with earthly power to excuse poor authoritarian behavior and abuses of power in order to further their own agendas .

So, what do these verses say?

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.  For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

As a stand alone passage that seems really clear. But, following Laura’s example, let’s back up to the end of chapter 12…

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
    if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good...

And then chapter 13… Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities,… or as the King James translates that verse: Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

The word “higher” can also be translated “better, excellent, supreme…”

And get this...”powers” in this verse is the Greek word “exousia” which can also be translated:“authority, right, liberty, jurisdiction, strength”, and refers to both physical and mental strength.

Start putting some of those words together and then think about what Paul has been writing about in his letter up to this point. In a nutshell, he keeps coming back over and over to God’s love, God’s grace, God’s gift of relationship through Jesus, our relationships with one another as a result of believing and receiving the gift of grace from God, and the reminder that we no longer live according to “the law”. To borrow from the definitions above, we live under the higher power, the supreme jurisdiction, the excellent liberty, to love our neighbor well, to choose peace over violence, to live the Jesus way.

In chapter 12, Paul who is in prison for preaching that Jesus is Lord (and not the Jewish Law or Caesar) reminded the Roman Christians not to take revenge, not to be overcome by evil, but to treat people, including enemies, with respect.

So, what should we make of Paul’s words about doing what is right, not rebelling against authority, etc.?

In every society, there is a civil law that helps communities function well, and there are authorities in place to enforce civil law. To obey civil law is wise. Not to obey civil law leads to trouble. Think about what it feels like to be speeding and all of a sudden pass an exit with a state trooper on the entrance ramp. Uh oh! Dread. Civil law has been broken, and the civil authority has the right to enforce that law. We pray those with civil authority will use it responsibly to serve and protect, not harm and abuse. God, all the way back in the establishment of the nation of Israel, set forth the 10 Commandments which could be seen as civil law; however, if we look carefully at the commandments, they are a very practical way of demonstrating what it looks like to love God–heart, soul, mind, and strength- and love our neighbors as we love ourselves. AND, in doing that, if the excellent liberty we have found in Christ comes into opposition with worldly authority, we go with the higher jurisdiction of the kingdom of heaven and accept the consequences that come.

Daniel, in the Old Testament, was not going to pray to Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel didn’t create a big scene, he just continued to pray to God. Daniel got arrested and thrown in the lion’s den. He made himself subject to the consequences imposed by the ruling civil authorities without bowing to their misguided attempts to control and/or obliterate his worship of God.

One of the most beautiful examples of choosing God’s way over the world’s way is the encounter of Jesus and his disciples in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest. Jesus, in his life and ministry reminded people to give to Caesar what belonged to Caesar and to God what was God’s (Mt. 22)–he was respecting civil authority, yet he did not submit to the oppressive authoritarian religious structure of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, nor to the authoritarian structure of Roman law. Not surprisingly, Jesus’ obedience to God’s higher authority put him in conflict with the powers of the world. He loved the people who were inebriated by their power, and therefore spoke truth to them, which led to his arrest.

 In the garden commotion, Peter, in an effort to defend Jesus, pulled out his sword and injured a soldier. Jesus immediately instructed Peter to put away the sword and healed the soldier’s wound. Then, Jesus subjected himself to worldly authorities without violence, without using all the power he had at his disposal as almighty God in human flesh, he did no harm to others for the sake of his own agenda. When Jesus was being questioned by Pilate, he respectfully spoke truth. Pilate was moved by Jesus and wanted to let him go, but instead he followed the wishes of the violent mob and power structures of the day and sentenced Jesus to crucifixion. Then, as Jesus hung on the cross and asked God to forgive those who’ve done this to him–a Roman Centurion experienced the higher power of God’s love and exclaimed “This man truly was the son of God”. (Mt. 27:54) God’s higher way leads people to him.

So, let’s go back to imprisoned Paul who has told us not to seek revenge, to overcome evil with good, to obey civil law, and see what he says after these first five verses of Chapter 13…

In verses 6-7 he encourages the church to pay taxes, and not be in debt except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (13:8) That’s the heart of the message of Christ that Paul preaches.

In verses 9 and 10, Paul reminds us that whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law…and the chapter finishes with a reminder to clothe [ourselves] with the Lord Jesus Christ.

So can we take Paul’s first five verses and use them to abuse people and power? Yes. But why would we when we know the ways of Christ?

Jesus told Pilate: “The royal power of my kingdom realm doesn’t come from this world. If it did, then my followers would be fighting to the end to defend me from the Jewish leaders. My kingdom realm authority is not from this realm.” (John 18:36 TPT) Jesus’ realm, his supreme jurisdiction, leads to a more excellent liberty, and a more beautiful world.

