Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

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

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

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

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

Who we are…

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

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

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

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

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

Then chapter 8 begins with:

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Sermon on the Mount: Being Over Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moore goes on to write,

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

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

“Without love, all fruit is plastic.”

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joy that overflows,

peace that subdues,

patience that endures,

kindness in action,

a life full of virtue,

faith that prevails,

gentleness of heart, and

strength of spirit.

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

(Galatians 5:22-23)

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

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

Jesus goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

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

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

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

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

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit

What Did He Say?

Right & wrong. Black & white. Open & closed. Good & bad. 

We have all been conditioned to think in such dualisms. Some of us are more prone to investigate the gray while others of us hold more tightly to these either/or narratives, but all of us are affected by this way of thinking more than we realize. It is dangerous when all of life is filtered through these dualisms because this kind of thinking inevitably leads to a superior/inferior, “us versus them” kind of mindset. Dualisms limit growth, keep us stuck, and are not compatible with kingdom living.

Pastor Beau began his sermon on Sunday by acknowledging his own tendency to see life in a black and white, dualistic way. He admitted he struggles to see all the gray, all the nuance that lives between the two fixed points, and shared with us that his journey to see beyond those dualities is a difficult one. His message was not part of Pastor John’s Sermon on the Mount series, but it was connected. He took us back to Matthew 5:17 and reminded us that Jesus said he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. He explained more about what that meant culturally and historically–it was fascinating! I’m going to move into some of his other points, but if you want to hear more about that part, you can watch the full sermon here.

Beau shared that the “You have heard it said… but I say…” statements from Jesus that Pastor John has highlighted these past few weeks have really stuck with him. He told us that he sees these statements as an invitation to repentance. Before expanding on that, he reminded us what it actually means to repent. The three words in the Bible that are translated “repent” in English mean a strong desire to change; a change of mind, purpose, and action. He went on to emphasize the importance of changing our minds, the way we think, over defaulting to the behavior modification that our westernized understanding of repentance often implies. He told us that if we change how we think, our actions will follow–it doesn’t work the other way around.

Beau reminded us that Jesus had strong words for those who were all about behavior modification but not advocates for deep, real change. In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says to the teachers of the law,

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.” (NLT)

Cleaning up what people see on the outside is not enough. Jesus cares about what’s inside. And, as Pastor Beau shared, that begins by changing how we think. Are we willing to see things differently? To take a hard look at ourselves and say to God,

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

(Psalm 139:23-24, TPT)

Beau told us that he doesn’t see repentance as a one-time prerequisite to salvation. He sees it as a lifelong journey, a part of our daily walk with Jesus. I agree. Luanne and I have written many times about regularly praying the words above out of Psalm 139 and about the importance of asking Jesus to search our hearts because there are things within all of us that we can’t always see on our own.

What does repentance actually require? Beau highlighted a few things:

Honesty. 

Humility.

Critical evaluation of our beliefs and behaviors.

If we are willing to be honest with others and with ourselves about what we know and what we don’t, we will realize how much we still have to learn. Honestly admitting that we don’t know everything is the first step to changing how we think. Humility flows from this place. When we acknowledge that there is much we don’t know and that we have areas where we need to grow, it puts us into a posture to learn. It also allows us to lower our defenses as we engage in honest critiques about ourselves, which we must do with Jesus as our guide. This part is not about burning everything down. It is simply being willing to empty our knapsack, lay everything we’ve packed in there out on the table, and ask why we’re carrying those things. Why do we see things a certain way? Why do we believe what we do? Why do we engage in the behaviors we engage in, and what habits do we have that are shaping how we live and interact with God and others?

Pastor Beau identified that critically evaluating these things is different than criticism. We all tend to push back when we feel criticized. Sometimes, we are so critical of ourselves that no one else has to say anything at all–we beat ourselves down and put up our defenses all on our own. Deconstructing parts of our lives that need to be taken apart and rebuilt can feel this way. That’s why it is so important that we do so with Jesus as our filter and our companion. We ask him as we investigate what we’ve been carrying, “Does this serve you, me, the kingdom well? Does this belief line up with your ways? Do these behaviors line up with your way of love or do they further separate and divide us as brothers and sisters in the kingdom?” 

And then?

We listen.

We learn.

We remember that Jesus is our teacher and we are his disciples. Which means that we place ourselves under his authority and learn from him. Then we share with others–by how we live, not what we say--what we have learned. We disciple others by loving them the way that we experience being loved by Jesus.

What God desires most from his children is our hearts. He longs that we be his from the inside out. He couldn’t care less about “good” behavior or “right” living that isn’t rooted in  love and knowledge of him. He cares plenty about us bearing good fruit, but he sees right through the fake fruit that we try to pass off as authentic. Here’s some of what the Bible tells us he has to say about this…

“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.
I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”

(Hosea 6:6 NLT)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

(Amos 5:21-24, MSG)

“Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless.”

(Isaiah 1:13-17)

The prophets wrote down God’s words to his people in these Hebrew Scriptures. Beau emphasized that God was saying to his people, as he says to us today,

It’s not about doing all the things! Don’t simply do things! Bring me your heart, your love. Come. To. Me.

Jesus says in Matthew 12:33,

“A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” (NLT)

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. As Pastor Beau identified, this is a reorientation of our whole person. We have to get more comfortable with saying things like,

“I don’t know.”

“I’m still learning.”

“I was wrong.”

“We were wrong.”

One of the prayers I pray nearly every morning contains these words:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent... (emphasis mine)

We humbly repent. Change how we think. Daily. Moment by moment. As we listen to and learn from and become more committed disciples of Jesus, our Teacher. This is not a one-time action, or a project to perfect. It is a lifelong journey of becoming more and more like Jesus.

May we have the courage to be honest, to humbly evaluate our inmost being with the Holy Spirit as our guide, and to reorient our whole being toward our God. Jesus is calling us to radical repentance, especially in these days of deadly dualism. How, Church, will we respond?

–Laura

Richard Rohr Quote: “I think most human beings are dualistic ...

You’ve Heard it Said…

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

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

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

Well, not so fast. Jesus hops right over murder and addresses the heart-the issue of anger that happens before we escalate to murderous rage. Murder is an outward action. Anger is an inward emotion. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside.

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

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

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

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

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

No wonder they were hungry for the bread of life…

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

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

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

Treating each other with dignity and honor…

Luanne wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Psalm 139, TPT)

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

The psalmist writes these words,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The psalm ends with these beautiful words:

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

Sermon on the Mount #2

Last week was the first installment in our series that will take us through the Sermon on the Mount. Pastor John set the scene and began to share with us what Jesus taught about what living in the kingdom looks like. If you missed our post from last week, it may be helpful to go back and read it before we dive into the remaining six beatitudes–you can do that here: Sermon on the Mount #1.

Pastor John told us last week–and shared with us again on Sunday–that in this famous sermon, and specifically the Beatitudes, Jesus is telling his followers how to be in the world. We covered the first three:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

(Matthew 5:3-5, NIV)

We pick up this week right where we left off. In the fourth of nine beatitudes, Jesus tells us:

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

(Matthew 5:6, NIV)

Pastor John told us that this beatitude has to do with putting God and his kingdom first in our hearts, that it means being “rightly related” to God. When we see the word righteousness, our minds naturally take us somewhere other than where the verse intends for us to go. For a more complete understanding of what this verse communicates, it is helpful to see it in another translation and take a deeper look into what it means.

God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.

(Matthew 5:6, NLT)

Richard Rohr, in his daily meditation titled, “Blessed are Those Who Hunger for Justice,” (February 2018) writes:

“This Beatitude is surely both spiritual and social. Most Bibles to this day soften this Beatitude: “hunger and thirst for what is right” or “for righteousness” are the more common faulty translations. But the word in Greek clearly means “justice”. . .”

The word Rohr writes about is the Greek word dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.” There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others. Rohr’s meditation continues:

My friend John Dear, who has spent his life in the struggle against the injustice of violence, writes about this Beatitude:

Righteousness is not just the private practice of doing good; it sums up the global responsibility of the human community to make sure every human being has what they need, that everyone pursues a fair sense of justice for every other human being, and that everyone lives in right relationship with one another, creation, and God.

. . . Jesus instructs us to be passionate for social, economic, and racial justice. That’s the real meaning of the Hebrew word for justice and the Jewish insistence on it. Resist systemic, structured, institutionalized injustice with every bone in your body, with all your might, with your very soul, he teaches. Seek justice as if it were your food and drink, your bread and water, as if it were a matter of life and death, which it is. . . . Within our relationship to the God of justice and peace, those who give their lives to that struggle, Jesus promises, will be satisfied. . .”

The next verse reads:

“How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you.” (5:7, TPT)

The word mercy, according to Strong’s definition, means to be compassionate, with the help of divine grace; to desire to help another who is afflicted. It is more than a feeling. It includes action because, as we’ve written about before, compassion is co-suffering with another. It is a visceral, from-the-depths-of-our-guts response. It is empathy that comes alongside another. As Pastor John shared, mercy is moving toward all those who may be far away, with the same mercy we have received from our Jesus who always moves toward us. In Jesus’ kingdom, we don’t push people away. Withholding mercy is not–and has never been–a kingdom principle. We honor the inherent dignity and worth in all others rather than judging them, because this is what we ourselves have experienced from our loving God.

