Like Never Before: Hope

What comes to mind when you think of the word “hope”? When you use the word in a phrase, what types of phrases come out of your mouth? Do you say/think things like “I don’t want to get my hopes up”–or “I hope that ___________ happens”, or “I was hoping for ___________”?  Do most of your thoughts around hope have to do with your own desires? Could words like “wish” or “longing” be substituted for “hope” in some of your sentences?  Do we really know what hope means, especially in the Biblical sense?

Let’s explore hope as we continue our journey through the book of Mark in our Like Never Before series. In this passage we find Jesus teaching by the lake with large crowds still seeking him out. Mark 2:14 tells us “As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.”

That one verse is packed with implication. Verse 13 let us know that there were crowds following Jesus, but he saw Levi and singled him out. Levi–whose father’s name was Alphaeus. Levi–a Hebrew name, the name of one of the 12 tribes of Israel–the priestly tribe; the tribe set apart for ministry in the temple, the tribe that did not receive their own inheritance of land but who were sustained by the offerings of the other tribes. The tribe set apart for God’s holy purpose. Levi. When Alphaeus gave him that name, I wonder what his dreams for his son were? I don’t imagine those dreams included being in cahoots with Roman power and ripping off his own people. How did Levi come to be a tax collector? We don’t know. What we do know, is that in order to be a tax collector, he was willing to take advantage of others in order to be financially well off. Tax collectors, as we will learn in a few verses, were not well thought of. They were thieves, extortionists, receivers of bribes, etc. They could charge what they wanted by whatever means they chose. They could make up false charges and blackmail people. They could charge double or triple what the Roman government required and pocket the overage.

Again, I don’t know how Levi came to be a tax collector, but would assume that greed had to be part of it. It’s interesting to think that he was in cahoots with Rome, but had no actual power. He was still at the mercy of Roman soldiers and Roman authority. Had he sold his soul for money and the perception of power? Did he feel trapped by his choices? We don’t know, but we do know that it didn’t satisfy the deep longings of his heart.

Jesus “told” him, follow me. And Levi got up, left his booth, and followed.  Levi’s Greek name is Matthew and he became one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. He left money and comfort to follow Jesus. The call of Jesus was more compelling than anything material wealth could offer-and Levi knew it the moment Jesus singled him out.

Levi, who already sensed that nothing in his life would ever be the same,  invited Jesus and his followers to have dinner in his home. In addition to Jesus, Levi invited his group of friends to dine with them as well. I love this. He met Jesus, and knew immediately that he wanted all of his friends to meet him as well.

As we’ve already seen in the book of Mark, the teachers of the law were never too far away from Jesus, and certainly didn’t approve of the way Jesus did things. However, they did not confront Jesus directly at this point, so they tried to sow seeds of doubt in the minds of his disciples by asking, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (v. 16)

But–just like he did when he knew their thoughts in the home where the paralytic man was dropped through the ceiling–Jesus responded to them, and what he said was, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (v. 17)

Tax collectors and sinners. In the minds of the religious elite, tax collectors and sinners were in the same category as lepers. They were outcasts.  They were hopeless. They had messed up their lives by making bad choices, they had excluded themselves from the promises of God, from the religious community, and there was no forgiveness available to them in that system.

This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.

Jesus, when he responded to the Pharisees and used the word call was being very intentional–and I love this about him. The word call means to invite. It can also mean to name, to give a name to…

I have not come to invite the righteous, but sinners.

 “I have not come to name the righteous, but sinners.” 

“I have not come to give a name to the righteous, but sinners.

He is telling the religious leaders, and I believe giving them an invitation as well, saying I am here to invite those who know that they are hopeless, who know they fall short, to take my name, to be healed by my name, to walk with me and carry my name, to follow me, to trust me. The “sick”  know they have a need. They were hopeless, and now they have hope.

Jesus offers hope, becomes our hope by connecting himself to sinners and outcasts. It’s risky business. He offers hope in the form of an invitation–a call. It’s inclusive. Sometimes in the language of “christianese” we use the phrase, so and so has a call on his/her life.” as if that’s not true of all of us. He has called, he has invited, he has given us his name, and we get to be bearers of hope–not hope as a wish, but hope that is grounded in Jesus, that leans into Him and all that he offers. Hope that is inclusive toward all those who we might consider outcasts; who we might consider “sick”.

Returning to Levi’s father Alphaeus–Alphaeus means “change” or “exchange”.  Levi had exchanged the meaning and implications of his name by choosing to serve self instead of serving God. Jesus gave him the opportunity to change again–to find his purpose, his calling, his hope. We, too are offered this same invitation, an invitation of hope–but we must understand that:

Hope is not about the preservation of my life, but about the elevation of His. 

Hope is grounded in our confident relationship with Jesus. Hebrews 6 exhorts us to grow up in our faith, to move beyond immaturity which makes us susceptible to every fear, every doubt, every storm. Being mature in Jesus means that there is a confidence, a steadfastness in him–no matter what life throws at us. The chapter ends with verse 19 telling us that We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and steadfast. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus our forerunner has entered on our behalf. 

Our hope, in Him, is anchored in the inner sanctuary–the very presence of God. Our hope is in the presence of God. Ponder that thought for a moment.

Romans 15:13, one of my favorite verses of all time says: May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Hope. It comes from God. It can overflow in us by the Spirit’s power. As we trust God, we are filled with joy and peace, which gives us the ability to overflow with hope. Hope that His kingdom will come and His will will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Hope that he calls previously hopeless people like me to walk with him and become one that carries his inclusive message of hope to the world–like never before.

–Luanne

It seems Jesus was bent on staying “unclean” during his years of ministry. Seriously. A few weeks ago, we looked at his encounter with the leper and how touching that man moved Jesus into isolated places for the remainder of his time on earth. But that was only the beginning…

Eating with Levi (Matthew) and his group of sinful friends was considered unclean, too. Later, he would be touched by a woman whose issue with blood made her, and him by contact, unclean. He would touch the hands of a dead girl as he raised her to life. He would associate with prostitutes and Gentiles and a Samaritan woman–groups that would further tarnish him and his reputation as a devout Jew. One disreputable woman would anoint him with perfume, and wash his feet with her tears and her hair, as well as kiss his feet. Over and over and over again, Jesus chose to identify with the outsiders. And his invitation to them to come close to him was an invitation to those who disapproved to repent–to change their thinking–so they could come near to him, and to them, too.

In reference to this week’s story, Luanne wrote:

“This group of hopeless outcasts are the people that Jesus chose to dine with. The religious leaders were implying “you shouldn’t do that”, and Jesus was saying “this is what I do”.”

The religious leaders thought they had it figured out. We see throughout the gospels that even Jesus’ disciples, at times, had the same proclivity toward pride that separates “us” and “them”. When Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, his disciples were surprised because the Samaritans were “half-breeds”, second-class citizens. They didn’t question Jesus outright, but they certainly had questions. There were other times that they questioned his judgement, because they, like the religious leaders, had biases and precious prejudices that they weren’t aware needed to change. I include this as a reminder to myself and all of us to not read ourselves into the role of the outcasts that Jesus chose to dine with and forget that we often identify more with the role of the Pharisee.

See, the Pharisees had this idea that everyone else needed to look like them, the ones who were keeping the rules and doing the “right” thing. Later, in the account of the early church in the book of Acts, we see the apostles and church leaders struggling with the same thing, as they argued among themselves about what the requirements for new Gentile believers should be. How “Jewish” did they have to become to be included? There was an assumption made by some that the only acceptable way to come to Jesus was to become Jewish first, to look like them, and then they could come and be part of them.

The example of Jesus responds to these scenarios with an emphatic, “NO!” He says, essentially, through both his words and his actions, “You think THEY need to look like YOU. But  I want YOU and THEM to look like ME.”

And what did Jesus look like?

Well, the majority of his ministry, he looked unclean. Because there was no one he wouldn’t touch, or allow to touch him. No one so low they escaped his gaze. No one so high that he couldn’t reach them. No one he didn’t want to connect with.

To the leper, to the Samaritans, to the woman caught in adultery, to those who set up and accused her, to the high priests, to Roman officials, to little children and women, to traitors and tax collectors, to prostitutes, to Pharisees, to the demon-possessed and all in need of healing–including those who didn’t think they needed healing at all; to all of these, Jesus brought the hope of himself.

We hear that Jesus spent time engaging the sick, the hopeless, the least–and we have our own ideas about what that means, a picture of who those words describe. But let me ask you this–

Who is sicker? The one who recognizes the depth of their own need, or the one who denies having any need at all? The one whose heart is open and willing to be changed, or the one with a heart made of self-righteous, immovable stone? The one who knows every letter of the ancient scriptures and keeps the law perfectly, or the one who doesn’t know a single verse but soaks in the presence of this one they call Jesus?

I am not a theologian. I have no authority to decipher the original intent and meaning of the verses we study each week. What I know, and what I’m coming to know more and more as I grow in Jesus, is that he is good. And kind. And completely loving. And brilliant.

And he is all of these things for all of us all of the time. I don’t write a single word of this to make light of the impact of the stories we are studying. On the contrary, my heart has been so gripped by the unconditional love of Jesus that it compels me to read every story I thought I knew differently.

I want to identify with the ones Jesus hung out with and look at the Pharisees with arrogant eyes. But my growing understanding of the ways of Jesus won’t allow me to do that. Not only because I’ve more often been the Pharisee than the outcast, though that is probably very true, but because, as we continue to see, Jesus never did something for one group without there being application for all groups present. Luanne brought up a verse in recent weeks that I’m going to reference again here. In Matthew’s telling of this story, Jesus says this:

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13)

Jesus knew that the Pharisees regarded themselves as clean, whole, healthy, righteous. That they would hear the words “sick” and “sinner” and immediately think of others, definitely not themselves. So he gives them an opportunity to share in the hope that the “others” had already readily received. He gives them an invitation too, just like we saw him do when we studied the story of the paralytic–when he responded to their thoughts with an opportunity to change their minds. He brings up an ancient scripture (Hosea 6:6), one they had “learned”, one they certainly “knew”, and he says: Go and learn what this means… 

I imagine they were pretty offended. I bet they felt… Indignant? Defensive? Furious?

…The way we feel when we’re told we’re wrong about something we’ve “known” as truth?