As Laura reminded us above, let’s not lean on our own understanding. Instead, let’s choose to be citizens of the kingdom realm of Jesus, clothing ourselves in him, laying down our arms and loving others as he has loved us–against such things there is no law.

–Luanne

Proverbs 3:5 – Breathing

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

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: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

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.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

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You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

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. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

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.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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You’ve Heard it Said…

We are in the fourth week of our Sermon on the Mount series. As a quick recap, Jesus began with the beatitudes–how his followers are to “be”, then he said we are to be salt and light in the world, which will happen organically if we are “beatitude” people, then he taught that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to complete them, to help us understand their original intent.  This week, we look at one of those laws and the first of Jesus’ statements “you have heard it said…but I say…”

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. 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. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5:17-20)

You have heard it said ‘you shall not murder’–it’s one of the 10 Commandments. I imagine we’re all familiar with those words. I imagine there are very few of us who have committed murder so we can feel pretty good about ourselves as far as that commandment goes. Right?

Well, not so fast. Jesus hops right over murder and addresses the heart-the issue of anger that happens before we escalate to murderous rage. Murder is an outward action. Anger is an inward emotion. 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.

If you recall, the first murder that took place in the Bible is recorded in Genesis chapter 4 and was an older brother killing his younger brother. Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, was very angry (v. 5) because God accepted his brother Abel’s sacrifice, but not his. God, in His mercy, came to Cain and said:  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (v. 6-7).   

Cain did not rule over his anger, instead, he allowed it to rule over him, to burn in him until he killed his brother. His consequence–his judgment, for killing his brother was separation– he was driven from his land, lost his home, and lived in fear that he would be killed. The Lord didn’t remove all of Cain’s consequences, but he did place a mark on him that would protect him from being killed (v.15).

Did Cain deserve the protective mark? Not according to the Levitical law that came a few centuries later. By the code of Levitical law, a murderer was to be stoned (Lev. 24:17). Stoning is the consequence that those listening to Jesus would have been familiar with and would have thought of as just punishment for such a heinous act.

So Jesus, in addressing murder, ups the ante.  He addresses anger and says “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  Subject to judgment? That makes sense in terms of murder, but for being angry? What does that even mean?

Get this… the Greek word for judgment is krisis. If that reminds you of the English word crisis you are exactly right, and according to vocabulary.com The noun crisis comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” At such a moment, the person with the disease could get better or worse: it’s a critical moment…

So, anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to crisis, to a turning point, a critical moment that could get better or worse. 

I understand that. I’ve not ever been angry enough that I wanted to kill another person, but I’ve certainly been angry enough to be in crisis mode, emotional turmoil, and dishonoring toward another human being with my thoughts and words. It never leads anywhere good. There have been other times in the critical moment, I have taken a deep breath, valued the relationship and handled myself in a much calmer manner, seeking a solution and reconciliation. Our response to anger, the critical turning point in how we’ll handle ourselves, is our judge.

Anger is a God-given emotion. Some things are truly worth being angry about, but we’ve got to be careful with our hearts. Jesus is addressing the heart matter, the crisis moment, the turning point.

Jesus’ brother James, one of the early church leaders, offers wise words for how we are to comport ourselves: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness (justice) that God desires. (Jms 1:19-20)

The Apostle Paul advised,  In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph. 4:26-27)

Paul also wrote:  …rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:8 & 12-14)

Jesus constantly points to valuing people and relationships. He sternly warns against demeaning others with our words. He encourages us to settle disputes before having to get the judicial system involved.  He encourages us to reconcile with others before we bring our gifts, our worship to the altar of God so that we are rightly related with others and therefore, rightly related with God. Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.

Jesus’ order of topics in the Sermon on the Mount was not happenstance. He talks about anger right after teaching the beatitudes and letting us know we are to be salt and light in the world. I think it would behoove all of us, myself included, to reflect and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our heart attitudes toward others. Have we demeaned others, or supported others who are demeaning in their treatment of people? Have we been divisive? What do our social media accounts look like? Our political posts? Our Covid19 posts? Our humor? Proverbs 18:21 tells us the tongue has the power of life and death. Jesus taught us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45). Are our words murderous? Do we ingest the murderous words of others and allow those to taint our hearts?

Have we been righteously angry about the right things such as gross, sometimes murderous injustice against image-bearers of God–many times because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their station in life? Even in our godly, righteous anger would our posts, our words be defined as wise? As loving? As peacemaking? Do they represent the salt and light, the principles of the Kingdom of God, or do they goad?