Following mercy, Jesus tells his listeners about the importance of being pure in heart. The Message paraphrases it this way:

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.” (5:8, MSG)

I love this particular wording of this beatitude. It communicates the importance of wholeheartedness to readers who may find it all too easy and comfortable to live a duplicitous life. When our minds and hearts are set right, undivided, wholly focused on the One we worship, we’ll see God everywhere. What is alive within us we will see all around us, as we live committed to following the voice of Jesus.

“Blessed [spiritually calm with life-joy in God’s favor] are the makers and maintainers of peace, for they will [express His character and] be called the sons of God.”

(5:9, AMP)

The Amplified Bible really captures what this seventh beatitude means. We often read in more familiar translations, “Blessed are the peacemakers…” In this translation, we read that it is the makers and maintainers of peace who are blessed, for in working for peace, they express the character of Jesus himself, who is the embodiment of peace. Pastor John referred to one of my favorite verses when he reached this point in his sermon. It is Ephesians 2:14, and it reads,

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility… (emphasis mine)

I have loved this verse for a long time, because in it we find that peace isn’t an elusive feeling or state of mind to chase after. Peace–the Shalom that brings wholeness, equity, and completeness–is a person. The person of Jesus. If we know him, we know peace, peace lives within us, peace is part of who we are. And then we, as we become more and more like the one we follow, become makers and maintainers of that same kind of peace.

Jesus brought all of humanity into the fold. His Shalom breaks down barriers and erases divisions. He did it when he walked the earth, and he is doing it still. It is a kingdom value to connect with one another as equals–equally dependent on the vine that sustains  every branch, each of us. There is no room for hostility, for “us vs. them” mindsets, for attitudes of superiority in the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. Instead of adding to conflict, chaos, and confusion, we are invited to engage in the process of making and maintaining peace–with everyone.

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

“Blessed [morally courageous and spiritually alive with life-joy in God’s goodness] are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil things against you because of [your association with] Me. Be glad and exceedingly joyful, for your reward in heaven is great [absolutely inexhaustible]; for in this same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (5:11-12, AMP)

The eighth and ninth beatitude are similar, but not the same. Verse 10 relates to verse 6. The persecution the eighth beatitude speaks of is the persecution we face when we work for equity and justice, when we seek to bring the kingdom and its values to all people. Verses 11-12 speak to a more general persecution, the kind that may come simply because we love Jesus and follow his ways.

As Pastor John shared on Sunday, what Jesus is saying in these verses is radical–then, and now. He is flipping the script on what it means to be called blessed. He is elevating the leasts and the lasts, and calling the firsts and the greatest to lives of service and humility. He offers points of connection in these nine kingdom principles–ways to bring equity to unjust systems, structures, and mindsets. Just as many did not take kindly to his words then, many of us may not want to take them at face value now. John articulated the struggle with these words:

“God says through Jesus on the sermon on the mount:

GOD SAYS, Blessed are the poor in Spirit… BUT WE SAY, blessed are the rich.

God says, Blessed are those who mourn. But we say, blessed are the self satisfied.

God says, Blessed are the meek. But we say blessed are the aggressors.

God says, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. But we say, blessed are the self fulfilled.

God says, Blessed are the merciful… But we say, blessed are the manipulators.

God says, Blessed are the pure in heart… But we say, blessed are the extreme.

God says, Blessed are the peacemakers… But we say, blessed are the powerful.

God says, Blessed are those who are persecuted… But we say, blessed are those who play it safe.

God says we are blessed when we are persecuted because of him… But we say blessed are those who are not persecuted at all.”

He’s right, isn’t he? We do tend to bless the opposite of what God calls blessed. Many of us are used to being comfortable. Our lives are full of good things, things we label as “blessing” or “favor” from God. Even though we all face hardships, if we can read and write these words and access this blog online, we are among the world’s most privileged. That means that we don’t naturally fit into the categories of the blessed that Jesus speaks of in this sermon. But we can be… Luanne wrote last week,

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

Jesus came to even the ground for each one who bears his image–that’s all of us. Every single human being. It feels like that comes at a great cost to those of us who have more. But it is actually an opportunity to more fully identify with Jesus and embody his nature, if we’re willing to embrace his ways. This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–

The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

–Laura

In the Old Testament, after God delivered the Israelites from slavery, Moses (their leader), went up on a mountain and received the Ten Commandments from God. These commandments were to be the behaviors that identified God’s people as being different from the nations around them. They were intended to be so different (in a good way) that they would draw those nations to God. Moses received these commandments, came down the mountain and shared them with the people. If we read the commandments with the right heart, we will see that they are all about loving God and loving others. Don’t hold anything else in your life above God, don’t worship anything other than God, don’t misuse God’s name, honor God (and yourself) by having a healthy work/rest balance, honor your parents, don’t kill people, don’t cheat on people, don’t steal from people, don’t lie about people, don’t covet what someone else has. The core message of the commandments is how to live righteously– in right relationship with God and others; however, they became flat rules to follow and were/are used for comparison, exclusion, and oppression.

Quite a few centuries later, God, clothed in flesh, goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach those willing to learn about being. Jesus teaches that the attitudes and behaviors of God’s kingdom people will be formed from the inside out.  The beatitudes are a radical departure from the ways of the world and the common ways of being human.

If we recall what was happening during the time of Jesus’ earthly life, he was born into a people group oppressed by Rome. Rome ruled with power, conquest and violence. They mistreated people just because they could.  And, within Jesus’ own people group, the religious system had also become one of oppression. The religious leaders tried to legislate morality and monitor people’s choices and behaviors. They were the self-appointed gatekeepers who determined who was acceptable to God and who wasn’t; they weren’t afraid to use their power to resort to violence.

Into this environment the Sermon on the Mount is spoken. Jesus, the true Messiah, the King of kings, the Prince of peace, teaches what his kingdom on earth is to look like. It is the antithesis of worldly power, oppression, violence, and force. In referring to the Sermon on the Mount, Brian Zahnd writes in his book Water to Wine: “Unlike all other political agendas, the supreme value of the politics of Jesus is not power but love…..The kingdom of God persuades by love, witness, Spirit, reason, rhetoric, and if need by, martyrdom–but never by force. ….In the politics of Jesus the world will be changed by non-coercive love or not at all.”  

As we move through this sermon over the next few months, we will see Jesus mention some behaviors, but he begins the whole thing by saying–this is how my followers are to be. The “being” comes before the “behaving”.  Our authentic behavior flows from our being.

It’s important to remember that each of the nine beatitudes are connected to the others. None of them is a stand-alone. When they were written, there were no chapters and verses. And, like the Old Testament commandments, the beatitudes are all about loving God and loving others.

Using The Passion Translation, I’m going to write the beatitudes out in reverse order. I chose that version because it’s translated from Aramaic rather than Greek. Its fresh perspective will keep us from skimming due to familiarity. I will include some of TPT’s  footnotes in parenthesis. Consider reading it through one time without paying attention to what’s in parenthesis, and then a second time including the parenthetical parts. This is how Jesus’ followers are to be:

How ecstatic you can be when people insult (criticize) and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted (rejected) for doing what is right (for the Righteous One)! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How blessed you are when you make peace! For then you will be recognized as a true child of God. What bliss you experience when your heart is pure (full of innocence)! For then your eyes will open to see more and more of God. How satisfied you are when you demonstrate tender mercy! For tender mercy will be demonstrated to you. (Mercy…comes from our innermost being. The [Aramaic] root word for “mercy” is the root word for “womb”.) How enriched you are when you crave righteousness (goodness, justice)! For you will be surrounded with fruitfulness. What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you (implies being both gentle and flexible)! For you will inherit the earth. What delight comes to you when you wait upon the Lord (The Hebrew word for “wait” and for “mourn” is almost identical.) For you will find what you long for. (The Aramaic is see the face of what (or who) you long for. The Greek is be comforted). What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty (humble and totally dependent upon God)! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom.

This morning, my devotional reading was in Acts 7 and was the account of the stoning of Stephen. As I was reading it, I couldn’t help but recognize the beatitudes in Stephen’s story.  In Acts 6 we learn that Stephen was chosen to help in the ministry of distributing food to both Hellenistic and Hebraic widows There had been inequitable treatment between these two groups and a dispute had taken place. Stephen was chosen because he was  a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit (6:5), and in verse 8 we learn he was a man full of God’s grace and power, [and] performed great wonders and signs among the people. 

Among the religious leaders, opposition rose against Stephen. They argued with him but could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke (6:10) So they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (6:11). They produced false witnesses...(6:13). 

While all this craziness was going on the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (6:15) . 

In Acts 7, Stephen is given the opportunity to defend himself, and he shares with the leaders their own history of persecuting the prophets and their role in murdering Jesus. The religious elite don’t like this message at all.  As the frenzy escalates, Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (7:55-56).  The religious leaders lost all self-control; they yelled at the top of their lungs, they rushed him, grabbed him, dragged him outside the city, and began to stone him. (57-59).

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (59-60). 

Stephen, a man full of the Holy Spirit, full of grace, full of wisdom, full of the power of God, falsely accused, brutally murdered, asks God to forgive his perpetrators, and dies.

What does this have to do with the beatitudes? Everything. We read Stephen’s story and are inspired by his faith–but do we want to be like him? I’m certainly not implying that there is any part of me that wants Stephen’s story (except for the wisdom, grace, and Holy Spirit part). But blessed are we when people falsely accuse us, persecute us, and  when we make peace, have a pure heart, demonstrate tender mercy, crave rightousness, act with gentleness, mourn (feel deeply for others), wait upon the Lord, and live in utter dependence upon God. All of that is demonstrated in Stephen’s story.

It’s sobering to realize just how very different the principles of God’s kingdom are from the the principles that we’ve adopted from our societal culture. Scroll back up to Laura’s post and read the God says….but we say… statements. Written out like they are really highlights the things we value that are not the same things God values. I’m not sure that we can sort out kingdom culture from worldly culture and kingdom politics from worldly politics without tremendous humility and reliance upon the Holy Spirit to guide us. To live so counter-culturally requires incredible courage. Even in this day, living according to Jesus’ teaching is misunderstood and can lead to division–even (maybe especially) among Christians. So what are we to do?

Just as there are nine beatitudes, there is another list in the New Testament that contains nine elements. It’s found in Galatians 5:22-23 and says: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,  gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

As we ponder the words of Jesus, as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform our inner beings, as our attitudes become more and more like the attitude of Christ, the fruit of the Spirit will flow out of us and we will live in the realm of God’s kingdom, seeing more and more of the face of the One we long for, and changing the world by the non-coercive love of God.  Blessed are…

Laura asked: Do we really want to live like this?  

Do we?

–Luanne

The Beatitudes – Ipswich Catholic Community

Rescue: The Thief and The Garden

If you’ve been reading our blog for the last few weeks, you know that Pastor John has been moving through a series on rescue. We’ve looked at personal rescue, such as Abram rescuing Lot, Boaz rescuing Ruth (and Ruth rescuing Naomi), The reckless love of the father running to his homeward-bound destitute younger son, and going out to his indignant older son, and we’ve looked at God’s rescuing of an entire nation when he led the Israelites out of slavery under the leadership of Moses.

Today’s story of rescue, found in Luke 23:32-43 happens as Jesus is hanging on the cross, gasping for every breath; he is dying. He is hanging between two men who are in the same situation. I imagine neither of them was wearing a crown of thorns, and I don’t know if they’d been beaten almost to death by Roman soldiers prior to their crucifixions, but they were definitely suffering on their crosses. These three men were that day’s example of Rome’s cruelty and violent means to ensure their power–many people were crucified during Rome’s reign.

Before I move on from here, I want to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a global pandemic. Thousands of people are dying. Most everyone has had life disrupted. Many have lost jobs. In times like these, it is not unusual for people to blame God or ask God where he is and why he has abandoned us, or why he is so cruel. While I certainly don’t understand the ways of God, I do know, because the cross is evidence, that God is in this with us. He loves us. He joins us in our suffering. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus writes:

Jesus doesn’t die as a lone sufferer, but as Immanuel among the sufferers…To see Jesus Christ hung upon a cross wearing a crown of thorns, with victims on either side, is perhaps, the most powerful single image of the gospel. Incarnation, forgiveness, and kingdom are all present.  

Immanuel, God with us–even in this. We are not alone.

As Jesus is nailed to the cross he speaks words that many of us are familiar with: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” (Luke 23:34)  

There’s a footnote in The Passion Translation regarding this phrase that says: The Greek text implies a repetitive action… As the centurion crushed him to the ground and tied his arms to the crossbeam, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” When the spikes tore through each quivering palm, he prayed again, “Father, forgive them.” And when the soldiers parted his garments and gambled for the seamless robe, again Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.” Only heaven knows how many times that prayer was spoken.  

Let that sink in. This is the heart of God. No one was asking for forgiveness, yet God the Son was requesting undeserved forgiveness for his violent perpetrators, as his fully human body was being tortured beyond anything we can imagine. I’m reminded of John 3:17:  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  It’s mind-blowing. God’s unconditional love is mind-blowing.

It makes me wonder, as Jesus intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:34),  is he still praying “Father, forgive them.”?  Or was his overarching forgiveness fully accomplished on the cross, and now we live in unconditional forgiveness? I don’t know the answers, but I do know that no one is beyond God’s forgiveness and embrace. Not even the two men who were crucified with Jesus.

The King James version calls the two men “malefactors”. I like that word–I think it captures the essence of their misdeeds. The word basically means “evil-doer”. Etymonline.com says it’s “one who does evil or injury to another” (the opposite of benefactor). There are some commentaries that suggest these two men were partners in crime with Barabbas (the insurrectionist who Pilate set free in exchange for Jesus).  If they were part of an insurrection to overthrow Rome, Rome’s leaders would certainly perceive that as evil. If they had killed Romans while pursuing revolutionary acts, Rome would certainly have perceived that as injury to another. No matter what their actual crimes were, according to the power and structure of Rome, they were malefactors, and therefore worthy of public humiliation, torture and execution. I think it’s important to pause for a moment and remember that like all human beings, these two were more than the descriptive labels placed upon them. They had names, families, friends, personalities, and life stories that led them to this point–real people, not just dehumanizing labels.

And it is here, in the chaos of this moment that one of these men mocks Jesus and the other reaches out to Jesus. Luke describes the moment like this:

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (23: 39-43)

We (I) can be either one of these men at any given moment. Sometimes I am asking God to fix a situation, I get frustrated when he doesn’t seem to listen, and doesn’t come through the way I want him to. I can frame it in really lofty language, but the heart is often–come on, God…do this according to my desires. That’s what one of the men was doing—“Come on, Jesus, save yourself and us.” His understanding of salvation was – get me off this cross so I can continue with life as normal.

The other man had eyes to see something different. He recognized Jesus’ innocence;  he knew, that despite what every earthly thing looked like, Jesus had a kingdom and he wanted to be part of it.  His understanding of salvation was union with Jesus.

Jesus said to him…TODAY, you will be with me in paradise.

Paradise–it means “garden”–as in the Garden of Eden before the fall kind of garden. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon states: According to the opinion of many of the church Fathers, the paradise in which our first parents dwelt before the fall still exists, neither on earth nor in the heavens, but above and beyond the world.

This same word  paradise is used in Revelation 2:7 where the resurrected Jesus says: “Anyone with ears to hear must listen to the Spirit and understand what he is saying to the churches. To everyone who is victorious, I will give fruit from the tree of life in the paradise of God.”

Jesus says to the man, labeled malefactor, I will rescue you, and today we’ll be together in the perfect Garden of God.

I’m mIn the Genesis account of the garden, there are trees. Adam and Eve chose to eat from the one tree that they were told not to eat from–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  There was another tree in the garden–the tree of life. They could have chosen to eat from that tree.

God, for whatever reason, allows us to make choices. Some of our choices have devastating consequences. He allows us to experience the consequences of our choices, and he rescues us. Once Adam and Eve see good and evil, everything changes. Blame is almost immediate–I’m good; he/she is bad. That shift is the beginning of all the world’s chaos.

God, in what some see as punishment, didn’t want them to eat from the Tree of Life and live forever in their “good and evil” state, so he removed them from the garden in order to protect them. It was an act of love.

In the ultimate demonstration of God’s love, Jesus died on a tree and paved the way to garden of Eden life.

Revelation 22: 1-2 tells us:

He showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

This Jesus’ life is available now. Our personal rescue is available now. The healing of the nations is available now. We get to choose which tree to eat from–“good and evil” or “life”. They both bear fruit. One harms, one heals.

Today–Jesus rescues us, remembers us and reminds us his kingdom is here. Paradise begins here…

–Luanne

I have read and re-read Luanne’s words, praying for direction, asking what I might add to this week’s post. She reminds us of the hope that we have, the truths that still stand in the midst of the chaos we see and feel pressing in around us:

Jesus’ life is available now.

Our personal rescue is available now.

The healing of the nations is available now

Jesus rescues us.

Jesus remembers us.

Jesus reminds us that his kingdom is here.

Paradise begins here

All true. All beautiful. Even now.

As I typed those last words, I found myself asking, “Really? Do you believe that? Here? Now?” 

I want to. But if I’m honest, there are moments in this present turmoil we’re all facing when it all feels too lofty for my reach.

And yet, I know

I know the truth in those words because over and over, Jesus has come in the beautiful way that only he can to bear witness to my pain. He has come to me in moments of despair and doubt and refused to look away, because his love is the co-suffering kind. He endured our wrath and violence, and chose to love, forgive and welcome the very ones who mocked and maligned him as he hung, murdered unjustly to satisfy the bloodthirsty brood who didn’t have eyes to see the kingdom of peace–the paradise he brought with him when he entered into the story of humanity as one of us. And he comes still today to minister to our soul-amnesia, to stand in solidarity with us as our co-suffering savior, to bear witness to the realities of our lives when we don’t have eyes to see him standing there.

To bear witness is no small thing. It’s more than being willing to look at the hard, to not look away, though it includes that. It means to share, as one’s own, another’s testimony, to enter into pain. It is the embodiment of empathy, support, and love that lightens the load by upholding from below and covering from above.

It hurts to bear witness to another’s agony… It’s much easier to look away, to erect a wall of protection around our hearts that keeps us from feeling the weight of another’s suffering. We can look at pain so long that we become desensitized to it. We “see” it, but it never penetrates our hearts.

When Jesus walked the earth, he did so wholeheartedly. It’s a dangerous way to live because it robs one of the luxury of remaining uninvolved.  Jesus modeled what it means to bear witness to the hard and the ugly, the trauma, the grief, the losses of this life. He didn’t merely look upon pain, he entered into each story. He did not ridicule fear, doubt, and uncertainty. Rather, he acknowledged them and offered himself as the answer. He invited the weary to exchange heavy, ill-fitting yokes for a shared yoke, for his yoke. A yoke that he doesn’t place on anyone, but that he carries with everyone.

Jesus bore witness to the pain of the malefactors on either side of him while his own pain was excruciating. He bore witness to the pain he saw beneath the surface in the executors, the ugliness that lived in the hearts of those shouting, “Crucify him!” as he breathed words of pardon, of forgiveness. The men on either side of him bore witness to his pain as well, as they experienced the dying with him.

Many witnessed the events of that day with their eyes. Few bore witness to the pain Jesus endured. Among those that did were a few women including Jesus’ mother, Mary, and one of his dearest friends and followers, John.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was standing next to his cross, along with Mary’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. So when Jesus looked down and saw the disciple he loved standing with her, he said, “Mother, look–John will be a son to you.” Then he said, “John, look–she will be a mother to you!” (John 19:25-27a)

Can you imagine the grief of these women, the grief of John? What about the grief Jesus felt as he witnessed the sorrow, the anguish his mother and friends experienced as they watched him die?

None of them turned away. Not Jesus. Not his mom. Not his dear friend. They entered into the suffering of one another in the midst of their own pain.

I think that is an important point to note, to remember…

The other night, my husband and I were cooking and doing dishes. I told him that I was sorry for how back and forth, how up and down I had been lately. I told him that my emotions were swinging like crazy, and even I didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.

He told me that it was okay, and then he quietly added, “I’ve seen it before…”

What did he mean?

“After we lost your mom.”

He was identifying grief. And he was right. The volatility many of us are experiencing in these days has a name. It is grief. It comes and goes as it will, it offers neither warning nor greeting. It is the heavy blanket that wraps us head to toe and overtakes our senses. It can dampen hope and set joy just out of reach. It is grief that can make it hard to cling to the beautiful truths Luanne wrote above.

We may not all be able to identify our feelings as grief, but we are all experiencing it–individually and collectively. Losses are mounting. They look different to each of us, some stories seem more worthy of grief than others. But as I heard earlier this week, no good comes from comparing losses. The worst loss, I heard it said, is your loss. Whatever you are facing right now. We’re all experiencing loss. And loss brings grief–with or without our permission.

Usually when we face loss, there are people on the outside who can bear witness to our pain, empathize with us in our grief, offer strength to uphold us in our weakness. But right now…

None of us are on the outside. 

Each one of us, everywhere, are part of this unfolding drama. Willing or not, we are members of this cast. None of us are unaffected. This is why the example of Jesus is so important. Just as was modeled by Jesus, the women, and John, we must have the courage to look up, to behold one another even while our own grief sits heavy.

Pastor John said Sunday, “My shoulders are not big enough to carry this.”

He is absolutely right. Neither are mine. Or yours. We are all in this moment in history together, even while we’re apart. The story of Jesus teaches us many things, but one of the most vital is that it shows us our connectedness.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. . . I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love. I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. (John 15:5, 9-13)

We are all branches on the vine. The vine is Jesus. We grow connected to his life, his love, the nutrients we need for survival. We grow together on this vine. He invites us to make a home inside his love, to stay there, to find that attached to the source, we have all we need. He is the vine that bears the weight of each branch and all the branches. He is the source and the witness to the growth of each one and the fruit they produce. He is the channel through which our lives are nourished, sustained, upheld.
“Love one another the way I love you.”
He invites us to learn from him, and then to do likewise with and for one another. We are connected. Whether we want to be or not. None of us can walk through these days alone. Not one of us is strong enough to carry the burdens of the others. Only the vine can bear the weight of the collective branches… But each branch can bear witness to the branches around it. 
This Easter Sunday will look different. Church buildings will be empty. Family get togethers will be cancelled. Neighborhood egg hunts for the littles won’t be held. Our arms will ache to embrace another, and lonely tears will fall. Unknowns will abound–but don’t they always, anyway? Fear may bubble to the surface, grief may steal our breath.
And–
Our Jesus, who conquered death and holds its keys, is with us in this place. He sees. He knows. He chooses to bear witness to our pain, to suffer alongside us, to grieve our losses as his own– and, as he models the kingdom value of co-suffering love, he invites us to do the same. To lift our eyes and see. To enter in with those around us and allow them to enter in with us. Because he knows what we sometimes forget–
As we lift our eyes to bear witness to the pain, we can’t help but also see the beauty of the kingdom all around. He knows that paradise exists where love presides. He shows us the way–will we follow?
–Laura

 

Wild flowers in lush bright colorful plants

 

 

Lent: An Extravagant Rescue

Are you familiar with the story of the prodigal son?  It’s likely that most of us have heard parts of the story told in one way or another. Often, this story is referenced when discussing someone who has “fallen away,” as a warning against “wild” living, and as a reminder of the love of God that welcomes his wayward children home. The story, though, is about so much more. Entire books have been written on the subject, and we will not have the space here to dig into every nuance of the parable. We will cover as much as we can…

Before we dive into the text, let’s talk about the context of the story. First, it is a parable. A story that Jesus used to illustrate a kingdom principle. He did this all the time when addressing crowds, his disciples, even individuals. These stories were not true accounts of people in the area. They were a way for Jesus to help those who desired to listen understand the ways of his kingdom. They painted a picture of the heart of the God the people didn’t think they could see. In the stories, Jesus chose words and associations that were familiar to the people and culture of that day. They often contained an element of surprise, a twist—something unexpected and counter-cultural.

Next, it is important that we look at where the parable shows up. It is the final installment in a trilogy of stories. In most Bible translations, there are headings that accompany each story. They typically read, “Parable of the Lost Sheep,” “Parable of the Lost Coin,” and, “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Interestingly, the word “prodigal” didn’t show up in any translation of the text until 1560, when the Geneva Bible used it in the heading. At that time the definition of the word was associated with a morally neutral lavishness. It is not used in all translations and was not a word Jesus used in the original story. Also notable is the fact that the third story emphasizes the lost son—as though there was only one lost son—and doesn’t mention the father. In Jesus’ telling of the story, all three are central characters. To zero in on the one can cloud our vision of the others.

In general, I find the use of headings in scripture problematic. They divide text that was originally connected, and they impose a translator’s understanding onto the text. The headings of these three stories take readers’ minds in a direction that may have the opposite effect of Jesus’ original intention. In his telling of the stories, he emphasized that the sheep was found and there was much rejoicing, the coin was found and there was much rejoicing, the son was found—he was alive again—and there was much rejoicing. In the final story about the two sons, though, not everyone rejoiced over the lost being found. Because the story ends on a cliffhanger… There are two lost sons in the story. Jesus doesn’t tell us if the older son was found. We know that the father hoped so, he invited him and welcomed him home, too, but we’re left wondering what his son chose to do. Not only is this exemplary storytelling, it drives home the point Jesus wanted to make. He knew his audience—their biases, assumptions, proclivities, attitudes—and he told a story that would make every listener more than a little uncomfortable. If we really listen to the story, it will have the same effect on us today. Here is the scene…

A father had two sons. The younger came to him one day, demanding his share of the inheritance. His share, according to the customs of Jewish culture in that day, was one-third of everything that belonged to the father. Beginning the story like this would have shocked those listening. Losing a sheep was unfortunate, losing a coin was perhaps careless and concerning—and finding those belongings brought great joy. But then Jesus essentially says, “There was a son who told his dad, ‘I wish you were already dead. To me, you are. Give me what’s mine.’” Anyone who might have been drifting off for an afternoon nap was awake now, appalled at the audacity of this son. Most, if not all, of those in attendance probably expected the father’s wrath—his righteous judgment—to fall heavy on this wayward, entitled, disgrace of a son.

Jesus continued the story, telling his hearers that the father proceeded to divide his property among them. Did you catch that? Dad granted his youngest son’s request, but the real winner that day was the son who hadn’t really made an appearance yet. The older son, who, by very nature of being the oldest had a responsibility to protect his father’s interests. I read about this when I looked up ancient Jewish traditions regarding inheritance. Part of being the first heir, part of receiving the two-thirds share, was looking out for what belonged to the father while he was still living. Where was the older brother? Why didn’t he come to the father’s defense? While this nuance is often lost on modern-day readers, the people listening that day would have asked these questions. Why wasn’t big brother there to stop this atrocity that so dishonored his dad? Perhaps because baby brother’s rebellion benefitted him, too?

Dad divided the property among them. Little brother received his one-third. Big brother got two-thirds. I’m not a math whiz, but last I checked, one-third plus two-thirds doesn’t leave any leftovers… The father divided everything he had between his two sons. We don’t hear big brother objecting.

The story went on… Little brother liquidated his assets (again, we don’t know what this entailed or meant in that day, but this story got more and more provocative with every line Jesus spoke…) and left the Holy land to go ruin himself with the ungodly heathens he wasn’t supposed to associate with. He made terrible choices and lost everything. He decided to come crawling home, ready to confess his wrongs and to beg to be a servant in his father’s household.

At this point in the story, those in the crowd who were hungry for justice would have been foaming at the mouth, ready to hear how this disgraceful son got what he deserved. They would have known something the text doesn’t reveal, something we don’t glean with a surface-level understanding of what’s written. They knew that the community had a right—if this poor excuse for a Jewish son ever tried to come home—to stone him to death. That the laws of the time provided for retributive justice, enacted by the community, to see to it that this son got what he deserved.

The son would have known about this law, too. Still, he chose to make his way toward home.

What does this tell us about the condition of the son’s heart, that he chose to move toward almost certain death rather than stay where he was? What does it suggest he knew about the heart of the one he was returning to? While we don’t have the time or evidence to dig into these questions here, they are worth pondering, and would not have been lost on Jesus’ audience…

The crowd was likely on the edge of their seats, waiting for what Jesus was about to say. The Pharisees among them probably tilted their chins upward even further, vindictive smirks starting at the corners of their mouths…

   “When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him…” (Luke 15:20, Message)

Wait… What did Jesus just say? Nobody expected to hear those words. Wide eyes and mouths agape replaced smirks of indignance.

Why would this scorned, rejected father do that? He didn’t only dishonor his patriarchal role by lifting his robes and running… He embraced and kissed his unclean, smells-like-dirty-unholy-pigs son. He got to him first, providing protection for him, salvation from the lawful justice the community most assuredly would have enacted upon him.

I imagine the crowd was stunned. Silent. Maybe not… They may have grumbled among themselves about this “rabbi” with these “radical” views and stories. Whatever they were doing or thinking, Jesus didn’t stop there… He told them that the father then threw a party! A HUGE party. There was no discussion about wrongs committed, no expectation that his son make any kind of amends for what he had done, no “putting him in his place.” Nope. None of what his audience expected. None of what we might expect…  or might have experienced in the past… might have said to a “prodigal son” in our own lives…

When the older brother showed up and found out what happened he was, some translations say, indignant. Indignant in its root form means, “to regard as unworthy.” Ouch. He regarded his father’s son (he refused to acknowledge him as his brother) as unworthy of the treatment he was receiving. The only one worthy of that kind of feast and celebration was him. The good one. The right one. He deserved more, he deserved the party. He could not rejoice over the found son like entire communities had over the sheep and the coin. Because, in my speculation, he thought that if he did choose to celebrate his brother, it would be at the cost of his own significance, his own worthiness—everything he had worked so hard to earn, and the image he was desperate to keep. Practically, it did cost him. The two-thirds of the estate that funded the party technically belonged to him. His father had divided all his wealth among the brothers. One-third was squandered by the younger. The rest, then, belonged to the older. So maybe it was plain, old-fashioned selfishness and greed that motivated his indignance. How dare his father use his wealth on that scoundrel of a man? How dare he take from the good one to embrace the bad one?

The older brother couldn’t see that in his father’s house, there was more than enough. More than enough resources, more than enough grace, more than enough love. He couldn’t see that his father’s house was built on the principles of generosity, kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, grace, and a love that pursued both brothers.

Older brother stood outside of the party, fuming. The tender father left the party he was hosting—another cultural no-no—and went to him, just like he went to the younger son. He went to him full of love, generosity, zero condemnation. He took the time to explain why, even though he didn’t have to. He pleaded with him to join the celebration—another thing the patriarch simply would not do. But the older son was, as some translations say it, unwilling to go inside.

There is so much to digest in this package. But the unwillingness of the older brother to join the celebration has stayed at the front of my mind. It makes me ask questions I’m not sure any of us want to answer…

Who am I unwilling to celebrate?

Who am I unwilling to welcome in, to welcome home?

Who am I unwilling to worship alongside?

Who, if worshiping inside our church, would arouse feelings of indignance within me? Who would I be unwilling to join inside?

I wish I could say that there is no one I wouldn’t love to embrace. I wish I could say I am willing to invite, welcome, and protect anyone and everyone. I wish I was there. But I’m not. These questions lead to answers that reveal how far I still have to go before my heart truly looks like Jesus. And that’s why it is so important to ask and to answer them. We all have a ways to go on this journey. None of us is perfect. But this story Jesus told is a story about the father’s heart toward each child. Every single one. And it is a story that reveals the upside-down kingdom and its shocking, disruptive ways. Do we have ears to hear? Do we have hearts willing to lean in, to be honest? Do we have hearts of flesh that we are willing to entrust to the gentle hands of Jesus? Are we asking him to show us where we need to grow, and are we willing to submit ourselves to the process of being changed?

These are hard, probing, painful questions. The answers that live in the depths of our hearts might be equally hard to wrestle with. But, friends, may we be willing to wrestle! So that the Church of Jesus might begin to look a little more like the One we follow…

—Laura

Based on what Laura wrote above, I have some questions to ask regarding the parables of Luke 15:

When we hear the parable of the lost sheep, where do our minds place the emphasis? Is it on the lost sheep, on how the sheep got lost, on the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go after the one, or on the shepherd’s invitation to join him in rejoicing over the found sheep?

What about the lost coin? Is the emphasis in your mind on the lost coin,  on how the coin got lost, on the woman’s diligent search for the lost coin, or on the woman’s invitation to her friends to rejoice with her over the found coin?

What about the father and his two sons? Is the emphasis in your mind on the youngest son who asks for his inheritance, squanders it in wild living, and returns in desperation to his home? Is the emphasis on the father’s acquiescing to the youngest son’s request for his inheritance, on the father’s waiting, on the father’s running to the son, on the father’s rejoicing that the son was found, on the extravagant party that the father threw for his found son?  Is your mind’s emphasis on the older son, his anger, his jealousy, his attitude of entitlement? Is it on the father going out to the older son and inviting him to join the celebration?

Laura pointed out that our Bible’s subheadings title these parables as “The Lost Sheep”, “The Lost Coin”, and “The Prodigal Son”. Do those subheadings accurately reflect what the point of each parable is? I don’t think they do. Each parable ends with an invitation to celebrate and rejoice. I think that’s the point. Maybe the headings could be: “Throw a Party: the Lost Sheep is Home!”, “Party With Me: I Found My Lost Coin!”, “Join the Celebration: My Son Is Home!”

When Jesus tells these parables, he is in the midst of “tax collectors and sinners” who want to hear what he has to say, while the teachers of the law and the Pharisees are looking on and judging Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.

To build on what Laura wrote about the word prodigal, I looked up its etymology. It comes from the Latin word “prodigus” which means “lavish”?  According to dictionary.com, lavish means: bestow something in generous or extravagant quantities on

Based on this definition, who is the prodigal in Jesus’ story?

Maybe the fact that we often emphasize the wrong thing is one of the reasons people experience Christians as mean and judgmental, and churches as the last place they would be welcome.

I think we’ve forgotten that God is the God of rejoicing. He is the God of lavish, extravagant love. He is the God who seeks, who fellowships, who communes with us. And He is the God who will run to rescue us.

Laura pointed out that in the Jewish culture, when the youngest son returned from his journey, the community had the right to stone him. He had dishonored his father, he had dishonored the community, he had dishonored the laws of the Torah, he was a disgrace. By every right, the community could have killed him.

But the father watched for his son, and while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

The father ran. The father got there first. The father came between the son and the community. The father set the tone. He made it clear that his lost son was to be welcomed and was worth celebrating. The community could have killed the son–the father modeled something completely different.

As Laura noted above, the father had two sons. The oldest son heard the party. He asked one of the servants what was going on. He was not happy with what he learned.

Once again, the father goes out, this time to the older son who is being the ‘I deserve it and you never did that for me’ son, and alludes to the fact that his brother is dead to him by saying to his dad when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ In other words…he’s not my brother, and I’m not sure where I stand in all of this either. I’ve worked, I’ve earned, I deserve!!!!!

Does the father yell back at him? No. He says:

“‘My son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” (31-32). 

He emphasizes “you are my son too, and this is your brother, please come celebrate”.

And then Jesus leaves us hanging. We don’t know what the older brother decides to do with his father’s lavish extravagance.

Jesus is hanging out with tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees and teachers of the law are looking on in judgment. He chooses this moment to tell these parables without telling them what the oldest son chooses; therefore asking, who will they choose to be? What will they decide? Will they celebrate that everyone is lavishly loved and worth celebrating in the kingdom of heaven that’s here right now? Will we?

I used to judge Muslims until I had a Muslim friend. All of a sudden, Muslims weren’t a generalized blob to me anymore. I could put a face and a name to a Muslim person, to her husband, her children. I learned about her culture, about her faith. We cooked together, they came to our church cookouts. She shared with me what it was like to grow up in a country that experienced war–bombs coming into neighborhoods including hers. My perspective changed. I love her. I love her people. She is not my enemy. She is not God’s enemy. He lavishly loves her.

I remember one day at school years ago–it was recess time and I was playing with my very dear Jewish friend. We were sitting on top of the monkey bars when, some of our classmates began to spew hateful words at her. They were incredibly cruel. She and I got down and walked away. I wish I could remember if I said anything to them or to her. I can’t, but their cruelty is etched in my memory forever. She is not God’s enemy. He lavishly loves her. And you know what? He lavishly loves the children who were cruel too…he goes out to them like he went out to the older brother, inviting them to let go of judgment and come celebrate at his table.

I have three children who I love dearly. One of my three came out as gay his senior year of college. Talk about a hot button issue in the church. My husband (who just so happens to be the pastor of our church) and I made the choice to embrace our son, to love him–no part of us desired to reject him, even as we wrestled with what all of this meant (and means) for our lives, our ministry, our perspectives and perceptions. We love our son. He is not God’s enemy. God lavishly loves him.

Last year at this time, that same son suffered a severe injury. I flew out to him and stayed in an apartment provided by a non-profit organization close to the hospital for six weeks. His friends surrounded us and loved us both very well. Many of them have very real and alive relationships with Jesus, but very few of them have a church family to be part of.

I returned home deeply burdened for this community of people who are loved by God but rejected by the church.

Pastor John, my husband, spoke about our son from the pulpit for the first time on Sunday morning. He said that he was making the choice to be like the father in the parable and run to his son before anyone else can get to him. He admitted that he doesn’t have this all figured out–and we don’t need to. That’s not what Jesus asks of any of us. We are asked to love the world, and without a doubt, we love our son.

This morning in my Lent reading Alexander Solzhenitsyn was quoted as saying: “The line that separates good and evil does not run between nationalities, ethnicities, religions, or political parties, but right through the heart of every person.”  I agree with his statement, and I recognize that it’s true in me. Sometimes I’m at the table dining with Jesus, embracing others and celebrating his lavish love; sometimes I’m judging. I know which one feels more like Jesus in my heart and can see which one produces better fruit.

Jesus tells stories which end with lavish rejoicing and an invitation to join the celebration. The oldest son didn’t appreciate the father’s lavish celebration. He didn’t appreciate the father’s wild and reckless love. Do we?

Jesus says to the church in Revelation 3:20 Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

He still comes for us and says to us: God celebrates you with lavish love–my coming, my death, my resurrection and the gift of my Holy Spirit are proof of that. God celebrates people on the other side of whatever lines we’ve drawn with lavish love. His table is open. All are welcome. Open the door; feast at God’s table where there is always room for, and rejoicing over one more. Come celebrate!

–Luanne

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Teach Me to Serve

What comes to mind when you hear the word serve? What about when you hear it at church? What if it is coming out of your pastor’s mouth from the pulpit? We heard the word come out of Pastor John’s mouth more than a few times on Sunday, as our second installment in our “Teach Me” series centered on serving. What does it really mean to serve, and what does it require of us? Pastor John began by telling us that this is not about shaming or “should-ing”; it is not a manipulative tactic to get any of us to do more or be better or give extra. This is about understanding what serving really is, as well as what it is not.

The text we looked at in this week’s message was Joshua 24:1-24. I’ve included verses 14-18 from that passage below:

“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Then the people answered, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord to serve other gods! It was the Lord our God himself who brought us and our parents up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the Lord drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

The people responded to Joshua, “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord and to serve other gods!” We know, as Joshua did, that it is not far from any of us to reach for, follow and, ultimately, worship (give our attention, focus, devotion and love to) other gods. We will all serve someone or something. Our hearts are wired to worship and if our hearts are not set on our God, they will be set on something—or someone–else.

Pastor John told us that serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others—sometimes by churches. God doesn’t place expectations on us, though. God invites.

What exactly does God invite us into? Wholehearted, focused kingdom living. Pastor John pointed out that we cannot serve if we are divided and distracted, if our attention is split between God and our other gods. We can look like we’re serving, but our hearts will give us away every time…

Psalm 86:11 says, “Teach me your way, Lord, that I may rely on your faithfulness;
give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name.” (NIV)

And Matthew 6:24 reminds us, “How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other…” (TPT)

Pastor John referred to the story of Nehemiah that we touched on last week to give us an example of what it looks like to serve with undivided focus, with hearts set on a call—however unreasonable and impossible that call might seem at the time. We don’t know if Nehemiah had the skills needed to rebuild the walls, but we do know that he was determined to do what God placed on his heart to do. He faced opposition and distraction, but he remained focused on the task at hand. And because he was focused, he was able to see deception when it came his direction. He was wholeheartedly devoted–and it protected him from a multitude of attacks and schemes.

This is an important point. Nehemiah saw the deception because he was focused. We cannot see what is in front of us if we’re not focused. Just as our unfocused eyes cannot clearly see even what is right in front of us, unfocused hearts cannot discern with any clarity what is coming our way. If our attention is split in different directions, the eyes of our hearts will be blurred by the whiplash caused by being pulled this way and that. Nehemiah’s heart was whole, set on his God, and so he was wholly focused on the work he needed to do. He made a choice, and he was committed to seeing it through.

Ultimately, serving is a choice. As I wrote earlier, God invites us to serve. Then he leaves it up to us. In our passage, Joshua says to the people, ”…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…” (from Joshua 24:16). Where will we place our focus, attention, worship, and love? Whatever and whoever our hearts love, we will serve. God wants our whole hearts, he wants us to live fruitful lives in service to his kingdom, and he wants to infuse our serving with impact and growth that will bear good fruit, but he won’t make us do it his way. We are the wielders of our own willingness. God won’t force us into submission. But he wants so much for us to grow into our healthiest, most whole selves.

Beth Moore, in the introduction to her latest book, Chasing Vines, writes:

“God wants you to flourish in Him. Every last thing He plants in your life is intended for that purpose. If we give ourselves fully to His faithful ways, mysterious and painful though they may be at times, we will find that it’s all part of the process that enables us to grow and bear fruit… And so we find ourselves at a crossroads. If we have guts enough to believe that we were created by God to flourish in Christ, we have a choice to make. Will we sit idly by and wait for it to happen, as if our cooperation isn’t part of the process? Or will we set out, light on our feet, with hearts ablaze, and give chase to this call to flourish?”

How is serving connected to flourishing? When we are filled with gratitude for all that God has done and we have learned to trust him with our lives, that gratitude produces joy, and joy inspires us to share, to give, and to serve. Serving from a place of deep love and joy creates new life and bears good fruit.

And we already know the model friends…

When Jesus called out to his disciples, “Come, follow me,” what was he inviting them into? What example did he give them to follow? He was inviting them—and us—to follow him into a life of self-giving love in service of the kingdom of God, to follow him into places that are unsafe among people who are sometimes unlovely. This is one of Jesus’ invitations to learn from him:

 “Are you weary, carrying a heavy burden? Then come to me. I will refresh your life, for I am your oasis. Simply join your life with mine. Learn my ways and you’ll discover that I’m gentle, humble, easy to please. You will find refreshment and rest in me. For all that I require of you will be pleasant and easy to bear.” (Matthew 11:28-30, TPT)

Join our life with his.

Learn his ways.

He is gentle and not difficult to please.

All that he requires of us will not be hard for us to bear...

This passage is not saying that everything that happens to us will be pleasant and easy, that our lives will be carefree. But it does tell us that Jesus is our life-giver and he wants to teach us his kingdom ways. We’ll find in him no sense of obligation or expectations; he won’t ever manipulate our affections. He will be our place of refuge and will teach us how to live refreshed in him. What is required?

That we come to him. That we follow him and seek to learn.

This takes willingness, vulnerability, flexibility in our “plans.” It may mean that we relinquish our vision of how things ought to be in order to adapt his vision—and we may have to do that over and over again as we journey with him. It will definitely require that we recall what we have learned about how to trust.

If we come to Jesus in this way, we won’t have to try to cultivate wholehearted focus. If we watch him, learn from him, follow him, we will be completely captivated by this One who came to serve–not to be served–that we won’t be able to stop ourselves from falling in love. He is that good, and his ways are that compelling. We will find these things for ourselves if we’ll simply make the choice to come. We all get to choose this day who we will serve, dear friends. May we choose well…

–Laura

Choose this day whom you will serve; as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord. 

Joshua 24: 15 is written on plaques and hung on walls, written on garden stones and placed in yards, even stuck to the back of cars. We make declarations, buy reminders, and then forget what we’ve pledged to do. As Joshua was reminding the people of God’s incredible faithfulness, as he was making his declaration that he and his household would serve the Lord, he implored the Israelites to make a choice. As Laura reminded us above, the people responded that they would choose the Lord. They said emphatically: We will serve the Lord. However, just a few verses later, Joshua says to them: “throw away the foreign gods that are among you and yield your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” (24:23)

That struck me as I listened to Pastor John’s sermon. The people had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. They had wandered in the wilderness for 40 years with the Lord providing for all their needs. They had faced opposition. They had experienced the Lord’s deliverance time and time again. Yet, after all this time, with their feet finally in the land that was promised to them, and with, what I believe was sincerity of heart, they expressed a desire to serve the Lord, so Joshua reality checked them and reminded them that they still had foreign gods in their possession. They’d carried them for years.

It’s easy to point fingers at the Israelites; it’s more difficult to self-reflect and see what false gods we carry with us.

Laura wrote above: …serving is not an obligation, it is an expression of gratitude for all that God has done. God has already given us everything. He didn’t give us life and love and gifts with strings attached. He has called us his beloved children, lavished his unconditional love upon us, and wired into each of us many different gifts and abilities. There is no catch, nothing that removes our identities, his love, or our gifts if we don’t serve him the way he wants. That’s not who our God is—that’s not who he has ever been. If we feel manipulated or made to do certain acts of service or reach a certain level of giving, those are either constraints we have put on ourselves or demands and expectations put on us by others… God doesn’t place expectations on us… God invites.

We are invited into a beautiful life of Christ-likeness, of service, of gratitude. Yet, we sometimes get this confused. We place expectations on God. We misunderstand who God is, how gentle God is, how inviting God is. We forget that God loves us fully, completely, unconditionally. We try to earn God’s pleasure (or stuff) by striving, or by bartering. My relationship with God functioned like that for a very long time–and then God pointedly, but lovingly showed me the system I had created. He brought me face to face with my incredibly mixed motives in serving Him.

I was in my late twenties. Two of my three children were born. My husband had completed seminary and had been called to serve as youth pastor in a church in the Atlanta area. I wanted to begin establishing relationships with people in the church, so I joined a small group study of Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God. A few weeks into that study, I was at home lying on the sofa and God met me there. He showed me that I had set up my entire relationship with Him as a barter system. He revealed that my mindset (heart-set), was…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that I won’t get cancer and die while my children are young (like my mom did). Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if you promise me that John will not die and he’ll be able to provide for us and take care of us. Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you, if you promise me that my children will be healthy and I won’t lose any of them…Okay, God…I’ll do such and such for you if…

Ugh. When God showed me this, I knew he was right…and I also knew that I wanted guarantees from him. I knew God was asking me to surrender it all, but I wanted God to do this my way. I wanted safety. I wanted my children safe, I wanted my husband safe, my provision safe, I wanted me safe. I was carrying the false god of safety and security and had been bowing to it for a lot of years. I wasn’t ready to give it up. So, I wrestled, I cried, I begged God to promise me the things I wanted. He was not cooperating. I knew that he wanted me to surrender it all to him, including my kids, without any guarantees of safety and security…nope!

When our group met the following week, the leader asked if any of us had anything to share. I had no intention of talking about the wrestling match I was in. I was a new “staff wife” and needed to have it all together (or so I thought). Much to my dismay, I burst into tears. Next thing I knew, I was sharing, through sobs, with these people I’d basically just met about all that God was showing me–and that he wanted me to surrender everything–including my kids into His hands, and that I couldn’t do it. This beautiful group of people circled around me, laid hands on me, and prayed for me. I’d love to tell you that I surrendered at that moment, but I didn’t.

For the next few nights, I stayed on the sofa–I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I just wrestled. I knew that my system was keeping me stuck and that I wasn’t going any further with God than I was at that point. God was inviting me into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship–but I didn’t see it that way. In my wrestling match, God reminded me that suffering is part of life on this planet, but that nothing would separate me from His love. I didn’t like that. I really wanted God to bow to me–that’s honestly what it boiled down to.

Finally, out of sheer exhaustion and a desire to get some sleep, I said–okay, God. I’ll give it all to you–I surrender. It’s hard to describe what happened next–I was filled with incredible peace; I felt love for God that I didn’t even know was possible, and I experienced the beauty of God’s all-encompassing love in a new way. The fountain of living water was turned on and has never gone off. I fell in love with God. That moment of surrender happened a lot of years ago, yet the fresh fruit of that moment is still being born in my life. It was the turning point in my adult relationship with God.

So, when we talk about serving as an invitation rather than an obligation–I’ve experienced it from both sides, and I don’t ever want to go back to obligation. Obligation leads to burn out, resentment, “shoulding” on ourselves and others, comparison, etc. It’s not life-giving.

Teach me to serve.

To serve means to give. If we are served dinner, if we are served papers, something is given to us. God serves us–He gives, and gives, and gives, and gives. Jesus, the image of the invisible God, showed us what a life of service looks like.  A life of service genuinely cares about others. A life of service shares wisdom, gifts, stories, moments. A life of service pulls away and allows God to restore, refresh, renew, guide, direct. A life of service is open to being served by others. A life of service washes the feet of those who would be considered less than in the world’s hierarchical system. A life of service acts justly, loves mercy and walks humbly with God (Micah 6:8). A life of service is filled with and fueled by supernatural love. A life of service is not agenda based. A life of service gives it all.

When we are taught that the greatest commandment boils down to loving God with all we are and all we have, loving others the way God loves us, and loving ourselves with godly love, that’s the living root from which a life of service flows. It’s not service that strives. It’s service that is the natural outflow of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Eugene Peterson once wrote: “The people who have made the greatest difference in my life were the people who weren’t trying to make a difference.” I think about that quote often. True serving makes a difference without striving to make a difference.

We all know when we are someone’s project. or when we’ve made someone our project. It doesn’t feel genuine, because it isn’t genuine. I believe the real key to serving is to fall in love with God, to walk with God, to accept God’s invitation to life in the Spirit, and to be absolutely bathed in and convinced of God’s unconditional love for ourselves and all of humanity.

We have the ongoing opportunity to choose this day who we will serve–to choose this day who we will love…to choose this day to be loved…to choose God’s beautiful, life-giving, logic-defying, self-sacrificing, love-saturated way this day…

–Luanne

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Giving Shapes Our Love

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:6-7)

Wrestling. Desperation. Wanting to be close to God, yet not knowing how. Have you wrestled with questions like these? Have you ever asked “God, what do you want from me? How can I come before you? How can I draw near to you? How can I live in a close relationship with you? What tasks can I perform to please you? I’m willing to do anything…even sacrifice my own child to pay for my sin. What, God, do you want?

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

 …do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God…(NASB)

do what is right, to love mercy,  and to walk humbly with your God…(NLT)

What do these requirements look like in practice? Jesus showed us in the way he lived and interacted with people. He also showed us through a story that would have been shocking to his listeners. To set up the context in which Jesus told his story, Luke 10 tells us that…

Just then a religious scholar stood before Jesus in order to test his doctrines. He posed this question: “Teacher, what requirement must I fulfill if I want to live forever in heaven?” (TPT)

It’s important to note a couple of things about this question. The scholar (or lawyer as he is called in some translations) is not asking about how to have a relationship with Jesus. He’s not asking to be transformed. He is testing Jesus. He’s trying to show his superiority over Jesus. There was a time, earlier in the book of Luke that Jesus responded to Satan by saying: Do not put the Lord your God to the test. (Lk. 4:12). Same word. So Jesus answers the scholar’s question with a question:

 “What is written in the Law?… How do you read it?” 

The scholar replies: 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.

Jesus affirms that he got it right. And tells him do this and you will live“.  (Remember the scholar’s original question- what must I do to inherit eternal life (future). Jesus says…love like this, right here, right now and you will live). 

So the scholar wanting to justify himself, asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus responds with a story:

There was once a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho when bandits robbed him along the way. They beat him severely, stripped him naked, and left him half dead.

Soon, a Jewish priest walking down the same road came upon the wounded man. Seeing him from a distance, the priest crossed to the other side of the road and walked right past him, not turning to help him one bit.

Later, a religious man, a Levite, came walking down the same road and likewise crossed to the other side to pass by the wounded man without stopping to help him.

Finally, another man, a Samaritan, came upon the bleeding man and was moved with tender compassion for him. He stooped down and gave him first aid, pouring olive oil on his wounds, disinfecting them with wine, and bandaging them to stop the bleeding. Lifting him up, he placed him on his own donkey and brought him to an inn. Then he took him from his donkey and carried him to a room for the night. The next morning he took his own money from his wallet and gave it to the innkeeper with these words: ‘Take care of him until I come back from my journey. If it costs more than this, I will repay you when I return. 

Then Jesus asks this question: Which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?” 

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

Most of us are very familiar with this story. It’s a great deal more straightforward than many of Jesus’ parables. He wants us to get it. However, I’m not sure that we get the full impact of the story because we don’t fully grasp the relationship that Jews and Samaritans had with each other in those days. The Jews considered the Samaritans “less than”. They did not associate with them. They despised them. If the story were told to religious Americans today, I wonder who Jesus would highlight as the example? Maybe a Muslim, someone from the Middle East, maybe someone from the LGBTQ community, maybe an immigrant whose legal status has expired, maybe an immigrant who never had legal status…without a doubt, it would have been someone unexpected and someone who would cause us to bristle.

So Jesus, after telling his shocking story asks the question: tell me, which one of the three men who saw the wounded man proved to be the true neighbor?

The religious scholar responded, “The one who demonstrated kindness and mercy.”

Jesus said, “You must go and do the same as he.”

(What does the Lord require? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

The scholar, in testing Jesus, wants to know how he can have a good inheritance in his afterlife. Jesus responds if you want to live, see people and act; care for people; share what you have; make sure their needs are met; show tender compassion to others. 

If we pause to ponder all that the Samaritan man gave, it’s staggering. He was on his way somewhere;  he gave up his agenda, his time, his possessions (olive oil, wine, and whatever he used for bandages). He used his physical strength to place the injured, man onto his own donkey. With the injured man on his donkey, he most likely walked. He took the man to an inn, carried him into the inn.  The. Next. Morning. He gave the innkeeper money (the NIV tells us it was two silver coins—a hefty amount), and asked him to take care of the man until he could return.

I have a question…did he spend the entire night caring for this man who he didn’t know, most likely a Jewish man? Did he get a separate room and sleep? My gut tells me that he cared for the man the entire night, but I can’t know that for sure. Either way, he did not abandon the man.

Jesus is clear that the “religious” had no time to actually minister to someone in deep need. Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.

Pastor John gave us some excellent illustrations to help us see more clearly some ways in which we don’t love our neighbor well (most having to do with a sense of entitlement–my place in line, my seat at the movie theater, my appointment time, as if any of those things truly belong to us) and some ways in which we love ourselves more than we love others. For the sake of time, I won’t go into all of them, but one stuck with me.

If you (or I) injure ourselves in some way, maybe cut a finger, sprain an ankle, etc., do we pause to determine if we need to take care of that injury? Do we question whether or not we’re worthy or if we deserve to be taken care of? Do we question whether or not we have time? Or do we immediately stop what we’re doing, hold the injured portion of ourselves, and begin to figure out how to care for our wound? Do we see and love others in this same way? It’s worth thinking about.

The teacher of the law, the scholar, wanted to know how to have a good eternal life. I thought about how Jesus qualifies eternal life.

In John 17:3, Jesus says:

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

And I thought of John 10:10: The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

I thought of Jesus’ emphasis on teaching about what the Kingdom of Heaven on earth looks like–it’s what he taught about more than any other thing.

And I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife–when Jesus teaches Do this my way, the way of my Kingdom–here, now–and you will live abundantly–right now. I came to show you how. Follow my example. Get to know me, get to know the one true God. Your life in me isn’t just about heaven in the future, it’s about bringing heaven to earth today. “May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” What is his will? It’s the lawyer’s reply to Jesus first question:

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.

I write it often because I believe it so strongly: when we draw near to God, when we allow the Holy Spirit to have access to the deepest parts of our beings, the beautiful fruit of the Spirit becomes the natural outflow of our lives-love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. We no longer live with the mindset of us and them, or I’m taking care of myself and my people because no one else matters as much, or I don’t like those people. All of humanity becomes our loved ones. All. Of. Humanity.

As I write this today, I am very aware that it is Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was a good Samaritan and paid for it with his life. He confronted unjust systems, he highlighted injustice, and he did so using peaceful means. His letter from a Birmingham jail is a pointed statement to the religious community who refused to see. It’s well worth a read. He said many things that I love, but maybe my favorite quote of his is:  “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”  Love God. Love others…

…do justice..love kindness, and…walk humbly with your God…

–Luanne

Pastor John began his message with the reminder that God loves us. Each of us. Equally. I immediately thought of William Paul Young’s book, The Shack, and how “Papa”–the Father God part of the Trinity–expressed love for all people. Papa didn’t say the words, “I love you,” in the story. Rather, the God character said “I am especially fond of you.” This was Papa’s sentiment regardless of who the subject of the conversation was. I love this subtlety in the story, because it challenges the narrative many of us learned along the way that God has to love us because he’s God and he is love. Young’s interpretation of God’s love is personal, intimate, and lavished equally over all of God’s children.

I don’t think I would be wrong in supposing that most of us struggle to believe, much less understand, that this really is how God feels about all of us. Sometimes our disbelief is rooted in our own sense of unworthiness–“There’s no way God could love me as much as (fill in the blank),” and sometimes it’s our own arrogance–“There’s no way God could love that murderer, rapist, heretic, immigrant, porn star, absent parent, school shooter, politician, transgender youth, etc… as much as he loves good Christian people like me.”

Whatever our thoughts, questions, and hangups might be, the scriptures we’re looking at this week confirm the lavish, relational, available-to-all love of God. In the Micah passage, the prophet asks, “What should we bring to the Lord?” The list of considerations includes thousands of animal offerings, ten thousand rivers of oil (which they didn’t actually have to give–the writer is emphasizing the point by listing such an impossible, extravagant gift), and even their firstborn children. If God were the transactional Being many of us grew up believing he is, superfluous sacrifices would matter to him. There would be a hierarchy of preference based on what we could offer to him. He would be especially fond of those who could give the most.

Sometimes I think we would prefer a transactional God. I think the religious scholar who asked Jesus what he needed to do to maintain his standard of living forever wanted a list. If we’re honest, sometimes we do, too. Luanne wrote above,

“…I wondered how, in some circles, Christianity became all about a one-time “salvation” transaction, getting a ticket to heaven—a good afterlife…”

Is it possible that Christianity has, in many circles, morphed into this one-time transaction because the way of Jesus actually feels much harder to accomplish? Could it be that checklists, commandments, and a quid pro quo approach to God makes us feel like we have some measure of control and say in our destinies? We’re terrible at getting it all right, of course, but if the bottom line is one transactional, salvation moment, then we feel safe. We’ve done the important part.

Micah 6:8 challenges this way of thinking, and it was penned long before Jesus arrived on the pages of history. What is the important part according to God? Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God. How do we formulate a checklist for those commands? We can’t. These values are cultivated within a living, growing relationship with our God. If I were asked to teach a how-to class on loving mercy, I think I’d run quickly in the other direction. There’s no step-by-step process for learning how to love mercy. This is only learned by walking in step with the one from whom all mercy flows.

Pastor John mentioned on Sunday that in Micah 6:8, we don’t find God saying, “Don’t do___________.” It doesn’t say, “What does the Lord require of you? Stay away from people who don’t think like you, don’t go to that part of town, don’t befriend those disgusting pagans…” or anything like that. No part of the verse tells us what not to do. It simply tells us to do. Act, love, walk… these are action words. But what motivates these actions?

Let’s look again at the story of the Good Samaritan. Luanne wrote,

“Jesus implies that the Samaritan man didn’t even stop to think about it, the man was moved with tender compassion. He was willing to sacrifice his plans, his time, his stuff, his money, his heart, in order to help the man. He didn’t ask how the man got into the predicament; if he deserved the beating he received; if he deserved to be helped–he just stopped and showed incredible, costly, and time-consuming compassion.” 

Tender compassion. This automatic response–from someone who, according to the church crowd of that day, was an outsider at best–had to flow from somewhere. Compassion is a gut-level response of co-suffering love. It is a response that first sees and then identifies with the plight of the one suffering, feels it as if it were our own, and moves us to respond. It doesn’t “just happen” unless we’ve been conditioned to see beyond ourselves and our own individual needs.

All three men highlighted in the story saw something. But only one of them felt something–tender compassion–and was moved to do something. What stopped the first two men from doing something wasn’t that they didn’t see the need. They saw him… and they moved away from him rather than toward. Why? Because they didn’t feel anything. The man’s condition didn’t penetrate the walls of their hearts. Their preoccupation with themselves didn’t blind their physical eyes from seeing the needs around them. But the eyes of their hearts were blindfolded. By what? Perhaps by the same thing that consumed the religious scholar whose questioning of Jesus led to this story being told? A desire to maintain their lives as they were, to go about their days white-knuckling what belonged to them, to sustain their current quality of life on into eternity? Yeah… these things will absolutely tie a blindfold around a heart.

As Luanne pointed out, tending to the injured man cost the Samaritan. When we walk in the way of Jesus, with our eyes and hearts wide open to all of the others around us, we surrender our ability to maintain our lives as they are. Moving toward others, choosing to really see each one, will break us wide open. Loving like Jesus includes feeling like Jesus. This requires us to embrace vulnerability, to soften, to be woundable. Loving like Jesus means giving in the ways that he modeled, the ways that set his kingdom apart from every other kingdom that has ever existed. The Samaritan modeled kingdom values. It is costly to live this way. But it is what loving our neighbor looks like.

See something. Feel something. Do something. 

Where do we find ourselves as we ponder what God requires of us? Are we attempting to maintain a certain standard of living? Are we consumed with what is ours, with our positions and what we’ve earned? Are we simply trying to secure a spot in heaven? Do we arrogantly look down on certain others; do we cross the street when we see them? When we see a need, do we feel anything? Or do we, with hardened hearts, look the other way?

These are hard questions. They probe the depths of our priorities and they challenge our “me first”, individualistic mindsets. But we need to ask them. And we need to answer them honestly. We cannot say that we are people who love if we are not also people who give. Love motivates the heart to give, to break open, to embrace all others. Loving like Jesus means that, as Luanne wrote, all of humanity becomes our loved ones. No exceptions. God is especially fond of each one. All of us. Becoming like Jesus means that we will become especially fond of them, too.

–Laura

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