I’m pretty sure they weren’t happy. I think it’s safe to make that assertion, because they continue to plot against him and slander his character to all who will listen.

But… 

Because we know the rest of the story, we know that many among the Pharisees and teachers of the law eventually did recognize their need, their “sickness” if you will, and not only followed him, but became leaders in the early church.

I love that so much. Jesus came to bring hope–to bring himself–to ALL. Some were more starving and ran to the feast he offered. Some couldn’t recognize their hunger pangs and were slower coming to the table. Some still haven’t come, and continue to mock the Hope-bringer. And he continues to go to them. And asks us who have tasted and seen the hope he offers to embody it and carry it to ALL the ones who need it. The “obvious” “sinners” don’t have the corner market on hopelessness–sometimes the most hopeless are sitting in church, completely unaware of our need to encounter the “God of all hope” who longs for all of us to “overflow with hope”.

May we ask ourselves hard questions, and give honest answers, about who we see as “sick”. May we think long and hard about whether we want to look like Jesus, live like Jesus, love like Jesus–because doing that his way will lead us to places we may not want to go… Sometimes, as the ones carrying hope to the sick… And sometimes as those receiving hope from those we consider “sick” and “sinful” because, often, they’re the first to respond to Jesus’ invitation–and we have much yet to learn.

–Laura

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Selah

“Let Me teach you something about what you think you know.”

There were many lines from Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday that stood out to me, but this one most of all. He was recapping the story of Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1 and commenting on the words Jesus said to these men. When he saw Simon (Peter) and Andrew fishing, Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17, NLT) In other words, “I know you fish for a living, but there’s more to learn about fishing. You know a lot about it—it’s your livelihood—but what you think you know only scratches the surface of what I can teach you.”

As Beau talked to us about this, I couldn’t help but think about another verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes these words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (NLT)

Paul understood that in everything, we are only seeing a partial picture. I think it’s pertinent to mention that this particular verse falls within the famous “love chapter” that is so often quoted at weddings. This verse, in which Paul admits his own incomplete understanding is directly followed by one thing that he is absolutely certain of—the enduring greatness of love above all other things. I believe that what we’ve been learning from Jesus in the book of Mark as we study what he said and did during his ministry absolutely confirms Paul’s assertion about the greatness of love. It also confirms how imperfect our vision is, and how much we need to be transformed by Jesus so that we can see the way he sees.

For the last six weeks, we’ve been traveling what, to many of us, is a very familiar road. These are the gospel “stories” that more than a few of us grew up hearing. Yet… we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. Pastor John has taken a small section of verses each of the last six weeks and taken us deeper into the familiar stories, stories we thought we knew. As we’ve listened to these messages, Jesus has shown up to teach us something new about what we thought we had figured out.

On Sunday, Pastor Beau brought us a “Selah” moment. A pause, if you will. His intention was to slow down and recap what we’ve been learning, to combine the individual images that have been painted for us over the last six weeks into one big picture that connects them all. He reminded us of what we’ve been learning, reiterated the main points, and offered us a bit of his own thoughts and perspective.

You know what happened during this “Selah” message?

Jesus showed up to teach me something more about things I thought I knew.

Through Beau’s teaching and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heart was filled with new insight, and I learned new things even as we recapped the new things we’ve learned these last weeks. There were still things we had missed, more to learn from Jesus in depths we thought we’d fully plumbed. How was there still more?

Because Jesus is brilliant, as Beau said on Sunday. In fact, Beau commented that the word “brilliant” doesn’t come close to defining Jesus—he said the only word that really describes Jesus is, well, “Jesus”. Brilliant only scratches the surface. Which is why, friends, it’s so important that we slow down and let him teach us. When have I last checked what’s in my suitcase as I walk out my journey of faith? Do I even know what I’m carrying? Do you know what you’re carrying? Have we packed in our bags rules we learned in Sunday School? Maybe our parents’ faith is in there. Are our bags full of “righteous anger” and judgement? Did love of neighbor ever make it in? How about love? Compassion? Forgiveness? Are we carrying fear and shame in our bags because we were taught that we would only ever be “unclean”, like the leper in our story from a couple of weeks ago? What have we packed? I think somewhere in each of our bags is some form of the belief that we know the “truth” and that our way of believing is “right”. We walk through life believing that there are some things we pretty much have figured out.

Jesus is speaking to each of us, just like he spoke to his first disciples, “Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Paul understood that until the day his finite human body crossed into the eternal, he would only ever see imperfectly. He knew a whole lot about a whole of things. But he remained teachable—fully dependent on the only One whose teaching had ever transformed his soul. We have the same opportunity. But it requires from us a willingness to admit that maybe we’ve packed some things in our bag that don’t belong there and omitted some necessities along the way. And it means acknowledging that we can not possibly expect to get it all right and have it all figured out while we walk the earth in our finite bodies. Not because we are defective or lacking some essential part of our make-up. But because we are disciples of One whose brilliance we cannot contain within any man-made boxes, One whose thoughts and ways are beyond what our limited humanity can fathom. This should not make us feel sad, frustrated, or disappointed. On the contrary, this knowledge can lead us into freedom, delight, and childlike expectation as we continue to be enlightened and enchanted by this Teacher whom we follow.

Sometimes our pride, our desire to be right and respected as wise gets in the way… Sometimes, we’re not content to introduce others to our brilliant Teacher so that they can follow Him alongside us… because what we actually want is for them to follow us. The more followers we have, the bigger our platform becomes. The bigger our platform gets, the more sure we become about what we know. And we get more and more addicted to our own greatness. So we run after the next big thing, then the bigger thing, and so on…

This brings me to one of the things Jesus showed me on Sunday, one of the things I hadn’t paused to see before…

Jesus began his ministry in front of large crowds, traveling from town to town and teaching to packed out synagogues. As his ministry grew, however, his platform got smaller. As he got more proximate to individuals and more personal with his connections, he lived a more isolated and lonely life. As his name got bigger, his opportunities in public became fewer.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

We often resent small beginnings but see them as a means to an end—an end that is bigger and more visible than wherever we had to start. We long for our platforms—and our number of followers—to grow, because somehow that will show that we’ve “made it”, that we are important.

Not so with Jesus. He started at the pinnacle—as the Word that spoke Creation, who had only ever known the communion of the Trinity and the full-faced love and intimacy that they shared. The Beloved of the Almighty, shrouded in glory and love and light.

Then he chose to get smaller.

He was born a helpless baby in a dirty manger to a poor, unmarried couple. The limitless King of Heaven willingly stepped into the confines of newborn flesh, willingly breathed in the air and dust His very mouth created. Coming to us was a huge step down from where He started.

At least when he was born, a star appeared and angels sang—Magi traveled to him bearing fine gifts fit for a King. But then he lived thirty years in absolute obscurity in nowhere Nazareth. If you could get lower than being born in a manger in Bethlehem, this was it. Another step down.

Finally, his ministry began. His cousin, John, prepared the way and proclaimed his greatness. The voice of God thundered from the heavens at his baptism. He was beginning to teach, to gain followers, to fill the synagogues with people eager to hear his voice and to be healed by his touch. People were beginning to wonder if he might be the one they’d been waiting for. They began to get excited about the Kingdom he might establish among them. Things were looking up—

Until he got proximate to one leper. He knew what it would cost him to touch this man, to enter in to his suffering. It would change the trajectory of his whole ministry—no longer would he be welcome in the synagogues. His platform would get smaller, even while his renown would grow.

And he chose to touch him anyway. Because the kingdom he carried, the one he proclaimed as “here and now” is an upside-down kingdom. He would never satisfy the peoples’ expectations for a political superpower kind of kingdom that would rule with violence and vengeance over their enemies. No. His kingdom, his way of “ruling” would continue to cost him—not only his platform, but his very life.

He knew the cost. And he chose it anyway. And because he didn’t perform to earn the next big platform, because he chose the lonely places, the hurting people, the way of compassion and sacrificial love, His name and renown remain unmatched to this day. And we grasp for words to try to describe his greatness…

We long for reach, for influence, for followers. We long to grow our platforms and make a name for ourselves. Maybe Jesus wants to teach us something about the way we define success—in ministry and otherwise. His platform got smaller and smaller the more he loved and went against what those of his day thought they “knew” to be right. What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

There are a few more things I learned on Sunday that I hadn’t seen before, adjustments that needed to be made in the way I think and understand. I was going to write about more of them, but it’s about time I wrap this up. I’ll finish with this… When Jesus spoke forgiveness and healing over the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of the house where he was teaching; when he allowed the disruption to redirect his teaching to all who were present, Mark tells us, They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12b) Everyone in that home learned something new that day—about things they already thought they knew. From the man on the mat to the disciples, to the religious leaders occupying the front-row seats, they all left that house changed. Because brilliant Jesus got personal and proximate to each of them and invited them to learn.

Our brilliant Jesus gets personal and proximate to each of us as well. He is inviting us to set aside our “wisdom” and to examine what we’ve put in our bags. He calls out to us the same way he called to his first followers…

“Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Will we let him?

–Laura

I love the question that Laura asked us:

What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

Is it possible that there’s more to learn? My answer to that question is a huge, resounding yes!!! It renews my desire to give the Holy Spirit full access to every part of me.

When I was a child and gave my life to Jesus, my dad said the following when he was presenting me before the church– he said, “Luanne is giving as much of herself as she can to as much of Jesus as she understands.”  That phrase has stuck with with me, and this morning as I write, it came back in full force. Isn’t this the daily journey? My understanding of Jesus is deeper than it was when I was nine years old, and because He is who He is, I will never fully understand Him, which is the beauty of it all. It’s a relationship that will never grow stale, as long as I continue to knock, to ask, to seek, and grow. And when He reveals new things to me, will I give as much of myself as I am able to give (I want that to be all of me!) to the new revelation, the new understanding of Jesus? Yes. There is always more to learn.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing boats behind, they were following what they knew of Jesus in that moment. Scripture is kind to us and shows us some of their blunders along the way, but in the book of Acts we see men who are very different from who they were at the first part of the book of Mark–and they continued to give as much of themselves as they could to as much of Jesus as they understood, which eventually cost three of the four of them their lives.

Before they walked personally with Jesus, they thought they knew what God was about. They “knew” that women and Gentiles were inferior, that lepers and paralytics were being punished and had no place in the religious system, that there were rules to follow in order to stay in God’s good graces, and that religious power was not to be questioned. Then, God in flesh took them under His wing for three years in the form of Jesus and every bit of what they thought they knew was changed. Every bit of it was “like never before”. And they were teachable. Are we?

Pastor Beau used the analogy of foundations. In Jesus day, the foundation of a building was not under the ground, the cornerstone upon which everything else would be built was visible. In our day, foundations are dug below the dirt, they remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t stand the test of time, they get cracks in them, or begin to “settle” in ways that make the entire structure built upon them unstable. Do our spiritual foundations have cracks in them? Do they need to be inspected? Do we need to do some wrestling with our foundations? Are we built upon Jesus, our cornerstone, or something else?

The Apostle Peter, the one who began as a fisherman, quoting the prophet Isaiah wrote in his first letter:

“’See, I lay a stone in Zion,  a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” .           (1st Peter 2:6-7)

Do we trust our chosen, precious,  like never before Savior–or do we reject Him? Do we trust that his Kingdom is here right now? Do we trust His spiritual, intellectual, and physical authority? Do we trust Him enough to be teachable, intentional, available? Do we trust Him enough to  remember that compassion means to connect ourselves to those who are suffering as if we ourselves are suffering? Do we trust Him enough to touch the untouchable? Do we trust Him enough for forgiveness to be as natural to us as breathing? Do we trust Him enough to lovingly challenge the religious culture of the day? Do we trust Him enough to let our attitude toward all people be one of love? Do we trust Him enough to let Him live through us? Do we trust Him enough to be misunderstood?  Is He our precious cornerstone? Do we believe that His ways are right? Do we trust Him enough to live like Him and to be like never before people? What foundation are we building on?

I’m going to throw out some current events, not to be controversial but to give us opportunity to let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts. Transformation requires intentionality. Let’s be intentional in knowing where we land, and why we land there. If something makes us squirm or feel defensive, let’s sit with and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.  Let’s wrestle with which foundation we land on in each of these situations–is it Jesus our cornerstone, or something man made that is vulnerable to cracks?  The situation at our border, people seeking asylum, children living in cages, refugees and immigrants as a whole–which foundation? Women who have had abortions–which foundation? Our politicians and the way they model how to treat people–which foundation? The LGBTQ community-which foundation? Muslims–which foundation? The injustices that our fellow citizens who represent our nation’s ethnic minorities try to raise awareness of–which foundation?  Families who’ve lost children to gun violence–which foundation?  Hurting, angry disenfranchised white males who become mass shooters–which foundation? Religious leaders who’ve used their power to sexually abuse others and the cover ups that have followed–which foundation? If Jesus were standing right here in the flesh, where would he be? Let’s wrestle. Let’s let Him teach us. He is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Tea Party –He is Jesus. He is not American–He is Jesus. He is not Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, or non-denominational–He is Jesus. The only way He can be described, as Laura highlighted above, is by Himself. Jesus is Jesus.

Pastor Beau reminded us that Jesus will never ever, ever use His authority and power to be abusive–ever. His authority and power teach us how to fight battles in the spiritual realm. His way of relating to people teaches us how to relate to people–and that even as he pushed back against the thoughts of the religious leaders, he wasn’t taking jabs at them; he was giving them opportunities to change their way of thinking (repenting) about who God is and what His mission is. He loved them all. He loves us all. He. Is. Love.

Beau reminded us that the ministry of Jesus was a monumental shift between the Old Testament and New Testament which can also be called Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant–a covenant in His blood. A new wine skin into which the old wine could not be poured.  New. Different. Like never before.

In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom is within us.

We can’t miss this if we are going to live as like never before people. The Kingdom that is not of this world is within usthis very Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray would come to earth, the very Kingdom that takes over the world and becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Rev. 11:15)-this Kingdom is our mission. This is what we are to be about. His Kingdom coming on earth, His will being done on earth.

Every current event that I listed above would not exist if His Kingdom was reigning here. There would be no need to seek asylum, there would be no need to escape violence, there would be no “us and them”, there would be no abortion because women and children would be cared for by all of us, there would be no violence at all, there would be no injustice, no disenfranchised, no hate, no abuse of power, no pre-judging (also known as prejudice), no hateful rhetoric–there would be love. His kind of love. 

The Apostle Peter told us:  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st. Peter 2:5). 

We are living stones being built on the foundation of Jesus, our cornerstone. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mt. 9:13 NLT)

Knowing that we are all in this together, that none of us is righteous in our own strength–the spiritual sacrifice which we are to offer to God is mercy. Mercy is a noun which means kindness, compassion, especially toward those undeserving of it,  and whose synonyms include grace, favor, goodness, gentleness, tenderness, love. (www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/mercy). We are all undeserving of His mercy, yet we have received it and continue to receive it in overflowing abundance from our like never before Jesus. Do we, in turn,  offer mercy as a spiritual sacrifice to the people of the world?

As we pause in our series for this Selah moment, may we reflect on what we’ve heard so far, may we be committed to presenting our like never before Savior to the world around us by being like never before followers of the one who lives in us.

Let’s enter in like never before.

–Luanne

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Like Never Before #2

We began a new series last week called “Like Never Before”. We looked at Jesus’ words in Mark 1:14-15 where He told us what God is all about. He let us know that the time had come, the Kingdom of God had arrived in the here and now; He encouraged us to repent (change our minds) and believe the Good News (gospel). God is here, His Kingdom is here, He has come near. Good news indeed!

After telling us Jesus’ message, the next thing that Mark tells us is how Jesus called His first disciples (vs 16-20). And, as is always the case with Jesus, it didn’t look the way one might have expected. We sometimes become so familiar with the accounts of Jesus in scripture that we forget how radical His ways were. One would think that God in the flesh would look for followers in the temple, or among those who were well versed in the Torah, but that wasn’t His way. Is it possible that He went elsewhere because often times the religious think they already know everything there is to know about the ways of God? Could it be because the religious have expectations of how God is supposed to act–how He’s supposed to relate to sinners? Could it be that the religious don’t want their belief system messed with?  Could it be that they are comfortable with it the way it is? Could it be that  the religious struggle to believe that everyone counts in God’s kingdom?These are definitely attitudes for us to think about and guard against in our own journeys of faith.

So, Jesus, in His unorthodox way of doing things, took a walk along the seashore where there were common fishermen and He called out to them. First to Simon (Peter) and his brother Andrew, then to John and his brother James. He invited them to come after Him and told them He would make them fishers of men.

Mark tells us that “at once” and “without delay” they dropped everything and followed Jesus. Stop and think for a moment how remarkable that whole scenario is. Jesus is inviting regular common laborers to join Him in His mission. They don’t have a clue what they are really getting themselves into, but they followed immediately. What does this tell us about the type of followers that Jesus is looking for?

Pastor John highlighted three things:

1. Trust. Jesus is looking for followers who will trust Him completely. He is looking for those who will go where He leads without having to know all the details. He is looking for those who will drop everything to be with Him and join Him in what He’s doing. Jesus says to these men in verse 17, “Come after me.”  

“Come after me” can be interpreted in two different ways: it can be the literal following–He goes ahead and we come after, or it can be intense pursuit. I think both are fitting.

Do we trust Him enough to go after Him with all that we have and all that we are wherever He leads?

We won’t do it perfectly. Peter was the first disciple called, and he denied Jesus a few years later. Even so,  Jesus didn’t leave Peter behind. He again went to Peter by the sea, fixed him breakfast, asked Peter if he loved him, and continued to invite Peter to be part of what He was doing.  Peter followed Jesus once again and was powerfully used by God after Jesus’ ascension. That should give all of us some hope. God is not after our perfection, but He is after our trust. Will we trust Him with our lives?

2. Teachable: Jesus says to Peter and Andrew–come follow me and I will teach you how to fish for people.  Jesus was telling them that he was going to teach them something new. He was going to turn them into something that they weren’t before. To be teachable, we must be willing to be changed. There is no growth without change. We have to be willing to let go of old positions, old understandings, old ways of thinking, and go with Jesus.

I think maybe this is one of the reasons that Jesus didn’t go to the religious. He went to men who had no religious baggage, and they were willing to let go of the familiar and learn something new. Again, I think there is much here for those of us who’ve been around church for awhile to think about. Jesus, later in His ministry, confronted the religious leaders and said to them: “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’ For you ignore God’s law and substitute your own tradition.” (Mark 7:6-8 NLT)

That’s not to say that Jesus didn’t love the religious community. He wept over Jerusalem because they had rejected Him and the peace He offered (Luke 19:41) —  they were not teachable.

Are we teachable? Are we willing to wrestle with our own traditions to see if they line up with the teachings of Jesus? Are we willing to wrestle with cultural Christianity and get to the heart of the true message of Christ–the real good news that He Himself preached,  and not what we’ve turned it into? Are we willing to let the Holy Spirit take us deeper? Are we teachable?

3. Task-oriented: Jesus told his first followers what their purpose would be. He was going to make them “fishers of men”. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, the fishermen did not use a hook and bait–they used nets. They knew when to throw them, how to throw them, and how to bring them back in. They didn’t fish alone; they worked together. Fishing was their livelihood. If they didn’t fish, they didn’t eat. Their lives were totally about fishing.

Most of the fishermen/women I know today  fish recreationally. They use a hook, they use a lure, they basically trick the fish, then get it caught by the mouth and reel it in. Pastor John pointed out that, unfortunately, that’s how much of the church “fishes” for people. We bait and hook people with guilt and shame, and I’ll add fear, then reel them in on that line–which is never the way of Jesus. Lots of the bait and hook “fish” don’t stick around for the long haul, or they don’t get past thinking that God is mean and angry with them, and therefore never encounter the love and freedom that He has for them or the joy that can be found in Him.

A net holds fish, it doesn’t hook fish. Are we casting a net that attracts people to the God who loves them, or are we fishing through condemnation?  Jesus was incredibly attractive to the outcasts of the day. He valued them and let them know they were loved, wanted, worth spending time with, treasured. He did not manipulate people into His Kingdom. He is not an “us and them” kind of Savior. Is this the Jesus we show to the world?  Do we model the real Jesus who got in trouble because of who He hung out with, or do we model  the Pharisaical religious community who judged the world and those they perceived as “sinners” harshly? Again–things to think about.

Ultimately, what is it that Jesus wants us to be about?  He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us.  Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news. And then He invites us to join Him in sharing this good news with everybody everywhere.

This is our call:

Go in MY authority that I am giving to YOU and make more disciples. Show them who I AM so they will believe in ME, so they will follow MY words, MY teachings. Let those who choose to come after ME proclaim I am their Lord through baptism. And know this, there will never be a day that I AM NOT WITH YOU. (Mt. 28:19-20 paraphrase)

Jesus tells us to follow His teachings and teach His teachings to others. To be a disciple means to be a student. Are we students who know our Teacher well enough to know His teachings, to trust Him, to let Him continue to teach us, and to give our lives for the task that He’s laid out before us so that others can become His students, experience His love, and join us in making more disciples? This, my friends, is how the world will be changed–one precious person at a time.

–Luanne

As I listened to the message on Sunday, I couldn’t help but think back over my life, and my own personal journey with Jesus. I love that Jesus went to the unlikely, those on the outside, to invite them to be his closest followers and friends. I love that He did things his own way, that He was radical, and that He always showed up in unexpected places. But I haven’t always loved these things about Jesus…and I don’t always love these things, even now.
At certain points in my life, I’ve been the fisherman willing to drop everything and follow Jesus as a trusting, teachable, task-oriented disciple. I’ve also been the religious one in the temple–a know-it-all Christian with expectations of how God will show up. For me, this wasn’t a “before and after” thing. I can look back over my life and see seasons when I was in one camp, and seasons when I was in the other. I hate that about me…
Within my one self, I am capable of religious bigotry, and I know that I’ve lived a good many of my total days as a prideful, judgmental “Christian”. I know that I’m capable of drifting back to that space in any given moment, too, under certain circumstances. I wish that wasn’t true. But it is.
It’s also true that as an eight-year-old girl, I ran to Jesus with reckless abandon. I fell in love with the beauty that only One possesses long before I had any sense of what falling in love even was. In that season? I was a trusting, teachable follower, and all I wanted was more of Jesus. I had a fair amount of religious baggage already, and it would rear its ugly head down the road, but Jesus had my whole heart. He had pursued me, called me, and I wanted to follow Him wherever He would lead me.
I could cite example after example of the times I’ve been the arrogant, privileged, religious, put-God-in-a-box, “in the know” “Christian”, too. The list is long. In fact, just this morning the Holy Spirit convicted me about an area where I’ve been acting this way, an area where I need to repent–change my way of thinking so that it aligns with Jesus’ way of seeing the situation.
I could also cite many examples of times I’ve felt like the outsider, the one on the sidelines, the one whose presence doesn’t matter at all. These are the times I’ve felt unseen, unworthy, unqualified, and just plain unloved.
Do you know what is so beautiful about Jesus? He comes to both versions of me (and all the versions in between) and issues the same invitation every time. I’m so grateful this is true. This is what I couldn’t stop thinking about as I pondered this message… How, so often, I’m not trusting Him. I’m not very teachable. And I lose my focus on the task at hand. And yet, He comes. He pursues me and He chooses me-even when I’m in the “wrong” camp. I’ll never get over the love of Jesus, the grace and mercy He continually extends to the mess of me…
I completely agree that Jesus was looking for those who would allow Him to make them into a particular kind of follower–those who would trust, who would be teachable, and who would be task-oriented. The story clearly shows us that. I just believe, based on my experience of who Jesus is, that He chooses all of us. I believe his invitation was the same to everyone He encountered as He walked the earth. The story of Jesus includes many interactions between Jesus and the religious. He ate meals with them, engaged in conversations with them, and invited at least a handful to follow Him, though, sadly,  most did not. I believe there must have been many times that He extended the invitation, because Jesus doesn’t change. If He invites ALL now, He invited, or chose, ALL then, too. We know that many of the religious elite eventually put their faith in Him, and were leaders in the early church after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. I’m certain that Jesus issued many invitations that didn’t make it into what we have come to know as Scripture, because not everything that happened was included. We know that. But because we know Jesus and we know that He came with a reckless, unchanging love and a desire to reconcile ALL people to Himself, we can safely assume that there was no one that He didn’t choose. None were worthy of being chosen. But He wanted all of them–and all of us–anyway.
I absolutely believe Jesus invited all–including the judgmental, arrogant, religious community–to follow Him. And that is good news for those of us who find ourselves in that camp today–or even just from time to time. He is always calling and pursuing. But as was the case for many in His day, sometimes we don’t hear the invitation for what it is. We have expectations of how Jesus will show up, what He will say, who He’ll consider worthy of His invitation. We choose to reject things that don’t line up with what we have come to believe is true, and in the process, we often reject Jesus Himself. We end up rejecting Him because we don’t recognize Him, and we’re unwilling to let Him “make us become” who we could be in His hands.
Our response to the invitation of Jesus is what reveals what’s in our hearts. Whether we find ourselves in a boat on the water or studying in the temple, the invitation is the same. We get to choose whether we want to follow or not. And when we choose to follow Him, we are trusting Him to cultivate the heart of a follower within us. It’s not something any of us innately possess that sets us apart from anyone else. It’s something Jesus grows within us as He makes us into people who are becoming more like Him. There is no formula to being chosen by Jesus. He’s already chosen all of us. He came to show us just how far Love will go, how much Love will sacrifice, and how the way of Love stands above all other ways of living life. And He’s invited all of us into that love as our new way of being in the world. As Luanne wrote above,
“He wants us to be about exactly what He was about–letting people know that God is here, His Kingdom is here, He loves us–all of us, He has new life and new purpose to give to us. Whatever we’ve thought about God in the past, Jesus tells us to change our minds about it (repent),  because He is here, full of all embracing, totally unconditional love–it’s His very nature–and that’s good news.”
Jesus is the good news. For all people. And He’s invited us to share that beautiful message with all people, everywhere. Will we leverage our lives, as He did, to make Him known? Will we live out the love of Jesus like never before?
–Laura
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Advent #2: Love & Preparation

So if you’re serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it. Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life—even though invisible to spectators—is with Christ in God. He is your life. When Christ (your real life, remember) shows up again on this earth, you’ll show up, too—the real you, the glorious you.

(Colossians 3:1-4a, The Message)

On the second Sunday of Advent, Pastor John lit the love candle. He invited us to consider how we are preparing for the coming of Christ, and whether or not it’s the love of Christ–or something else–that is magnified in our lives. During this season, as John pointed out, we do a lot of preparing. We spend time decorating, cooking, planning, wrapping–and we see Christmas morning as the culmination of all of our preparation. If you remember what we talked about last week, though, you know that we–as Jesus followers–aren’t only looking back at when he came in the past. We are looking with hope toward His coming again. That means our “preparation” need not be seasonal. It is, instead, a lifestyle.

Pastor John told us that he believes there is a verse that summarizes what Christmas needs to be about. It is Colossians 3:2, contained within the passage above. I opened with the Message paraphrase of the passage because it adds nuance that makes the whole passage more understandable. But you are probably more familiar with the NIV translation of verse 2. It reads,

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

How does this verse fit with Christmas? The same way that it fits every day of the year. Which, if I’m not mistaken, was Pastor John’s point. We take time to celebrate and remember the first Advent of Christ at this time every year. But how we live, what we prioritize, where our focus is–these ought not change with the seasons. For Kingdom-minded Jesus followers, the “spirit of Christmas”–hope, love, joy, preparation, celebration, giving–is how we aim to live every day.

How do we live this way? We set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Does this mean we live with our heads in the clouds, dreaming of heaven and angels with harps? Uh, no. Thankfully, it doesn’t mean that at all. And not setting our minds on earthly things does not mean we stop decorating, gift-giving, white elephant partying, etc…

What it means is we have to find our focus. What, or who, is most important to you? What do you prioritize? What we focus on has our attention. Whatever has our attention becomes the object of our affection, our love.Whatever has our love is magnified in us. People know what we love because whatever we are focused on, we naturally magnify. So, to “set our minds” is to bring something into focus, to give our attention to something.

The verse tells us to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. I love the way the Message expresses this part: Don’t shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with the things right in front of you. Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is. See things from his perspective. “Things above” are the things of Christ. The things that matter to Him, to His kingdom. The earthly things aren’t all bad–many earthly things are good, and lovely. We’re just not supposed to set our minds on these things, give our affection to them, prioritize them. We are invited to look up from all the things of this world that can consume our hours and our days, and be alert to Christ. He is the One worthy of our affection, and His kingdom is the one we live from. 

I listen to a weekly podcast called “Things Above”. It is hosted by author James Bryan Smith. He describes his podcast this way:

“This is a podcast for ‘mind discipleship.’ It is for those who want to set their minds on ‘things above’ (Col. 3:2). Each week, I will offer a glorious thought–something good and beautiful and true, something excellent and praiseworthy–to fill your mind with heavenly truths.”

I love listening to this short podcast every week because it does exactly that. It offers glorious thoughts–thoughts that draw me deeper into Kingdom-mindedness, thoughts that deepen my understanding of the character of God and what that means for life here and now. Thoughts that I can set my mind on…

But what do we do once we find our focus and set our minds on things above? Is that it? Focus on Christ and watch Him for the rest of our lives?

Far from it… We can choose to live that way if we want to… But, according to novelist & journalist Chuck Palahniuk, living that way wouldn’t be living at all. He wrote,

“The easiest way to avoid living is to just watch.”

If we set our minds and our attention on Jesus and His ways, but don’t join Him where He is, we aren’t living. This line, from the Message translation of our Colossians passage, seems to be in agreement with Chuck:

Look up, and be alert to what is going on around Christ—that’s where the action is.

John said on Sunday that “movement marks [God’s] whole story.” Every part of the story that includes Creation, life & death, our humanity, and God’s activity in it all moves. And perhaps no part of the story moves more than the pages where Jesus put skin on and came to us as one of us.

What if Zechariah & Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the wise men had simply watched…? Simply seen and heard…?

Here’s the thing–

It is possible to focus on Jesus, give Him our attention, and watch what He’s doing… all without moving from the place where we are.

However, if He has all of our attention, and if that attention becomes affection that blossoms into love that outgrows our insides… it’s impossible to simply watch.

When preparing our hearts and making space for our King becomes our one overwhelming desire, when we are wholly focused and wholly devoted to the One leading us, when we can say “Jesus, be the center of it all” and mean it with all that we are, we. will. move. Because love moves. Love sees what Jesus is doing and is stirred to join Him–no matter the cost.

The individuals in our familiar Christmas stories had an awareness of God. But more than being aware of Him, they were devoted to Him. He was their priority. And so when He came to them, in whatever ways He chose, they accepted His invitation to join Him on the journey of a lifetime. A journey that would change not only their lives, but would change the entire world.

Maybe we need to ask ourselves where we are this Advent season… Are we sitting in the stands, spectators who live with our heads down, focused on the things of earth? What if God wants to move part of His story through you? Through me? I have no doubt that we are invited to partner with Him as He changes this world. I have no doubt that He desires for all of us to join Him in what He’s doing right now. He loves to bring things above to bear through things below… More specifically, through people below.

Will we join Him?

–Laura

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Sit with that verse for a minute. Let it have your attention–your focus. Ponder what it means.

Laura wrote above:

What we focus on has our attention. Whatever has our attention becomes the object of our affection, our love.Whatever has our love is magnified in us. People know what we love because whatever we are focused on, we naturally magnify. So, to “set our minds” is to bring something into focus, to give our attention to something.

I also want to reiterate Laura’s point that to “set our minds” on something does not imply that we just sit and watch. To set our minds on something leads to the trajectory of our lives. Our actions begin in our minds, our words begin in our minds, our choices begin in our minds, our relationships thrive or not depending on how we think and what we choose as a result of those thoughts.

Scripture is not silent on this issue:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus…(Ph 2:5).

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8:6 ESV)

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  (Romans 12:2)

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4:8)

“‘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.” (Luke 10:27)

Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

So, this week’s advent theme is love, yet it would appear that we are talking about something totally different–except for the fact that what we love consumes our minds, and agape (unconditional love) is a Holy Spirit empowered choice of the heart and mind followed by action.

As I’ve pondered our key verse--set your minds (focus) on things above, I’ve wondered if “things above”– rather than referring to things far off, way up in some inaccessible place– could mean “things above” as in above our fallen world’s ways of doing things and our fallen world’s ways of thinking…setting our minds on the way God thinks–his mindset.

God has said to us:  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9).

 I believe that to set our minds on things above means to align ourselves with God’s ways. In order to align ourselves with His ways, we must know Him, and to know Him we must love Him, and if we love Him, we will walk with Him, and He, and His ways,  will consume our thoughts, and those thoughts will inform our choices, and our choices will lead us to live in Him, and His life in us will spill over to those around us, and He will be magnified. 

Paul, just a couple of verses after he wrote set your minds on things above… wrote the phrase, …Christ, who is your life...

Acts 17:28 tells us that in Him we live and move and have our being. That verse certainly implies that Jesus is our total life force– it also implies action– movement.

Pastor John, when talking to us about focusing on and magnifying something, explained to us the science behind magnification. In order for something to be magnified, light rays, which normally run parallel to one another, have to be bent, which happens when they pass through a curved lens. Those light rays then converge-are concentrated through the lens- and bring whatever is out of focus or hard to see into focus, making it possible to see detail that was previously unclear.

I love the fact that magnification has everything to do with the bending of light. Light is always on the move. The Apostle John tells us of Jesus that in him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

In the Old Testament, when Moses asked God to show him His glory, God replied “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”(Ex. 33:20).

But in the first advent, God bends His glorious, blinding, all consuming light rays in the person of Jesus— and concentrates all of His love and His desire for relationship with us through Jesus, so that who He truly is–the God whose very nature is love– can be made clear to us. He makes Himself knowable and approachable through Jesus–the Light of all mankind. When we look through Jesus we see who God is. If we have seen the Son then we have seen the Father. (Jn 14:9) 

The Christmas story includes beautiful accounts of magnification and light.

Mary, in her song of praise (after Gabriel fills her in on God’s plan), exclaims my soul magnifies the Lord… (Luke 1:46)She rejoices that she is part of God’s plan and is willing to make Him great, to bring Him into focus, to carry His light, to yield to His plan, to magnify Him.

In Luke 2 we are told that there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them... Brilliant light caught their attention and resulted in them being among the first to see God in the flesh, to worship Him in person, and to carry the message of that encounter to those around them. 

In Matthew 2 we learn that the wise men, when looking for Jesus, told King Herod,  “We have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”  Light led these men to leave their own country and travel a great distance in order to draw close to God who had come to make Himself known in the person of Jesus.

There is acknowledgment, awe, and movement in each of these encounters.

Jesus, in John 8:12 tells the people “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Whoever follows me… will have the light of life.  To follow implies movement.

In Matthew 5:14 Jesus tells us “You are the light of the world…”

To be the light of the world; to magnify the God who so loves the world that He gave His only Son; to bring God into focus, means choosing to bend before Him, to yield to His ways, so that His glorious light rays can shine through our lives, illuminating Him in a way that those around us can see Him and experience His love, His life, His light.

Beautiful lyrics that we sing every year speak of this glorious light:

Silent night, Holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light. Radiant beams from Thy holy face, with the dawn of redeeming grace.  Jesus, Lord at Thy birth. Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth. (Joseph Mohr)

Redeeming grace, grace which makes it possible for us to be restored, to be made new, to be in relationship with God, to receive His light, to be His light, to reflect His love…

In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.

Set your mind…

 

–Luanne

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Dear Church #4 – Philippians 2:1-11

Last summer I attended a conference; one of the speakers there encouraged us to begin reading scripture with a new lens. (We all have a tendency to read scripture through our own cultural lens/bias and miss out on deeper revelation.)  She encouraged us to start in the gospels, to read slowly, to pay attention to who the people are in each passage, to consider their station in life–would they have been considered the privileged or oppressed? Are they “firsts” or “lasts”? How does Jesus respond to each group? How does He challenge societal norms? How does He flip the culture of the day on its head? Who does He esteem? Who does He correct?

It’s been one of the most powerful and life giving suggestions I’ve ever received at a conference. It has breathed new life into my relationship with God. I’m not reading scripture to get my nugget for the day; I’m reading to get to know Him and His ways, and He is speaking to me in deep places. Slowing way, way down, not being in a hurry to move through chapters and verses has allowed me to sit with Jesus, to learn from the Holy Spirit, and be awed by the love of God for all people in a new, fresh, and compelling way. So, in this post, we are going to slow down a familiar passage of scripture, chew on it, sit with it, and let it read us-rather than us reading it.

In Philippians 2 the Apostle Paul continues building on what he started in chapter one. He begins this portion of his letter with an “if”/”then” thought process:

Verse 1:

If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ

If you have any comfort from His love

If you have any common sharing in the Spirit

If any tenderness

If any compassion

Verses 2-4:

Then make my joy complete:

Then be like-minded,

Then have the same love

Then be one in spirit and mind

Then do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit

Then humbly value others above yourselves

Then don’t look to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others…

Let’s pause here and consider the “ifs”.

Are you united with Christ? Are you in a relationship with Him? Have you connected yourself to Him and His ways? Have you allowed Him to minister to you, to work in you, to change you?  Have you received encouragement from Him?

Encouragement is an interesting word. The word courage–means “heart”. “En” means “make, put in”. The definition includes words such as consolation, comfort, solace, that which affords comfort or refreshment, encouragement.

The definition of encourage is to make strong, hearten. (The opposite-discourage-weakens, deflates, disheartens).

Has Jesus strengthened you? Has He comforted you? Has He refreshed you? Has He come alongside you? Is He with you?  Does He encourage you?

Do you have comfort from His agape? Do you have absolute assurance of His love? Do you know that He will always love you? You don’t earn it, or deserve it, or lose it. He just loves you, totally and completely forever and always, and you can rest assured that His love is never going away. Perfect agape casts out fear (1 John 4:18), and God’s love is perfect. Does that comfort you?

Do you have common sharing, fellowship with others? Our English translation can’t get to the depth of what this means. The Greek word is koinonia and it is so much deeper than just hanging out together. It is a deep connection, a Spirit connection with others. It is being part of a spiritual community, of sharing everything, of joint participation, of shared mission and purpose, of unity.

Have you received tenderness from Jesus? Has his kindness, his love, his mercy ministered to you?  One of the phrases in the Strong’s definition is “a heart in which mercy resides”.  Has his merciful heart ministered to you?

Have you received compassion from Jesus? Another incredibly interesting word which implies mercy, but also  has this component in it: to feel sympathy with the misery of another–such sympathy as manifests itself in act, less frequently in word. Compassion means to suffer with…

IF you have experienced any of this from Jesus. THEN…  Scroll back up and read through the “thens”. Once you’ve done that, we’ll continue on and see what the “thens” looked like  in the person of Jesus.

Verses 5-8

(Then) Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.  The word attitude, and the word like-minded in verse two are the same Greek word. So, your mind should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.  The “thens” start with the mind of Christ in us. There is much New Testament scripture about having a new mind in Christ…do not be conformed anymore to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…(Rom 12:2); The mind of the flesh is death, but the mind of the spirit is life and peace. (Rom. 8:6)  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Luke 10:27) and many others! The mind of Christ–what does that look like in this passage?

Before the incarnation, Jesus was in the form of God, but he did not grasp that form tightly. Instead, he laid aside that form and put on the form of our humanity, and not just of our humanity–he made himself the lowest. Again, our English translation cleans this up for us a bit, but the actual word “servant” is the word doulos – bond-servant. It means a person bound in service without wages. It could be voluntary or forced, but a bondservant was subservient to and entirely at the disposal of his master–essentially a slave.

Going back to my new scripture lens –this passage blows me away, and we’re not even through it yet. Jesus laid aside all of his privilege, everything He had in heaven, and made himself one of the least of these.  He could have come as a privileged man, but that was not the way it happened. He was born into an oppressed ethnic group during Roman rule.  His family was homeless when he was born,  he was poor during his childhood, he was a manual laborer before he began his ministry, and he was homeless again as an adult.  Luke 8 tells us that he was financially supported by women–extremely counter cultural.  Let all of that sink in for a minute.

So in this human form, Jesus humbled himself completely.  We don’t always understand the meaning of that word either. Humble means to make low, to level-reduce to a plain, a lower rank, devoid of all haughtiness.

And he became obedient to death—even death on a cross.   Did you know that obedient means giving ear? To obey means to listen attentively and follow through.  The implications of that are huge. If we are going to obey God, and think like Jesus, we must draw close to Him, be silent, and create space for Him to speak.

And the height of humiliation? Public death on a cross.

However, because Jesus lived from this humble, obedient, bond-servant mindset, this form…

God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (9-11)

This is where it all begins. Does your tongue, does my tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Do our knees (individually and collectively)  bow to Him in subservience and submission? If Jesus is Lord, the only response we can give Him is “yes”. Otherwise we exalt ourselves and our wills above His, and we become our own lords.

I find it interesting that in Strong’s Concordance the word confess (admit, agree fully) also means profess-to acknowledge openly and joyfully, to celebrate, give praise to. 

Pastor John pointed out in his sermon that we sometimes use verses 9-11 as a weapon from a place of arrogance–“One day, dude, you’re gonna be forced to admit that Jesus is Lord–you won’t have any choice and you’re going to be made to bow down. Then you’ll see that we Christians were right all along. Nanny-nanny-boo-boo!”

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Paul is trying to say here. Paul has been telling us that he prays for our agape to abound more and more for other people. He has told us that to live is Christ–the mission, heart, passion of Jesus. And here he says–be like Him. Be like Christ in the way you think, in the way you live, in the way you relate with the world. I believe, dear Church, if we can get this figured out, that people will be hungry for a relationship with Jesus, they will confess and profess that He is Lord because coming into relationship with Him brings joy, purpose, freedom, celebration…

Dear Church, are we living the “thens”  for the glory of God? Are we living the “thens” and drawing people to Jesus? Or are we sending a hostile, haughty message to the world?

Jesus himself told his disciples when they were having a little dispute over greatness You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servantand whoever wants to be first must be your slave just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20:25-28). 

He said that to His disciples then. He says that to His disciples (students, learners, apprentices) today.

Dear Church, when people see us, do they see Him? Are we bearing fruit that looks like Jesus? Are we lowering ourselves or exalting ourselves? Are we grasping-holding tightly-  to our privilege or laying it aside for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven? Are we oppressing people or helping people? Are we listening attentively and bringing peace or running our mouths and creating chaos? Do we look like Jesus? Do we think like Jesus? Do we love like Jesus? Do we reflect Jesus? Do we know the real Jesus?

Dear Church–if He is Lord, we will look like Him, act like Him, love like Him, be humble like Him, align ourselves with the oppressed and marginalized- the sick, the lost, the foreigner, the poor, the despised, the powerless, those discriminated against, like He did, and not be afraid of the cost. He came for us, and in His name and His way, He sends us out so that the world He loves can know Him and confess Him as Lord.

–Luanne

I love that Luanne began with an invitation to slow down. It’s an exercise that is vital to going deeper, to gaining understanding, to getting to know the real Jesus and his heart for real people.

If you’ve been around church at all, you’ve probably heard this week’s passage, in part or in whole. Even if you’ve never stepped inside a church, you’ve likely heard some of it quoted-and perhaps not kindly, as Luanne eluded to. We do a disservice to ourselves and to the world around us when we don’t take the time to learn from the Holy Spirit, time to sit at the Teacher’s feet and glean from these ancient words the messages they carry. In our fast-paced culture, this approach to reading scripture can feel like a luxury—but it is a luxury we need to indulge in, one that Jesus invites us into, a place of rest for the burdened, the hurried, the spiritually-depleted.

We’re all spiritually depleted—especially when we think we’re not. The riches of the Word are inexhaustible. When we forget that, when we think we understand the meaning of a text (as though there is only one possible explanation and application of the words) we take an arrogant position as one who has been taught rather than one who is continually being taught by the Spirit. I don’t think that most of us intentionally assume this position. But it is the position we take when we cling to our ideas of what these words mean more than we cling to the One who said them.

During my quiet time on Sunday morning, I read a devotional written by Richard Rohr, adapted from Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom). It began this way:

“One of the great themes of the Bible, beginning with the Hebrew Scriptures and continued by Jesus and Paul, is “the preferential option for the poor.” I call it “the bias toward the bottom.”

He later goes on to say, “There is no authentic God experience that does not situate you in the world in a different way.”

As I turned these words over and over in my mind, I wrote this in my journal:

“If my experience with God is just for “me” and doesn’t lead me more deeply into the heart of Jesus for the “other”, into that “bias toward the bottom”, is my experience God at all? Or simply an emotional, feel-good moment that may touch my heart—but may not actually be from God…?”

I have had many experiences, encounters if you will, with God. Encounters that have left me changed, rearranged, and with fresh vision. I believe He comes to each one of us personally and intimately and graces us with moments created for us as individuals. I know that’s true because I could write an entire book full of nothing but the times He has loved me that way. I don’t take Richard’s statement to mean that personal, one-on-one experiences with God are not authentic. I think his point, and certainly mine, is that these experiences are designed for a purpose that is two-fold. I believe God wants us to feel His Papa-love for ourselves—to know it, get familiar with it, so that we can build a relationship with our Father that we can rely on and trust regardless of our circumstances. AND, I believe these experiences are also meant to take us further than ourselves. Meant to teach us to see beyond our own desires and needs. Meant to teach us what agape love looks and feels like so that it can be cultivated within us and carried into the world. Meant to do exactly what Richard wrote: situate us in the world in a different way.

So… to the assertion that there is NO authentic God experience that doesn’t have this effect, we must assume that it is up to us whether we experience Him authentically or not. God is never inauthentic. And He continually comes to us. When we meet His authenticity with our minds and hearts focused on ourselves, we are choosing to only take part of what He offers, which renders the moment inauthentic. To experience anything authentically is to experience it in totality, in its fullness.

I had all of this reverberating in my heart when I arrived at church on Sunday. I had no idea what Pastor John was going to preach about…

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.(Philippians 2:1-2)

If we have experienced Christ in this way for ourselves, then we are called to relate to others in the very same way. As Luanne wrote, If Jesus is Lord, the only response we can give Him is “yes”. Otherwise we exalt ourselves and our wills above His, and we become our own lords.When we follow Jesus and lay down our own lives in exchange for His life in us, the only response to anything He asks of us is yes. But for today’s purposes, let’s narrow down what we’re saying “yes” to. We are saying yes to relating to others–every single other Image-bearer, no exceptions—the way that Jesus relates to us. Luanne explained in detail what that meant for Jesus. Have we given our “yes” to loving others in that same way?

Before I take that thought further, I want to take us back a bit… Luanne spent some time sitting with these verses, time digging in to really absorb what they mean. I’m going to take us back into verse two to dissect the meaning of the original Greek words because I think what they have to say to us is profound—and profoundly simple.

If you look up the Greek for every word in verse 2 (highlighted above), you’ll find that Paul repeats a couple of words a few times. Almost as if he really wanted his readers to get the point he was trying to make. Our English translations have prettied it up and gone outside of some of the more common meanings of the words, probably for flow and readability’s sake. Here’s how it would read if we literally translated every Greek word:

“…then fulfill my joy to fulfillment by same thinking, having the same love, of one accord, thinking one thought.”

Same thinking. Same love. Of one accord. Thinking one thought. Well, that pretty much does away with any of our notions toward individualism, doesn’t it? I think we hate that part, because we love our independence, and we love feeling like we’re in control. We assume that thinking in the way Paul suggests means we have to agree on everything, vote the same way, come to the same conclusions about every hot-button issue, and that we have to interpret every word of scripture exactly the same way. Is that what I’m suggesting this verse means?

No…and yes.

Luanne talked to us about the way we read scripture through our own lenses & personal biases. We run the bible through a variety of filters—tradition, upbringing, political leanings, privilege, cultural identity, education, etc…–and we can end up on completely different ends of the spectrum from one another.

I’m not suggesting “sameness” as a theological framework because I believe, like author & pastor Carlos Rodriguez does, that “…not one of us owns the full expression of the faith we love. And maybe God made it that way so that we would have to come together.” (Drop the Stones, C. Rodriguez)

What I am suggesting is that we are to have one filter. Jesus. His life, his example and His overarching command that, according to Him, supersedes all the others:

“And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31, NLT)

Dear Church… this is our filter. Are we loving God (which we can only do because He first loved us) and is that same love He fills us with pouring out to others?

So… Same thinking. Same love. Of one accord. Thinking one thought. Is this possible? Yes. If our only filter is Jesus, we will land on the side of unconditional love. Every. Single. Time. If we run everything through the filter of loving God & loving others, then we will, in fact, have the mind of Christ, because that’s what He did. Luanne and I have talked about love being the bottom line over and over again since we began this blog. That’s not in an effort to avoid the hard way—often times, love is the hardest way. It’s not because we are looking for an easy, pretty, feel-good answer. No. We keep saying it because we really believe it. That the way of Jesus is the way of self-sacrificing love. That justice and shalom are by-products of this love that changes everything. Because real love chooses to be last so someone else can be first. That’s why we drive this point home over and over again.

I think we are free to disagree, to think for ourselves, and to believe differently from one another. And because we are human, and we are on our own journeys toward the completeness God is bringing us into, we won’t ever do this “same thinking” perfectly. There is plenty of grace for that. 

AND… Paul still exhorts us to be unified in our thinking. Pastor John asserted that there should be no contention, no division in the Church if we take this teaching seriously, because we’ll be of one purpose. Does that mean we don’t speak up for justice, have discussions about politics, and hold to traditional values that devalue other human beings? Because these types of conversations are creating plenty of division and contention lately.

What about things like the immigration crisis, refugees, mass incarceration, poverty, LGBTQ+ inclusion in the church, women in leadership, religion and politics, kneeling for the anthem, police brutality, racism, nationalism, allocation of wealth, prayer in schools, abortion, sexual addiction, human trafficking, mass shootings, gun control, left vs. right, and so many other topics that daily flood the headlines? How do we get to a place of unity around all of that?

Remember our filter? If we are loving like Jesus, if we have a “bias toward the bottom” like He did (and does), if we are putting people above agendas, if we are humbling ourselves and choosing to bow our knees to the ways of Christ and His Kingdom, I believe we will come to a place of unity. We tend to look at situations as having one right way and one wrong way. But Jesus is continually bringing us into a different way. His way. A third way. A way that is always counter-cultural and unexpected. A way that got him into plenty of trouble when He walked the earth. Dallas Willard wrote, in the introduction to his book The Divine Conspiracy, “Jesus and his words…are essentially subversive of established arrangements and ways of thinking.” He calls His followers to imitate His ways. And Paul reminds us in Philippians what that way looks like. I wish we had time to dig into the Sermon on the Mount and, specifically, the Beatitudes, but it’s time to wrap this one up.

Dear Church… if we can do this, if we can be the example of love in action and be the first to bend the knee to our Lord and say yes to His ways rather than arrogantly shouting our “rightness” in the face of others’ “wrongness”, then verses 3-5 are a natural result…

We won’t do anything out of selfish ambition or conceit. We will value others above ourselves and put their interests first. We will relate with one another with the mindset of Christ. The Christ who comes alongside of us, connects & unites us in His love-and invites us to do the same.

–Laura

mother teresa

rich mullins quote

Dear Church #3: Philippians 1:19-30

 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Phil. 1:21)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Phil. 1:27a)

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. (Matthew 5:10, Message)

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:11)

 

Luanne left us with some questions to ponder last week:

“Is our love for Jesus and our desire to make His love known to the world the driving force of our lives? Are we willing to be hated because we look so much like Him that the world, including the religious community, doesn’t understand us at all?” 

She also explained to us what “agape” love looks like–and that God loves every single human being with that kind of love. And she challenged us to do the same. To love unconditionally regardless of whether or not we agree with positions, orientations, political leanings, ideology, theology, or anything else that would drive us apart rather than together.

And this week, Pastor John took it one step further…

Are we willing to not only love all others, but to live out the mission of Christ to the point that we would die on behalf of them, the way that He gave His life for us?

There are some new questions rolling around in my head this week…

What are you living for?

What are you willing to die for?

What do you really believe?

Where does your citizenship lie?

Are you willing to suffer and to consider suffering a gift?

And a repeat from last week: Who are you offending?

Philippians 1:21 is a verse many of us are familiar with. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” In communities of faith, we hear it, say it, sing it–but do we live it? Do we even understand what it means? Or is it one of those verses we throw around without pausing to consider the implications it holds for our day-to-day lives? 

Pastor John broke it down for us on Sunday. The words in the verse are fairly straightforward, with the exception of one. That Paul chose to use the word “Christos“, translated “Christ” in English, is what makes this particular verse so important. The word carries within it Jesus’ identity as Messiah, deliverer, freedom-giver. John said that it refers to the purpose and mission of Jesus, with the idea of modeling what Jesus is all about. And what is His mission? As we heard on Sunday, the mission of God, carried out through the person of Jesus, is to set the captives free. ALL the captives. “To live is Christ” is to live as He lived. To embody His mission. It is living in such a way that we leverage all that we are on behalf of all others. It is to die to ourselves and to our inclinations toward comfort, ease, and fluffy faith. It is to identify with our Savior, who so identifies with His people that, when they met on the road to Damascus, He asked Saul, “Why are you persecuting ME?” We are invited to take all that Jesus did (and does) for us… and do the same for others.

The invitation is costly. It is hard. It stands in opposition to every self-preserving and self-promoting notion that drives every one of us. But according to Paul, the invitation to suffer is a gift.

 

 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him… (Phil. 1:29)

The word “granted” in the Greek is charizomai , which is defined this way:

“to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favour to, gratify, to show one’s self gracious, kind, benevolent, to grant forgiveness, to pardon, to give graciously, give freely, bestow”

The root word of charizomai is charis, which is most often translated “grace”. I love that. Jesus has graced us, gifted us with the opportunity to believe in him. We learned on Sunday that this is not say-the-sinner’s-prayer and stamp your heavenly passport belief. In this passage of scripture, when Paul writes about being “convinced” and “believing”, it goes way beyond head-and even heart-knowledge. It is a belief that fully trusts, that stakes everything on that belief, and that takes steps to act on it. When Jesus invites us to believe in Him, this is what we are invited to. Not a systematic theology of rules that keep our behavior in check. Rather, a belief that burns like fire within us and moves us out toward the margins in the footsteps of the One who couldn’t stay away from the margins and the marginalized He found there.

I think in our western understanding of Christianity, we readily accept the believing but take a hard pass on the suffering. But if we really understood what true belief entails, we would find that believing and suffering are branches of the same vine. In fact, the kind of belief I described above will almost certainly lead us into suffering. Into persecution, even. It definitely won’t keep us “safe”. But Paul calls it a gift, a grace, to have the opportunity to believe in and suffer for the One who gave everything for us. Pastor John said on Sunday that most followers of Jesus would agree that the cross is at the center of our faith. But many would say that is because it’s where we find forgiveness and salvation, where we come to the end of ourselves and believe in Jesus as our Savior. John didn’t disagree that the cross is at the center of our faith, but he asserted that it’s not an end, but a beginning. A way of life. The place where belief and suffering come together to lead us into new life in Christ–a life that we get to give on behalf of others.

Paul names this invitation a gift. Grace. Why? Let’s see what Jesus had to say about it…

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

The Message words verse 10 this way:

You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. 

Jesus says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of righteousness, when we’re insulted because of Him. That the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are committed to God, and that the persecution drives us deeper into God’s Kingdom.

The gift is blessing, presence, the very kingdom of heaven. The word for “blessed” in this verse is also defined as “fortunate” and “happy”. I think it’s important that we understand the meaning of a few other words in this passage, too.

What does it mean to be persecuted, really? Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean…

Stu Garrard, author of Words From the Hill (a fantastic book that takes a fresh look at the Beatitudes), writes in the book about a conversation he had with Jeremy Courtney, the CEO of Preemptive Love:

“I asked him [Jeremy] about persecution and what it looks like to him. [He said:]

There’s a risk with this conversation. It’s like walking on a razor’s edge. There’s a way to talk about persecution that sort of gives us permission to become irreverent and jerks when we don’t get our own way. Not winsome or loving or creative or culturally engaged, and if we get pushed back we say, “See, they are persecuting us! Look at them–look at what they’ve done wrong.” When the truth is that we’re not loving and we’re not reaching out.”

We live in a time where real persecution does exist all over the world. Many people experience it for a variety of reasons. Followers of Jesus are still dying as martyrs in some countries. But sometimes, we do exactly what Jeremy articulated. We cry persecution and point fingers at those who won’t submit to our demands or bend to our agenda or who simply don’t let us have our way. That’s not persecution.

The word translated “persecute” is the Greek word dioko. It means:

to make to run or flee, put to flight, drive away; to run swiftly in order to catch a person or thing, to run after; to pursue (in a hostile manner) in any way whatever to harass

This definition is fairly broad and applicable to a lot of situations, except for the why that Jesus outlined.

He says in these two verses, “because of righteousness” and “because of Me”. The word used for righteousness here is dikaiosyne. The root of this word means “equity”. So, “blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” is not about our good behavior or our personal holiness being challenged by the “bad” behavior of others, but rather, it’s about making things right for all people, everywhere. It’s about leveraging our lives the way that Jesus did. And then He goes on to say, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me…” The “because of Me” is extremely important. It goes back to what Luanne wrote about last week. Why do people hate us? Is it because we are embodying the mission of Jesus and working on behalf of freedom and equity for all people? If so, Jesus says we are blessed, and the kingdom is ours. But if we are hated because we look too little like Jesus, we can’t say that we are suffering persecution. Being told to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple is not the same as being persecuted. Giving others whose lifestyle we disagree with basic human rights does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Taking “under God” out of the pledge of allegiance or “in God we trust” off of our currency, as some have suggested we do, does not equal persecution. Separating religion and government (church & state) does not mean Christians are being persecuted. Instituting laws that protect and make provision for vulnerable “others” is not persecution of our “values”. And Starbucks not writing “Merry Christmas” on their cups is absolutely NOT persecution. This is a short list, but I’ll stop here. I think you get my point.

Jesus said we are blessed when we are persecuted because of Him. As we understand more and more about who He is–His ways, His kingdom, and His love for ALL people–and as we identify with Him and take on His mission of setting captives free, persecution will happen. Because we’ll be living out the radical ways of Jesus. But NOT because our happy, religious, self-righteous, rule-following bubbles are being popped.

Stu Garrard wrote these words:

“As we see the world differently, we can resist the urge to go take sides, even though that’s the path of least resistance. When we find ourselves living as peacemakers in the world, this kind of living so easily leads to persecution because we all know the way the world works–it wants us to pick a side and it’s not going to go down so well when we don’t pick a side and we want to see everyone flourish. And so then we find ourselves not being picked for a side, because fear runs the show, and saying and showing with our lives that love actually casts out fear–well, that’s pretty bad for business. So persecution for us might not look like it does for others in far-off lands. It might just be that we are excluded from the dominant story of the dominant culture… Holy troublemakers are people who are compelled to live a life worthy of a pushback–a life worthy of persecution… They are often misfits and misunderstood. Holy troublemakers understand that where there’s persecution, there is suffering. And when we suffer for the cause of righteousness and justice, we connect with the suffering of the greatest misfit of all time.”

So. To live is Christ… To truly live is to be connected to the heart of Jesus, to His mission of setting captives free. To leverage our lives on behalf of others because we know that the invitation to belief and suffering is a gift of grace. To endure persecution because we look and act too much like the One we follow. To truly live is to die to ourselves and to awaken to new life that freely gives itself away so others can live. And we’re meant to live this way together. 

Dear Church, can you imagine how the world would change if we actually lived this way? It makes my heart pound to think about it. The invitation has been given to each of us. What is our response?

–Laura

To live is Christ…

He stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’  Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  (Luke 4:17-20)

Welcome to the beginning of the Kingdom of Heaven coming on earth. Welcome to the new way of doing life.

After Jesus spoke these words, the listeners in the synagogue were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips, yet a few short verses later the crowd was furious with Jesus, so furious that they drove him out of town and wanted to throw him down a cliff. Why? Because he reminded the Israelites in the synagogue that in Elijah’s time, during severe famine, God did not send Elijah to help an Israelite–God sent Elijah to help a widow in Zarephath, and God did not heal Hebrew lepers through Elisha, but Naaman, the Syrian, was healed.

His listeners could not believe that God might include the “outsiders” in His kingdom, and it made them murderously furious. There are things going on this very day that are contrary to the principles of the Kingdom of God. There are hot-button issues that are creating fury. Where do you land on these issues? What are you wrestling with?

To live is Christ…

Laura reminded us above that Paul’s choosing to use the word “Christ” indicates His purpose, His mission, His ways.  Dear Church–His mission is what we are to be about. Jesus’ heart for everyone put him at odds with those who wanted him to fit in their box. And on the day He was crucified, He still had a heart of compassion for those who misunderstood–Father forgive them…(Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul, Peter, John and others model for us that when they were persecuted because of the mission of Jesus, they did not respond in hateful ways hollering about their rights. They continued to talk about Jesus. They shared with their hostile listeners how to come into a relationship with Him. Some did. Others had them beaten, thrown into prison, and killed.

Dear Church–whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. (Ph 1:27)

“conduct yourselves” literally means in the Greek  be a citizen of…

So here is the question: Which kingdom do we exalt most by the way we live?  Do we understand what it means to truly live as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven?

Dear Church– it doesn’t look like the systems of the world. We have got to know this. We have got to know this. We have got to know this.

Paul encourages the church to:

Stand firm in one spirit

To contend together as one person for the faith of the gospel

To stand courageously, not being frightened by those who oppose us. (1:27)

What is he saying?  He is saying–Dear Church, be unified around the message and mission of Christ; fight together as one for those around you to believe, to have faith, to be convinced that God loves them; let them know that the crucifixion of Jesus is the turning point, the veil has been torn, there is now no separation between God and humankind, and invite them into a new life fueled by the Holy Spirit, full of God’s love and divine purpose which is available for everyone. Teach them to love, to minister to the poor, the prisoner, the blind, the oppressed, and to live and work for the flourishing of everyone. Yes, everyone.

To do this, we must each know the real Jesus. Laura wrote about this above and I want to reiterate it; to believe in Jesus is not about having the right knowledge about Him. It’s not being able to recite the apostle’s creed or any other list. Belief/faith is conviction that leads to action.

Brennan Manning in his book “The Signature of Jesus” writes…”that Jesus marveled at the Roman centurion’s ‘faith’ means that he was surprised by the man’s deep trust, not by the way he could rattle off a list of beliefs…And when Jesus reproved the disciples for their ‘lack of faith,’ he meant their lack of trust and courage…Faith was courageous trust in Jesus and in the Good News which he lived and preached.”

Do we know Jesus well enough to be courageous for Him and His ways? His all inclusive, loving ways? Do we care about people more than we care about policies? Are we willing to be courageous, to be different, to be opposed?

I find it sobering to think of the visual that the Philippian church must have had when they read what Paul was saying to them about contending together for Jesus.

Philippi was a Roman colony with a Roman arena in the midst of it. The Roman arena was the pinnacle of Roman culture in colonized cities. The power of Rome was displayed in the arenas. Messages from Caesar were delivered in the arenas. Jesus’ followers were put to death in the arenas.

Paul doesn’t tell the believers in Philippi  to fight back against Rome. He tells them to contend together so that others will see Jesus and give their lives to Him. He tells them to be courageous as they are opposed. And, as Laura wrote above, Paul reminds them that they have been graced with the opportunity to not only believe in Christ, but to suffer for Him. The Message translation writes it like this: There’s far more to this life than trusting in Christ. There’s also suffering for him. And the suffering is as much a gift as the trusting. (v. 29)

To be a follower of Jesus is to live a selfless life. There is cost involved. Pastor John pointed out that I cannot live for Jesus and for myself at the same time. I cannot live for others and for myself at the same time.

He pointed out that our “arena” is where we live, wrestle, fall, fail, get back up, grow, die…  My arena is my life, your arena is your life. Our “contending as one” arena is the Church. How are we living in our arenas?  Are we letting the culture of Christ shape our arenas? Are the spectators, the citizens of this world, seeing Jesus?

Dear Church–Jesus told us that the world will hate us for doing life His way. The world will hate us for righteousness sake. The world will hate for for being rightly related with God and leveraging our lives to be rightly related with others. Are we willing to be misunderstood for the sake of His kingdom? Are we willing to be persecuted for His name’s sake?  If so, Jesus tells us that we will be blessed.

Sacrifice, suffering, joy, it all goes together. And as we lay our lives down and lift the life of Jesus up, we become the answer to His prayer…may Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…and we give all we are to move toward the glorious day when the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ… (Rev. 11:15)

Dear Church–conduct yourselves (be a citizen) worthy of the gospel of Christ…

To live is Christ…

–Luanne

God’s Guidance

I had a delightful friend in college who was born blind. She was very independent, lived in the dorm, used a cane, and got around remarkably well. One evening I was looking out the window of my dorm room and saw her heading toward the normal sidewalk that would take her to the commons; however, this particular evening someone had parked their car on the striped “no parking” lines and had blocked the sidewalk. Jana tapped her way along her normal route, but the car in that spot threw her off and she became disoriented. I didn’t even take the time to put on shoes, and ran as quickly as I could down the stairs and out of the dorm to offer her assistance. I explained to her what had happened, offered her my arm, and we headed to the commons together, having great conversation as we went.

It has been a long time since I’ve thought about that incident, but it popped right into my head when John read Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them: I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth.”

God’s guidance–what a gift!

I don’t know if we post-resurrection Jesus followers truly understand the incredible gift we have. In the Old Testament, the Spirit of God wasn’t in common people. Some people were anointed by the Spirit and they gave God’s message to others. Sometimes God sent angelic beings to speak to people, but the majority of the people had no intimate connection with God, so seeking His guidance was difficult. If there was no “anointed” person around, the people floundered. In the book of Judges, verses 17:6 and 21:25  tell us that “in those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes”,  which led them into bondage and misery.

But God had a plan. Through the prophet Ezekiel God told us, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (36:26-27) 

Jesus reiterates the same promise in John 14:16-17 when he tells his disciples “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever–the Spirit of truth…you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.”  

Back to my story with Jana–I could have watched Jana in her confusion hoping that she’d get it figured out on her own, or I could have opened the window and hollered instructions to her, but indifference or instruction from a distance wouldn’t have sufficed. Presence, proximity, and physical contact were what was needed, and it was a joy to be able to assist her in that way.

If we look closely at the Ezekiel and John verses, they imply incredible intimacy. The word “put” implies a hands on action, and His Spirit in us…it’s mind blowing–deeply personal, deeply intimate. Words will never be able to express the awe-inspiring greatness of that reality.

Guidance implies proximity and movement. I went to Jana, got near her.  She took my arm, and I led her to her destination. It would have been silly for us to just stand there. The same is true in our relationship with Christ.

The Holy Spirit is in those who have submitted their lives to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and one of His roles is to guide us, not from afar, but in “within us” nearness. The Holy Spirit is very much alive, very much active; He knows where we are headed and He knows how to get us there.  He works in tandem with the word of God to lead us where He wants us to go. Hunting guides, fishing guides, trail guides etc. are all present in their guiding. They teach, they lead, they guide. The role of the follower is to listen, to imitate, to follow. Independence will not serve the follower well.

The Holy Spirit is present and longing to be our guide. Do we take time to seek Him? Do we make time to be still and listen?  Independence will not serve us well. God has a mission for us. Will we take His arm and let Him lead?

–Luanne

Luanne articulated that it would have been silly for her and Jana to just stand there, not moving, and that the same is true in our relationships with Christ. And yet… is that not exactly what we do much of the time? John took it one step further Sunday when he said that not moving when God is trying to lead us is actually disobedience. I don’t think we are often deliberately disobedient in our walks with Christ, (although, admittedly, there are times I have told Him no when I knew he required my yes–so grateful for grace!) but it’s easier than we may readily realize to find ourselves in a stance of disobedience.

John articulated one of the reasons we can find ourselves standing still as fear of doing it wrong. This is a huge part of my story. I spent most of my life drowning in seas of insecurity, feeling incapable and worthless and just plain not enough. So when God began to ask me to step out and let Him lead me deeper into the waves, my first instinct was to dig in my heels and rattle off all of the reasons why I couldn’t. Honestly? Sometimes that’s still my first instinct. The fear of doing it wrong–whatever “it” is in any given season–is a formidable obstacle. If we don’t understand the heart of our God.

I was there. I was living out of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil rather than the tree of life. The tree of striving and performing even while knowing it’s never going to be good enough, instead of the tree that reminds us that Jesus is the good enough we can never be. He offers His more than enough through the power of His Spirit to equip us to follow where He leads. But if we don’t understand the tender heart of the Shepherd toward His sheep, it’s easy to stand still out of fear rather than respond to His voice. So what is His heart toward us as He leads us? Here are just a few examples…

He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. Isaiah 40:11

He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soulHe guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. Psalm 23:2-3

The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frameYou will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Isaiah 58:11

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26

In these four verses, we read that God tends to us, gathers and carries and gently leads us, makes us lie down and refreshes our souls. He satisfies our needs and strengthens our frames. And His Spirit helps us in our weakness and even intercedes for us when we can’t find the words to pray. This is Who we follow. And when we see Him, when we begin to grasp the extravagant gift of His Spirit residing IN us, fear of doing it wrong fades as we realize that we never had the ability to do it right on our own and we never will. It is only through the power of His Spirit and the living guidance of His word that we can follow where He leads. And that frees us up to take the next step. Because it was never meant to be done in our own power. In fact, “taking the next step” isn’t all our own doing either…

If Jesus is truly our Lord, if we have submitted our lives to Him, then His Spirit lives within us. In the Ezekiel 36 passage Luanne included, God says “…I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow…”. There are two actions mentioned here–“put” and “move”. God puts His Spirit in us in a holy transaction that brings our dead souls to life. AND, He moves us to follow. So our “next step” is never taken in our own strength. God moves us to follow Him, “For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 Amplified).

What a good Father He is… He sent Jesus to die so we could live. He gave us His Spirit so we will never walk alone. He gives us the longing and the ability to do what He is calling us to do so we never have to muster up the “want to” or strive beyond our capabilities… He works within us and moves us–even when we feel paralyzed by fear. And even when we try to run the other way, far from Him, He never leaves us. Because we serve a God who is with us. A God who makes His home inside of us. This is the God who leads us. Will we surrender our fearful hearts to the One who is already holding them in His tender, loving hands?

–Laura

spirit lead me