Let’s reflect once more on the heart attitude, the “be” attitude Jesus desires in his followers. He desires followers who are humble and totally dependent upon God, who mourn (feel deeply), who are gentle and kind (meek), who hunger and thirst for right relationships and equity, God’s kind of relationships among all humankind with each other and with God. He desires followers who are merciful, who are pure in heart and can see God’s presence in others and in the world, followers who strive to make peace, those who live so counter-culturally that they are persecuted, lied about and insulted for being like Jesus, (which is exactly what Jesus experienced at the hands of an angry group of powerful people who stirred up an angry mob).

Can we be like the beatitudes in our own strength? No. But we have the Holy Spirit within us and can pray, like Paul prayed for the Ephesians: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (3:16) 

Anger flows from the heart. If left unchecked it leads to crisis, broken relationships, the demeaning and blaspheming of the image of God in others, superiority attitudes, separation, condemnation, condescension, division, violence, abuse and murder.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…

…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…

So, search (us), God, and know (our) hearts; test (us) and know (our) anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in (us) and lead (us) in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139: 23:24)

Create in (us) a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within (us). (Ps 51:10)

Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life. (Prv. 4:23)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:8)

–Luanne

As difficult as this week’s passage is, I have been eager to get to it. Everything Jesus speaks in the sermon on the mount is revolutionary, but this section that we are getting  into is one that has been transforming the way I see, believe, and walk out my faith for a few years now.
Sometimes people say–and I’m pretty sure we’ve written similar things in this blog more than once–that Jesus condensed all of the Law into two commandments that really are one. Love. Period. In Matthew 22, when a Pharisee quizzes Jesus about which commandment is most important,
 Jesus answered him, “‘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.’ This is the great and supreme commandment. And the second is like it in importance: ‘You must love your friend in the same way you love yourself.’  (vs. 37-39, TPT)
Sometimes when this is brought up, people call it watered-down, negligent of the whole Law, too grace-based. The argument is that saying Jesus is all about love lets people off the hook to do whatever they want, that it’s a bit of a loosey-goosey, free-for-all theology. Jesus would disagree. He completes the above statements with these words:
Contained within these commandments to love you will find all the meaning of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:40, emphasis mine)

“All of the Law and the Prophets” are contained in Jesus’ commandments to love God with our whole hearts and to love others in the same way. That’s a pretty big deal.

You might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound at all like this week’s passage…” 

And it doesn’t–at least not on the surface. What we are looking at this week lays the groundwork for what Jesus will say later. If Jesus had made his Matthew 22 statements prior to his lengthy explanations in the sermon on the mount, I can’t imagine the riot it could have caused. He had to move slowly into this space, to meet the people where they were, so that they could see the truth:

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.

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“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.”

The Law’s intention from the beginning was to form God’s people in the way of love, as we discussed at length last week. But that’s not how it was being used, and Jesus wasn’t about to stay quiet about it. A little later in Matthew, we come across these words,

“Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.”

(Matthew 23:1-3, MSG, emphasis mine)

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say…,” he is reorienting the hearts of his listeners to the why behind the Law. Each of the Ten Commandments was designed to form the people in the kingdom ways of loving God and loving neighbor. But those in attendance had no idea. They were living in a generation that had been totally overtaken by those in positions of power and privilege, and they didn’t know the heart of God. They knew the list of what they could and couldn’t do, and they were doing the best they could with the skin-deep theology they were taught.

No wonder they were hungry for the bread of life…

They had ingested the “wisdom” of their teachers and, while it may have kept them from breaking the law, it also left them starving for the God those laws were meant to keep them connected to. The wisdom of their teachers wasn’t wisdom at all. According to James,

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

(James 3:17-18, MSG, emphasis mine)

Treating each other with dignity and honor…

Luanne wrote,

“Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.” 

This matters deeply to Jesus. So he takes the law and seemingly makes it even harder to follow. And it is–if we’re not being formed in the way of Love.

My morning reading yesterday included Psalm 139. Luanne included a bit of it above. As I read it slowly, the spirit spoke deeply to my heart, connecting it to Sunday’s message. I’ve included the whole Psalm below. I encourage you to read it slowly, and ask Jesus to be your guide as you read this. Last week, at a prayer school that was put on by pastor and author Brian Zahnd, we were encouraged to “…go into the Hebrew Scriptures escorted by our Messiah.  Let Jesus teach us. He’s our (as we are Gentiles) Jewish sponsor…” Reading Old Testament passages with Pastor Brian’s exhortation in mind has made a difference in how I see. I hope you can read the words below in this way, with Jesus as your guide and the lens through which you see.

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me. You perceive every movement of my heart and soul, and you understand my every thought before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord. You read my heart like an open book and you know all the words I’m about to speak before I even start a sentence! You know every step I will take before my journey even begins. You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way, and in kindness you follow behind me to spare me from the harm of my past. With your hand of love upon my life, you impart a blessing to me. This is just too wonderful, deep, and incomprehensible! Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face? If I go up to heaven, you’re there! If I go down to the realm of the dead, you’re there too! If I fly with wings into the shining dawn, you’re there! If I fly into the radiant sunset, you’re there waiting! Wherever I go, your hand will guide me; your strength will empower me. It’s impossible to disappear from you or to ask the darkness to hide me, for your presence is everywhere, bringing light into my night. There is no such thing as darkness with you. The night, to you, is as bright as the day; there’s no difference between the two. You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvelously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord! You even formed every bone in my body when you created me in the secret place, carefully, skillfully shaping me from nothing to something. You saw who you created me to be before I became me! Before I’d ever seen the light of day, the number of days you planned for me were already recorded in your book. Every single moment you are thinking of me! How precious and wonderful to consider that you cherish me constantly in your every thought! O God, your desires toward me are more than the grains of sand on every shore! When I awake each morning, you’re still with me. 

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139, TPT)

I want to share with you a few things that spoke to me as I read these beautiful words, but I don’t want to say too much or linger too long. I hope each of us will sit with these words and invite Jesus to speak through them, to shed light on what it means that he came to show us the way of Love, and to help us understand why he had to clarify that what we have heard said may not capture the whole picture.

The psalmist writes these words,

You read my heart like an open book. . . Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face?. . . How thoroughly you know me, Lord!

He reads our hearts. Not our outward behavior, but the attitude of our hearts. There’s nowhere we can hide from his constant gaze. This understanding brought the psalmist wonder and strength. Why? Because there’s nowhere to hide from a love like that. We are thoroughly known and seen… and loved. Jesus wants his listeners in our passage this week to get this deep into their bones. God knows the hearts of each one–their teachers included. What they had heard said might have been correct on the surface, but we don’t follow a shallow God, and his love grows from the depths outward–not the other way around. The people didn’t know the truth until the Truth came to walk alongside them. The only way he could exhort them later on to live according to the greatest commandment of love was to first reveal that love through himself.

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

When I read this part of the Psalm yesterday, I wept. Because as I read it with Jesus as my guide, it changed into this…

God, come and slay the bloodthirsty, murderous ways that live within me… Rid me of the parts of me that don’t line up with your way of love. I cry out, ‘Depart from my mind, my heart, and my words, you wicked thoughts, criticisms, judgements, comparisons–all you do is blaspheme the image of God in my brothers and sisters. You lift yourselves up against the wisdom of God that is peace-seeking, kind, patient, and gracious, and all you care about is being right. But you can’t out-right the Holy One.’ Lord, I despise the ways in me that despise your command to love first. I hate that my love can grow cold in the valley of selfishness, arrogance, and pride. When I see how far I’ve moved away from your heart, I grieve, and sorrow carries me into wells of my own tears. I am disgusted by the image of me that parades around my soul as your ally, your counterpart. That part of me knows not your humility and is an enemy of your image alive in me. Your enemies are my enemies, and they are out to devour my soul. I am at war within myself–the parts of me that attempt to deceive me into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil fighting with the presence of your Spirit in me that invites me to dine at a table set under the tree of life, in the presence of the enemies that live within… 

While all of that is true, I need not fear. For he is with me. He’s the one who prepares the table in the dark corners of my soul, in the presence of the pieces of me that aren’t yet fully formed in his image. And he invites these parts of me, these “enemies” to bear witness to the disciple in me as I sit and dine with the one who leads and guides me. As the enemies within behold the feast, they come to know that they are also invited to come sit and be formed in the presence of Love.

The psalm ends with these beautiful words:

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.

See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on–anywhere in me that came upon a crisis and chose wrongly and has ended up in the valley of the shadow of death, on the winding road away from love–and lead me back to your ways.

Jesus’ way calls us to live in a whole different dimension while remaining present where we are. That’s what living in the kingdom is all about.

We have heard many things said… But what does Jesus say? May we listen well to the author of life as he leads us beneath the surface and into the real.

–Laura

Psalms 139:23 God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart ...