Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if?

–Luanne

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

And yet…

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

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

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

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

(Romans 14:1, 4, MSG)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isn’t that a relief?

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

So, what do these verses say?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Proverbs 3:5 – Breathing

Roman Road Less Traveled: Spirit Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gorgeous! But how does this happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

But Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

These words from Luanne went deep into my heart:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Led By The Spirit – God Like Fire Ministries

Roman Road Less Traveled: Outrageous Love

“Live as one who is outrageously loved.”

This line comes out of the prayer that Pastor Beau read at the end of Sunday’s message. It is where he finished, but it feels like the right place to start this week. What does it mean to live as one who is outrageously loved? What would that look like? I think it might look a lot like the life Paul is exhorting followers to live in his letter to the Romans. In fact, it might be his whole point…

Paul emphasizes throughout this letter we are studying the extravagant grace lavished upon us through Jesus. Why? Could it be that lavish, unrestricted, unhindered grace given in response to broken and sin-filled humanity is the best example of the love that propels it? Could it be that grace, freely given, best shows us the nature of our God? Could it be that outrageous love really is that nature, really is what God is like? I think it would be totally on-brand for Paul to emphasize exactly these points. Earlier in his ministry, in his letter to the Ephesians, he wrote:

Then, by constantly using your faith, the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life. Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God! Never doubt God’s mighty power to work in you and accomplish all this. He will achieve infinitely more than your greatest request, your most unbelievable dream, and exceed your wildest imagination! He will outdo them all, for his miraculous power constantly energizes you. (Ephesians 3:17-20, TPT, emphasis mine)

I think Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that they were outrageously loved. I won’t go into every letter he wrote, but as I write I have other passages from Galatians, Colossians, both letters to the Corinthians, and Philippians floating through my head. Paul wrote about the extravagant love of God a whole lot. And as Luanne and I have written during this Romans series, we have, too. In fact, there hasn’t been a week yet that we haven’t written something about the love of God. Here are some snippets from the last six weeks…

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome

God allows us to make our own choices, and God allows us to reap the consequences of our own choices, but God never stops loving us. God never stops expressing kindness toward us. God never gives up on us. What if God’s nature really is love, and we’ve misunderstood this wrath thing? Our sin made us all ‘deserving of wrath’–of the intrinsic consequences of turning away from the mercy and love of God–and that wrath led us all the way to death. Butbecause of his love, God came to us again–all the way around to where we stood with our backs to him, arms crossed in defiance–and stood facing us in the person of Jesus, who conquered death by his life and now holds the keys to every grave...

The self-giving love of Jesus showed us a different way of being in the world, showed us how to live a life rooted in love, not law. He also revealed what has always been true of God–He is love. He is kindness. He is grace. He is not disappointed in us. He is not ashamed of us. He doesn’t see us in the shadows of our failures–He sees us in the light of his love. God loves us! God loves us! God loves us! When we allow Jesus to be the foundation of this faith called Christ-ianity, we are grounded in God is love! The barriers come down. This agape love leads us to love God in return and love others as a result. Paul knew this. The overall message of Paul’s letters are about inclusion, grace, and God’s love...

Seeing‘ God is the reality of our faith. Jesus shows us God. He shows us what God is like. Perfectly. This is the faith that begins in us upon encountering Jesus. It is the faith that grows in us and leads us on. When we see him, we believe him. When our faith shows us the person and the character of God–his goodness, his love, his grace–we trust him. Our faith is in who God is, not what he does for us...

God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) lavishly loves us. God the Son opened the door to relationship with God the Father; we were given the gift of God the Spirit–the very breath of God–so we can live with the life of Jesus–his energy, his vitality–coursing through our spirits. We have been and are being saved–made whole, healed, safe. We can flourish in wholeness through God’s shalom. We live in the place of God’s full and complete acceptance. We are fully embraced–completely loved and nothing will ever change that. When we truly believe this, how can we help but to outshine God’s love to everyone around us...

This is the love of God. A Love that sees us as both complete and in process simultaneously. A Love that would rather keep us intact and transforming than replace our identities entirely, because God values each story and every stroke of the pen that writes it. A Love that even allows us to resist the transformation process because it is patient and kind. This Love that is the guarantor of seeing us through to completion, because Love is the one doing the good work, not us…

I think the message has been pretty consistent, don’t you? Six weeks of Romans. Six weeks of writing about the love of God. It is not the only thing Paul writes about in Romans, but it is the root of everything else, and I think Paul really wanted people to grab ahold of that truth. Everything about God is rooted in love, because love is what God is like. And everything about us, as followers of Jesus, is to be rooted in love also–we are to reflect, or “outshine” as Luanne so beautifully explained it a couple weeks ago, God’s love to those around us. This is what is means to, “Live as one who is outrageously loved.”

With the outrageous love of God as our foundation, let’s look at what Pastor Beau brought to us this week, in week seven of our series. Beau led us into Romans chapter 7. It’s a tough section of Paul’s letter–one of many, it turns out–and it can be hard to understand. But in the context of a complete letter that points us to lavish grace and the extravagant love of God at every turn, it makes a little more sense. My word count is already high, so I won’t go into all that Pastor Beau shared with us–hopefully Luanne will cover what I can’t–but there are a few things I’d like to highlight.

Because we are studying a letter that was not broken up into chapters and verses, let’s look briefly at the end of last week’s portion:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:22-23, NIV)

With those words in mind, let’s look at the beginning of this week’s passage:

You shouldn’t have any trouble understanding this, friends, for you know all the ins and outs of the law—how it works and how its power touches only the living. For instance, a wife is legally tied to her husband while he lives, but if he dies, she’s free. If she lives with another man while her husband is living, she’s obviously an adulteress. But if he dies, she is quite free to marry another man in good conscience, with no one’s disapproval. So, my friends, this is something like what has taken place with you. When Christ died he took that entire rule-dominated way of life down with him and left it in the tomb, leaving you free to “marry” a resurrection life and bear “offspring” of faith for God. (Romans 7:1-4, MSG)

Paul told us in last week’s passage that we are no longer slaves to sin and death, that we have the gift of life through Jesus our Lord. He goes on to explain to his readers, in ways they would understand, what it means to be dead to sin and alive in Christ. He uses the example of a marriage, and how a widow is free to marry another because her husband has died. As Pastor Beau said, those he originally wrote the letter to understood. It made sense to them. And in the Message paraphrase that I used above, the same version Beau read on Sunday, it sort of makes sense to us, too. But Beau clarified it further when he said,

“Our marriage is to Jesus, looking at the law; not a marriage to the law looking at Jesus.”

The people Paul wrote to–and I would assert this is also true for us today–struggled to reconcile the demands and requirements of the law with the freedom and life being offered to them through Christ. Paul struggled with it himself–he writes about it a little further into this week’s chapter–as he wrestled with what he did and did not want to do not matching up with what he actually did. I won’t include the whole passage here, as it is lengthy, but it’s important to note that Paul was identifying a common struggle. We have been baptized into new life in Christ, as we discussed last week… AND, we are imperfect humans who are in process. New life has begun to grow in us, but we wrestle with living how we want to live. We struggle with living free, living in the Spirit, because sometimes we choose to live bound up in our own flesh. Sometimes we hold tightly to a leader, a belief, an ideology, and we let that one thing be our moral compass. We look to ourselves and to what we know for the wisdom that can only come from the Spirit. We are no longer slaves, but we don’t always know how to live free…

And so we struggle. Within ourselves. Against one another. Even against God. The world breaks, and breaks again. Hopelessness threatens…

But there is another way. Pastor Beau shared that part of Paul’s goal in his letter to the Romans was to unify groups of people that held different beliefs and did not understand one another. That feels applicable to the days we’re living in, does it not? These days are hard, as Beau identified. He encouraged us to lean into lament, to grieve the losses and the pain, to not avoid the highs or the lows of life because doing so keeps us trapped. He also encouraged us to move through lament, guided by the Spirit, into hope.

He concluded his message by encouraging us to see that we’re all struggling together. He reminded us that living in the freedom of the Spirit is what brings everyone to the same table; we can have differing opinions, but with Jesus as our filter, we can love each other despite those differences. And he also reminded us that loving our neighbors as ourselves is something we keep learning how to do as we go. As we journey with Jesus, we become more like him, and his outrageous love grows within us. We learn this new way of living, of loving, as our metamorphosis continues. The law and the rules–they’ll never get us there. They’ll leave us disappointed in ourselves and others, trying hard to measure up and full of shame that we never can. If we vow our “I do” to the law, we will not live as one who is outrageously loved, because the law can’t love us. But if we make our vow to Jesus, we join ourselves to Love. And…

Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God! (Ephesians 3:18-19)

–Laura

Our marriage is now to Jesus and we look at the law through him; we are no longer married to the law…

Marriage to the risen Christ changes everything!

I love The Message paraphrase that Laura used above. I also love Romans 7:4 in The Passion Translation: So, my dear brothers and sisters, the same principle applies to your relationship with God. For you died to your first husband, the law, by being co-crucified with the body of the Messiah. So you are now free to “marry” another—the one who was raised from the dead so that you may now bear spiritual fruit for God.

Verses 5 and 6 say: When we were merely living natural lives, the lawthrough defining sin, actually awakened sinful desires within us, which resulted in bearing the fruit of death. But now that we have been fully released from the power of the law, we are dead to what once controlled us. And our lives are no longer motivated by the obsolete way of following the written code, so that now we may serve God by living in the freshness of a new life in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean that the law awakened sinful desires within us? As an illustration from my own life, every time I decide to rein in my diet, my mind only thinks about the foods that I’m trying to cut out. As I think about those foods I am tempted to abandon my good intentions. The “law” of my eating plan actually awakens the desire to eat everything that isn’t included in the plan. Anyone else?

Paul tells us in this passage that the law is not the problem, our sinful nature is the problem, and there is a better way. The better way is what we wrote about last week–baptism into death with Jesus and resurrection to new life in the Spirit.

Life in the Spirit is completely different from life in the flesh. Life in the Spirit comes from being connected to Jesus (I am the vine you are the branches, if you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:5) That’s the “pickle” illustration that I wrote about last week. The cucumber, once immersed, remains in the pickling solution, and is transformed over time. By remaining, it becomes something completely new. When we “remain” in Jesus, we are transformed, over time, into something completely new. We bear much fruit, or as Paul points out in our passage, being married to the resurrected Jesus, means we bear the offspring of spiritual fruit.

What is spiritual fruit? Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatian church: The Spirit… produces in human life fruits such as these: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance and self-control—and no law exists against any of them. Those who belong to Christ have crucified their old nature with all that it loved and lusted for. If our lives are centered in the Spirit, let us be guided by the Spirit. (Gal 5:22-25, J.B. Phillips)

You can see Paul’s Roman’s message in the Galatians passage as well-our “law” based lives has been crucified with Jesus, and our new, resurrected lives are centered in and guided by the Spirit. There is no law that exists against the fruit of the Holy Spirit.

Pastor Beau put it this way–once we are married to Jesus, Jesus becomes our filter and everything gets covered with love. This is what life in the Spirit looks like.

Life in the Spirit is greater than life in the law. Does the law have purpose? Of course, but it’s not the foundation of our lives any more. I recently finished a beautiful book by seminary professor, author, and Anglican priest Esau McCauley titled Reading While Black (African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope). In the section called Bible Reading, Slavery, and God’s Purposes he writes about the Pharisees questioning Jesus on the practice of divorce (Mt. 16:21; Lk 24:25-27) The Pharisees want to know if it’s lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason (that was the practice of the day and the law of Moses allowed it as long as the woman was given a certificate of dismissal). Jesus completely bypasses the law in his response, and goes all the way back to Genesis the era before the law.

“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’, and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’.” So the Pharisees then asked, if that’s the case, why does Moses allow it? Jesus answered: “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” (Mt. 19:3-8)

McCauley goes on to write:The question, for Jesus, is not what the Torah allows, but what God intended...Moses instituted these laws because of their hardness of heart…Jesus shows that not every passage of the Torah presents the ideal for human interactions. Instead some passages accept the world as broken and attempt to limit the damage that we do to one another….[we must ask, do these passages] present a picture of what God wanted us to be or do they seek to limit the damage arising from a broken world?”

Let me try to tie this all together.

In the beginning, when God created humankind, he created male and female and gave them both the same role:

God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it…(Gen 1:27-28)

He provided for their every need and they lived in complete dependence on, and beautiful fellowship with God. They made the choice to abandon the plan, and instead of choosing to eat from the tree of life, they chose fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That choice changed the state of humankind on earth forever. Guilt, shame, hierarchy, oppression, relational and spiritual separation, violence, etc. all became part of the human condition. The “law” came into play in order to curtail the damage we do to one another. Even The Ten Commandments have to do with how we are to treat God and others. When Jesus is asked which commandment is greatest, he says all the commandments hang on this: Love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind…, and love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt. 22:37-38)

We cannot “law” ourselves into love. Love is a fruit of the Spirit. We bear fruit by staying connected to the vine. As we wrote last week:

God (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) lavishly loves us. God the Son opened the door to relationship with God the Father; we were given the gift of God the Spirit–the very breath of God–so we can live with the life of Jesus–his energy, his vitality–coursing through our spirits. We have been and are being saved–made whole, healed, safe. We can flourish in wholeness through God’s shalom. We live in the place of God’s full and complete acceptance. We are fully embraced–completely loved and nothing will ever change that. When we truly believe this, how can we help but to outshine God’s love to everyone around us…

Pastor Beau said it like this: Jesus loves us. When we grow in our understanding of that truth, our love for others will flow…

Pastor Beau reminded us that Paul’s letter to the Romans was a plea for unity–not uniformity. The law separated people into circumcised and uncircumcised; kosher, not kosher; Jew, Gentile; etc. Paul was abolishing all the categories that separate us and reminding us that we are all in the same boat–all have sinned–AND, the glorious truth –all are outrageously loved by God. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)

Our part:

Don’t owe anything to anyone, except your outstanding debt to continually love one another, for the one who learns to love has fulfilled every requirement of the law. For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,”and every other commandment can be summed up in these words:

Love and value others the same way you love and value yourself.”

 Love makes it impossible to harm another, so love fulfills all that the law requires. (Romans 13:8-10 TPT)

The law and its dead fruit have no power over us anymore.

Our marriage to Jesus produces the offspring of spiritual fruit.

The fruit of the Spirit is love... Against such things there is no law.

–Luanne

You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are  looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.

Here we go:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).

The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’  However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And the NIV like this: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us.  However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.

Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.

Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.

In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)

In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.

Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.

When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.

Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.

The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.

The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.

The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well. 

Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry.  Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means. 

I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.”  Jesus is addressing their hearts.

God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.

If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.

In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.

We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us. 

–Luanne

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?

This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.

I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.

Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.

I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.

Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…

Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Worlds are turnin’, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love (oh my Lord)
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…
We all know intuitively that there is a better way, a higher way. We crave that higher love  whether we know and believe in Jesus or not. We know, “there must be a higher love, down in the heart or hidden in the stars above…” And yet, we run after lesser loves. In our fear and desire for control and order, we forsake the way of love for the inferior substitute of a list of rules. That list of rules has served an insidious purpose. The Church that is the bride of Christ, meant to birth the fruit of that union–the kingdom on earth, has clung not to her groom but to the list, and abdicated her responsibility to the way of Love. It is heart-wrenching to see the results of our idolatry. Rather than embrace the extravagant way of love that Jesus modeled, we have too often looked to satisfy the minimum requirements.
Imagine what the world would look like if we processed everything through Jesus’s filter? If we looked for ways to exhibit the maximum amount of love rather than the minimum? It should change everything, friends! Because the love Jesus spoke about and modeled–self-emptying, humble, generous, gracious, compassionate, real love–is inexhaustible. There is actually not a maximum, because love never ends (See 1 Corinthians 13). The more we pour it out, the more there is available. It expands, enlightens, restores, and remakes everything it touches. Its power is in the laying down of oneself on behalf of another, the way that Jesus did for every single human being. What if we followed his lead and lived accordingly? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because there would be reciprocity and mutuality and thriving for all. Love like this doesn’t need additional rules and regulations. It covers absolutely everything.
I believe with my whole heart that this is Jesus’s whole point. Everything he says in the sermon on the mount, all of the exhortations and insights he gives are expressions of love in action. This week’s passage is about divorce, but not only divorce. It applies to the way we are to embrace, cherish, and care for one another as we live out the love we share with our Abba. It was perhaps the clearest example Jesus could give in that day of what happens when the way of higher love is replaced by lesser things. When we refuse to live in the light of love, we reduce one another, treat each other as problems and projects, see each other as means to an end, expendable. We NEVER see Jesus objectify anyone in this way. 
The story that I held in my heart as I listened to Pastor John preach on Sunday is the same one Luanne emphasized above, the woman at the well. Jesus had every reason–and the teachers of the law may have said an obligation–to avoid her, ignore her, and condemn her according to the law. But love…
The law said not to associate with “those” people. The Samaritans were outsiders, people the Jews were not to mingle with. The law didn’t allow them to be alone together at the well–she was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. Forget about a conversation–that went way too far. It was against the rules. And Jesus knew more still about this woman he engaged at the well. She had been married five times, and was now living with a sixth man. The law gave him so many reasons to not only walk away from her, but to outright condemn her!
But love…
Pondering this passage in different seasons, I’ve cried many times over the tenderness of the moment. The story, much like our verses this week, has been used and preached in unkind ways. But the Jesus I know is always kind. Always good. Always loving. He knows the backstory to every story. When I read and ponder this particular story, specifically the part where Jesus lets her know that he knows what she’s been through, I hear his voice as gentle, quiet, empathizing with her plight. I see tears pool and fall from his eyes as he feels how brutally and repeatedly she’s been rejected by those charged to cherish and protect her. I have exactly zero doubts that in that moment, she experienced the love she’d searched for all of her life, love that saw to her core and called her beloved despite the labels she’d been given by the world. How am I so sure? First, because my Jesus has done the same for me. But also,  her reaction tells us everything we need to know. Hope overflowed as joy exploded in her. She left her jar and ran back to the village to tell everyone about this man who had set her free from her shame. His words to her did not condemn her. His words communicated that she was seen and known… and fully loved. 
The words Luanne ended her portion with seem appropriate to repeat here…
“We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.”
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we loved like this?
–Laura

 

 

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Jesus is Our Rescuer

Every story of rescue we’ve explored during the season of Lent–Hosea & Gomer, the prodigal son & his father, Abram & Lot, Naomi & Ruth, Ruth & Boaz, Moses & the nation of Israel, and the thief on the cross & Jesus–served to set the stage for the ultimate story of rescue: Jesus and each one of us.

On Easter Sunday, Pastor John preached about Jesus. He preached about his death on the cross, his resurrection, his victory over death, and the hope we have in him. It was not an unusual Easter message. In fact, it may be one of the most straightforward, simple messages we have heard in a while. It was the perfect Easter message because it is the message all others must be built upon. It is the story that needs to be told and retold because without it, our faith has no foundation. And even though it is familiar, there is gold yet to mine, treasure yet to be found. Our Jesus–the story of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his life now living within us who know him–is a well of inexhaustible riches and mysteries–there is always more to discover.

On Sunday, Trevor, one of our Elders, read a few verses of scripture and prayed before the message. One of the passages he read was John 3:16-17:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Another was John 13:34-35:

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

As he prayed, he thanked Jesus for the death that he died and that he rose again. I found myself silently adding to his prayer once he finished, overwhelmed again by the familiar verses, the story I’ve known all of my life…

Thank you, Jesus, for dying a terrible death at our hands, for choosing to endure the suffering–but thank you, also, for the life that you lived! For showing us how to live, how to love…

As I listened to Pastor John’s message and pondered things later on, it was that simple thought that stayed with me–

In everything he did, from the beginning of the story to that bloody day on the cross and then after he rose from the dead, Jesus showed us how to love. He didn’t just tell us, didn’t simply teach us–he lived it.

Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. “

How does he love us? In all the ways that we have learned about throughout this series. His love rescues and forgives, runs toward us, protects us from the judgment of those who seek to harm us, welcomes us home, frees us from our bondage, redeems us, refuses to leave, clings to us. And on the cross, he displayed how far his love will go to show us another way, to show us how his kingdom works, to give us sight and a new way to see the world. On the cross, he endured our violence, and his love absorbed our hate. He set us free from the bondage of our shortsightedness and self-absorption and he offered grace to cover our shame. He reminded us–along with the thieves next to him–that he is the restorer of all things, of paradise lost and our forgotten identities.

As Pastor John said on Sunday, we are in constant need… And Jesus constantly comes to meet us in our need. He brings us hope when all seems lost, and he reminds us how to live and love as we learn from him, walk with him, remember how he did it, and see how he is doing it still. He is, as Brian Zahnd so eloquently phrased it in The Unvarnished Jesus, “the Gardener who touches living things with living hands,” and invites us to follow him and do the same.

As we have explored stories of rescue over the last seven weeks, we have seen that the need for rescue is present when an antagonist is present. That antagonist takes a different form in every story. At times, it shows up in a family member, other times in an entire community. It can be a nation, an accuser, or systems that set themselves up against the weak and the marginalized–creating the need for a rescuer to come. An antagonist is anything that sets itself up against the way of love, anything that stands in opposition to the ways of the kingdom Jesus ushered in. It can be self-imposed bondage, forced captivity, or a mix of the two, but every antagonist in whatever form it takes has one goal: to maintain their power and assert their control. 

But–no antagonist can stop the rescuing love of Jesus. We are never alone in our bondage, never left to fend for ourselves in the face of whatever antagonist has set itself up against us. He always comes. How has he rescued you? Can you recall times his rescuing love has showed up to save you?

I can’t count the times he has rescued me… it would take volumes to document every moment and all that Jesus has saved me from. Here are a few examples…

I was a tiny baby enduring beatings for a spirit I supposedly carried within me. I don’t remember the earliest days, but I lived. My life was protected.

I was a little girl, afraid and ashamed, angry and confused–more than I knew. I lived somewhere between complete chaos and pretend peace, a painted smile set in place. In the midst of it, Jesus spoke kindness to my heart. He stirred my heart toward him with gentle thoughts that weren’t my own. In the flowers I watered, the sun that warmed my face, the grass I rolled in, the creeks I splashed in, the trees I climbed, I saw a God different than the one I had been told of. I longed to know him, this Jesus who showed up in my dreams and in the moments of breathless fear. He protected me from completely believing the lies I was taught about why I should fear him. He pricked the core of me with an awareness of his goodness that would grow later.

As a poor preteen with a broken family, a sick mom, and a growing sense of the injustice around me and the rage within me, he rescued me from hopelessness. He brought people to me who breathed his grace like oxygen into my depleted soul. I wasn’t ready to run all the way to his arms, but he continued to come to me. He kept me tethered to him through the people who loved me well and provided for needs I didn’t yet know how to name.

When that preteen grew into a secretly rebellious teenager, those people who loved me well kept showing up. They continued to carry Jesus to me. There were nights I shouldn’t have awoken to the light of a new day for all of the self-imposed danger I placed myself in… I found out later, those same people had spent those nights awake and on their knees, knowing I needed their intercession more than they needed their rest.

The shame of those wild nights would have overtaken me… but he rescued me with grace.

I was pregnant with my daughter, spinning across four lanes of traffic in the snow during the busiest hour of the morning and came to a complete stop in the face of oncoming traffic. My car was completely untouched and I drove away, heart in my throat, breath held–protected in a very real way.

He has rescued me from fear that used to keep me awake at night.

He has rescued me in grief that threatens to suffocate.

He provided a rescuing embrace in the arms of a friend when guilt called me a killer.

He has rescued me from lying narratives that were taught as truths, from identities devoid of truth, from attacks on my character.

He has rescued me through therapy that helps me find him with me in the midst of the most painful of my memories. He has shown me where he always was, where he always is–with me in the middle of the mess.

He has silenced the voice of the powerful that wielded their might to control me; he has set me free from the shackles of their accusations and condemnation.

He has rescued me in my loneliness with his very own presence.

He has restored my dying hope with painted skies and flowing water. He’s cured my cynicism with delight as I’ve marveled at blue jays, butterflies, rocks and streams that he created.

He continues to show up in the faces that refuse to turn away from my brokenness–he’s saved me through kind eyes, shared tears, and the gift of wild laughter more times than I can even remember.

Every antagonist in my life has met their match in my Jesus. 

Including me. 

Many times, the antagonist in my story is me. I’m not the terrified little girl anymore, or the self-destructive teenager, nor am I the critical, questioning young adult I used to be. My self-imposed bondage looks different today… To maintain some sense of control, some idea of knowing the plan, I put shackles on myself. I limit my thoughts and ponderings and hide them away to “keep the peace.” I lock up my opinions, fears, and needs so I won’t burden those I love. I put myself in the corner and force my eyes to gaze at the floor. I quiet my song and restrain my dancing.

And Jesus comes to me, the captive who is also the captor, the caged bird holding her own key, the little girl in the corner held in place by the glare of the woman who sent her there… He comes to me, cups my chin, lifts my face, speaks gently and softly with words that loosen the grave clothes I’ve re-wrapped around my heart. He breathes grace and peace, courage and the deepest love into my heart until it beats with his again. And then he asks me,

“Are you willing?” 

Am I willing… to fly, to sing, to live in the freedom he gave me long ago–and to carry that freedom, that rescuing love, to others? Will I be to others what others have been to me throughout my life–a life lit up with the love of Jesus, ready and willing to pour out for the sake of others?

I get to choose whether I will be an antagonist or a rescuer. We all have that choice. One stands in opposition to the kingdom life Jesus shows us how to live. The other is impossible without living connected to, abiding in, the love of Jesus, our vine, our life-giving source. I’ve been both, sometimes in the same day, even moment-to-moment. I want the life of Jesus to live through me–to live my life the way Jesus would live it if he were me.

Except for when I don’t… Because power, control, some sense of knowing how things will turn out–these are tempting things to grasp at, to reach for. Especially now, in a season full to the brim with uncertainty, a season where fears seem present in the very air we breathe. We want stability, safety, a promise of “normal” tomorrows. It is tempting to reach for control, for power in these days, to think that’s what we need to make it through. But…

What we really need is rescue.

Will we let Jesus rescue us again–here, now? Can we acknowledge our fears, admit our proclivity toward power-grabbing, and let his arms hold us as we cry out our need for him? We are in constant need, and our Jesus constantly comes to meet us here. He is our rescuer in every season–even now.

–Laura

I was having a phone conversation with my 90-year-old dad last week, and at one point in the conversation, he shared with me that because of a book he’s reading on the Apostle Paul’s teachings, he is seeing some scriptures through a new lens and experiencing a fuller understanding of the ministry of Christ. He expressed that he’s appalled; he’s studied theology all of his adult life and yet still has so much to learn. I responded that I don’t think he needs to be appalled, and encouraged him to embrace the mystery that there is always more to learn, always more to glean, always a deeper a layer to explore.  We will never know the full mystery of God–that’s what makes our faith exciting, sometimes frustrating, beautiful, challenging, transformative and life-changing.

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has many layers to explore, many implications for the world and many implications for each of us. Laura did a beautiful job of expressing the many ways that the God of love, who rescued the entire world on the cross, has rescued her in personal ways over and over again. The beauty of her encounters with God, her willingness to see how he was with her in some devastatingly hard seasons, her willingness to let the Spirit “mess in her business”, her willingness to let God continue to shape and re-shape her understanding as she digs in and seeks, her willingness to mine for deeper layers of healing and deeper layers of revelation are beautiful and worth emulating. I hope you’ll spend some time asking God to show you how you have been rescued.  Rescuing love is part of God’s nature.

Brad Jersak, in his book A More Christlike God takes us through scripture, pointing out the ways that God came after people in scripture over and over again. In a very abridged version, I’m going to try to capture some of Jersak’s examples:

After sinning, Adam and Eve tried to hide from God. What does God do? He comes looking for them.

Cain does not heed God’s warning and murders his brother. What does God do? He goes looking for him. He protects him.

Abraham gets tired of waiting on God and has a son by his servant. What does God do? He still honors his promise to Abraham.

Moses takes matters into his own hand, murders an Egyptian and hides in the wilderness for 40 years. What does God do? He comes looking for him and asks him to lead.

David commits adultery with Bathsheba and has her husband murdered. What does God do? He honors the promise of a royal line that will not end through the second son of David and Bathsheba, Solomon. 

Israel, instead of reflecting God’s glory to the world, becomes unjust and corrupt exploiting the poor and oppressing the marginalized. What does God do? He calls Hosea to be his example of rescuing love. 

Then God becomes human, that he might find and heal humanity.

A woman at a well, abandoned by five husbands: What does God do? He sits with her at a well, converses with her, loves her, values her. She, in turn, introduces her entire community, the community she’d been avoiding, to him.

A Jewish tax collector became an oppressor of his own people: What does God do? He singles him out for a dinner date. Declares that salvation has come to his home. What does Zaccheus do? Pays back those he defrauded–becoming generous rather than greedy.

A woman caught in adultery: What does God do? Kneels beside her, writes in the dust, the accusers leave, and then he tells her that he doesn’t condemn her and gives her a fresh start. 

A demoniac man: What does God do? He gives him his mind back, his clothes back, his family back, his life back–he sets him free. The man then tells the entire region about the miraculous, powerful love of God.

A paralytic man: What does God do? He speaks forgiveness to the man, then tells him to take up his pallet and walk, making a spectacle of those who blamed the man for his condition and excluded him from the temple. 

“Finally, here is the whole human race, chosen and dearly loved by the God who is always for us, always toward us, and always in pursuit of us.  Driven by fear and pride, our need to maintain our systems of power, enforced by violence–we arrest, and condemn, torture and crucify this God. …the world’s premier religious system and political empire–conspired to murder the Lord of glory. And what does God do? 

He says, ‘I forgive you. While you hated me, I loved. You who took my life, I give you my life. While you were my enemies, I made you my friends.’

Christ did not come to change the Father, or to appease the wrath of an angry judge, but to reveal the Father. God is like Jesus, exactly like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus.” (Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God)

I don’t usually use so many borrowed thoughts and words in my posts, I hope you will forgive me for that this week, but these feel so important right now, and they barely scratch the surface of all the rescuing stories found in scripture. At the crucifixion, God was rescuing us. He was not pouring out wrath upon Jesus. God was not condemning Jesus. God is not pouring out wrath on the world right now during the pandemic. God. Is. Love. God is with us. God is for us. God rescues us. Follow Laura’s leading above and spend some time contemplating how he’s rescued you how he’s been with you, even in the hard. He is so good to us!

The apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:15-19:

He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them.

 So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

 And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him.  For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation…

Our rescuing God makes us new and invites us to enter into the deep things with him, the counter-cultural things, the kingdom of heaven things, and then join him in his mission to rescue the world–one precious, beloved person at a time.

For God so loved the world…

–Luanne

beautiful name

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lent: Rescue Through Deliverance

Pastor John has been taking us on a journey through this Lenten season, a journey of rescue. We have looked at how the rescuing love of God pursues us and rescues extravagantly, radically, and personally. This week we heard about how the rescuing love of God brings deliverance when we are enslaved.

Our passage this week is Exodus 6:6-7:

Therefore tell the Israelites: “I am God. I will bring you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt. I will rescue you from slavery. I will redeem you, intervening with great acts of judgment. I’ll take you as my own people and I’ll be God to you. You’ll know that I am God, your God who brings you out from under the cruel hard labor of Egypt.” (MSG)

The Israelites were slaves in a foreign land. Pastor John told us that to be a slave to the Egyptians was to be completely stripped of one’s dignity; it was as though even their rights to be seen as a person were removed. They were living—calling it “living” is a stretch—in a land they were not created for. They were far from home. They were seen as less than human and they began to forget their identity. They forgot that they bore the Imago Dei–the very image of God.

Sometimes we forget that, too.

We are all image-bearers of our Creator. Every one of us who has ever lived and will ever live bears the image of the one who made us. Everyone. Full stop.

When we meet the love of Jesus, the image of God comes alive in us. It changes how we think, what we say, what we do, how we see, and—more than anything else—how we love. As we grow in him, we begin to look more like him. We follow in the steps of our self-emptying God and as we are emptied of ourselves, we become like Jesus.

But sometimes we lose our way.

Sometimes the pull of power, fame, wealth, safety, health, security—all branches of the tree of selfish ambition—feel too strong for us to resist. Instead of emptying ourselves to be filled up with the Spirit and her kingdom fruits, we gorge ourselves on the bread of self-indulgence and find ourselves enslaved in a land we weren’t made for. This land erects walls around us, holding us hostage to the god of consumerism, conquering us with promises of safety, getting us drunk on the wine of power and wealth. The walls keep rising, holding us captive, blinding us to what lies just beyond. The pace keeps quickening, we’re out of breath; our gods demand more and more from us as we become further enslaved to them. They stuff us full of lies and strip us of our hope. The noise level keeps rising, the cacophony is maddening—

Until, suddenly, a voice breaks through…

“The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:14, NIV)

“I will rescue you…I will redeem you…” (from Exodus 6:6-7)

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you [from captivity]; I have called you by name; you are Mine!” (Isaiah 43:1b, AMP)

The walls fall, the mountains crumble. The gods who held us captive are nowhere to be found.

It is silent.

All that exists is us and the God who pursues us even when our mouths are too full of our own gluttony to utter a single cry for help. The rescuing, radical, extravagant love of God comes to us personally to deliver us from our bondage—whatever that bondage might be. Because that’s what love does. That’s Who love is.

We are in a unique season, all of us. It looks different depending on our physical locations in the world, but the whole of humanity is experiencing this tragedy together. We are finding ourselves more isolated and less connected in spaces where there is less noise. We are being forced to slow down. . .

When we pause, when we get quiet, hidden things can rise to the surface. Tragedy, crisis, fear, grief—when imposed upon us, these things can be very revealing. Our response to them can uncover our bondage. Many of us may be coming face-to-face with the truth of what we have been enslaved to, the things that have tried to crush the image of God out of us.

It can be hard to face the truth. But Jesus is the author of truth. He is the truth that sets us free. And when we look into his face, we see eyes of compassion, eyes that weep with us, that see into our darkest corners and choose to look at what they find there. Eyes that reflect into our own the truth of who we are–if we have the courage to behold him, to look up at the one who always comes for us.

There are some suggesting that God shut down the stadiums, the concert venues, the economy, even our churches because we made idols of celebrities, money, and leaders, because we worshiped them instead of him. There are voices yelling loudly of God’s jealousy and refusal to come second in our lives, saying that what the world is experiencing is a result of our wickedness and idolatry. There is more being said, words that point a finger at certain people groups and wag it hard in judgement of specific sins. I won’t repeat some of what I’ve heard and read because I don’t want to further spread the hate and arrogance that sometimes masquerades as righteousness. There are many voices clamoring to be heard–theories abound and flourish in the fertile soil of fear.

I can’t subscribe to the picture of God these assertions paint.

I can, however, run into the open, welcoming arms of the God who is weeping with a hurting world, speaking peace to anxious hearts, standing by the bedside of those dying alone, and guiding the minds and hands of those providing care. I can trust the God who, as Pastor John said Sunday, can bring beauty, goodness, and wholeness from even the worst of circumstances. This God—the God I know is kind and good and full of compassion. He pursues us with a reckless love and brings us tenderly back into his arms while we still reek of the perfume of other lovers.

He comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed. When nobody else can see us, he sees. When no one wants us, he would do anything to win our hearts back. When we are afraid and enslaved to gods of our own making, he doesn’t send plagues to set us straight, he tells us we need only be still and fear not—he is with us. All of us. He can’t bear the thought of losing even one, because his radical, rescuing, extravagant love is a personal love, strong enough to deliver us from anything. Anything. Even ourselves…

–Laura

Laura emphasizes an excellent point– one that I want to begin with. God is not cruel. God is not mad, and [God] comes to us in our bondage and he is relentless and extravagant with his love until we are freed.

God. Is. Love (1st John 4:8)   

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 upLove never stops loving. (1st Corinthians 13:4-8 TPT)

God. Is. Love.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. (Colossians 1:15) Jesus is love. 

AND… as Laura reminded us above…Jesus is truth (John 14:6) and, through knowing Jesus, we can know the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8:32) Jesus will set us free.

The above truths are what everything else I write today will be founded upon: Jesus is God, God is love, God’s love looks like 1st Corinthians 13, and Jesus (THE Truth) sets us free. 

Let’s go back to Exodus 6 and the situation of slavery that God’s people had suffered under for 400 years. Was it God’s fault that the Israelites were slaves, or was it because the human heart, when left to its own ways leans toward oppression, acquisition, control, and violence? I believe it’s the latter.

So, Exodus 6 begins with God introducing himself to Moses, who’s been in exile for a number of years because he killed an Egyptian who was beating an Israelite putting his own life in danger so he ran away. (Using violence to solve violence doesn’t lead to good outcomes). Yet, God, who is love, comes to this exiled murderer and introduces himself, then invites Moses to be the leader of Israel’s deliverance. Moses’ first commission as deliverer is to relay a message to the Israelites, the message of Exodus 6:6-7 that Laura wrote out above. In that message God says:

I am the Lord…

I will bring you out…

I will deliver you from slavery…

I will redeem you…

I will take you to be mine…

I will be your God…

You will know I am the Lord your God…

You will know I brought you out from under your burdens…

Moses delivered the message, and the Israelites “did not listen to him because of their discouragement and harsh labor.” (Ex. 6:9)

If we’re familiar with the story, we know that things got even harder for the Israelites, but eventually they were set free and Moses led them; however, there were still obstacles, still hardships, still uncertainty, still foes and battles, still fear–so much so that at one point the people wanted to choose a new leader and go back to Egypt. (Numbers 14:4) . Slavery felt safer, slavery felt more certain, at least as slaves they knew what to expect, and I think they had forgotten what bondage felt like.

We can scoff at that mindset until we realize we have it too. In the Exodus rescue, an entire people group, a nation, was being set free. Nations are made up of individuals, and as Moses, Joshua and Caleb demonstrate, there were those in the people group who trusted God and wanted to follow God’s ways, and others who weren’t. As we move through the Old Testament, we see over and over that when the nation (or the kings) got enamored with wealth, power, acquisition–or when there was no king and “the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes.” (Judges 17:6 & 21:25), God raised up a prophet to draw the people’s hearts back to their loving, rescuing God. Over and over the people (as a whole) ignored the prophets, imprisoned the prophets, killed the prophets, and continued their self-sufficient, self-destructive pursuits, which led them into bondage, and over and over, God embraced them with his love and rescued them.

Finally, the ultimate rescue came when God almighty clothed himself in flesh, and lived on earth as one of us. Jesus showed us what God looks like. Jesus showed us what God acts like. Jesus shows us how God sees. Jesus shows us how God loves, and Jesus laid down his life, conquered death and through his resurrection established his people, his kingdom, his nation. Brian Zahnd, in his book The Unvarnished Jesus, says of the crucifixion: “The cross refounds the world. When we see Jesus lifted up on the cross, perfectly displaying the love of God by forgiving the sin of the world, we find the place where human society is reorganized. Instead of a world organized around an axis of power enforced by violence, we discover a world organized around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness.”

Jesus and his ways reorganize society around an axis of love. Those of us who identify with Christ are no longer citizens of the world, we are citizens of the kingdom of God and yet, we are (I am)  drawn to the systems and structures of the world. They feel more certain. We know what to expect. And most of the time, we (I) don’t even realize the bondage we’ve placed ourselves in, the axis on which we’re spinning–until we’re faced with huge uncertainty.

So here we are, in unprecedented times. There is a global pandemic taking place. All over the world people are quarantining, people are without paychecks, some have lost their jobs, some have lost their health, some have lost their lives. Others are risking their lives on the front lines without the protective equipment that they need, or the medical equipment they need to keep people alive. In some nations, lives are being valued over the economy. In others, the economy is being valued over lives. There are those who believe the virus is a political ploy. There are those who believe the virus can be blamed on a certain ethnic group, and conclude that people of that ethnicity should be mistreated. There are those trying to control what they can, and there are those taking their own lives because things feel so out of control. There are those desperately trying to maintain life as normal, there are those numbing out in order to keep fear at bay, and there are those living in so much fear that they can’t eat or sleep. There are those, like my middle child’s dear friend, who have loved ones (his mother) in the hospital alone fighting for her life, and the isolation and grief they are both experiencing at not being able to be together. So what do we, the people of the kingdom of God, who live right here on the “foreign soil” of planet earth do?

First, we need to seek our hearts and ask the Holy Spirit what earthly things we’re clinging to, what is holding us captive? In the USA, we have printed on our currency “In God We Trust”. Do we? Or do we trust the currency on which that’s written?  I’m not going to lie–I struggle here. I’ve been breathing consumeristic, capitalistic air my whole life. Success in this nation is defined by possessions, or at the very least, being able to pay our own bills so that we don’t have to be dependent upon anyone else, which leads to another thing we may cling to…

Self-sufficiency. We admire the “self-made man”, the rags to riches stories. Independence and “I did it my way” are things we value. Interdependence causes us to feel weak; we don’t like that, and yet the system in God’s kingdom is extremely interdependent as we each offer our gifts to one another, pray for one another, share in each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and work together to establish God’s kingdom on earth.

We excel at “doing” rather than “being”. We’re not good at stillness. We go, go, go and rarely take time to sit and be. When we sit, we watch TV, scroll through our social media accounts, read books, text. We run from being alone with ourselves, and from being alone with God.  Even our “godly” focus on others can be a way to deflect from ourselves. You all, I’m not pointing fingers…I do this. And this week, I was stopped in my tracks.

A friend sent me a 15-minute meditation to listen to. As I listened to the encouragement to face my fears, let them go, and sit in the safety of Love, I could feel discomfort rising in me. I wanted to push it away, to move onto something else but chose to sit with it. I asked God to show me my deepest fears. He did. Pain. Loss. Suffering.  Mine, yours, the world’s. Many of you know that I lost my mother to cancer when I was eleven. That type of loss at that age wreaks havoc on one’s ability to feel safe–it’s like a gut punch that causes one’s mind to bend toward worst-case scenario thinking. It also makes one more apt to try to run from grief–which never works. The more we (I) run, the tighter the chains of bondage become. They can take the form of self-destruction or self-absorption;  of anger or denial; of clinging too hard to others, or not clinging to others at all; of blame or resignation; of living by our emotions, or numbing our emotions, and a myriad of other coping strategies.

So what do we do?  We acknowledge those things and turn from those ways. We seek the face of God (2nd Chronicles 7:14). When we seek God’s face, we look right into the face of Jesus who stood outside the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, knowing full well that he was about to bring Lazarus back to life, and he wept, actually sobbed with real tears, and entered into the grief of those mourning. Jesus did not deny their pain, just like Jesus did not deny his own wrestling and anguish in the garden of Gethsemane. He felt pain deeply. He never called anyone faithless for grieving.

He also continued to minister in the midst of pain.

In the account of Lazarus, Jesus brought him back to life–can you imagine the rejoicing that ensued? In his own life, Jesus experienced death, conquered death and came back to life, providing us the opportunity to live in the power of his resurrection both here on earth and for eternity–that’s reason to rejoice– but not reason to ignore.

My counselor taught me a few years ago,  that life happens in the tension of the “and”.  This season is full of “ands”.  I’m enjoying a slower life pace, and I am deeply aware of the seriousness of the situation we are in. I am a deeply committed follower of Jesus and I have fear and doubts. I have full faith to believe that God can heal and I am fully aware that God works on God’s timetable, and sometimes healing doesn’t mean what I want it to mean. I have no doubt that God could wipe out the virus in a millisecond and I am aware that we are facing a global pandemic that God hasn’t wiped out yet. I know that there is truth in the statement that we are safe in God’s love, and I don’t always feel like God’s love is safe, at least not the way I define safety.

Therefore, it’s wise to acknowledge the ands, feel what we need to feel, move through our wrestling by wrestling, then land on the things that we know are true. God is love. God is good. God meets us where we are without condemnation. God doesn’t mind our questions. God is okay with our wrestling. God joins us in our suffering. God joins us in our laughter. And in the midst of it all, as we seek His face, God gives us the opportunity to join Him in his loving work of rescuing, redeeming, suffering with, laughing with, praying for and embracing the world as we allow God to embrace us. In this way, a nation–a world, can be saved.

–Luanne

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The Sign of Heaven

Immediately after this, he got into a boat with his disciples and crossed over to the region of Dalmanutha. When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake. (Mark 8:10-13, NLT)

This week’s passage begins with the words, “Immediately after this…” Immediately after what? The feeding of the 4,000. As soon as that meal was over, Jesus and his disciples left for a different region. When they arrived, the Pharisees showed up once again, as they’d done before, to test him. Different translations use the words question, tempt, argue, dispute, demand, trap, and try to describe the interaction. It wasn’t a friendly conversation.

Pastor John articulated that they were questioning the legitimacy of Jesus’ power, the trustworthiness of his character, and the authority behind his acts. They were acting on a story in their heads that they had come to believe as truth. In order to uphold their own rightness, their power, and the systems they controlled–systems that benefited them, they needed to attack and demonize Jesus. They intended to erode his reputation, and to gain control over him by demanding that he bend to their whims.

I have not spent much time studying these verses until now. Honestly, I’ve often read over them to get to the next part, because this part of the story seems so ridiculous. Jesus had just fed 4,000+ people with seven loaves of bread and a few fish. Not long before that, he had multiplied a small lunch into food for 5,000+. In the midst of these enormous miracles, he had healed the sick, brought mobility to the lame, raised the dead; he’d brought sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute, seen-ness to the invisible, honor to the dishonored; he had driven out demons, walked on water, and calmed the sea…

…And the Pharisees demanded to see a sign from heaven so he could prove himself to them.

Seriously???

I’ve always read this exchange with a slight shake of my head and an eye-roll. What else did they need to see? Even if they hadn’t seen the miracles themselves, there were thousands of accounts of the things he had done. These verses simply depict more annoying noise from the same squeaky wheels. Until this week, I’ve mostly sighed along with Jesus and moved on to the next story. But there is much to learn if we pause and look a little deeper into what was really going on in this short conversation.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they had questions that they hoped he could answer. They came to question him, to make a mockery of who he was and what he did. They came to him believing the stories in their own heads, with a desire to prove their own rightness and assert their power. They had a perception of Jesus, and that perception informed their thoughts, emotions, and beliefs. They also had a perception of themselves. In their eyes, they were right. What they did was right. And if Jesus wouldn’t do things–especially the religious things–the way they did things, he must be wrong, and collaborating with evil. They came to him full of accusations, ready to attack his character, power, trustworthiness, and authority.

And Jesus sighed. Said no to their demands. And walked away.

I want us to take a really honest look at what happened here, myself included. I hope we can ask some hard questions, and then tell the truth. And hopefully as we dig into this, we can learn from how Jesus handled himself and move toward the freedom that can only be found in modeling our lives after him.

Have you ever felt attacked, or been blindsided by the lies you’ve heard about yourself? Have you been insulted? Has someone spread rumors about you? Has your character been questioned? What about your trustworthiness, your loyalty, your motives, your beliefs? Have people accused you or demanded that you prove yourself to them in some way? Has anyone ever made assumptions about you, and acted on their perceptions of who you are–perceptions based on lies and not truth? Have you been blasted because of your beliefs, or because of your commitment to Jesus–especially if that looks different than the power structures say it “should” look?

My guess is that all of you can answer yes to most–if not all–of these questions. I know that I can. And it hurts. As Pastor John said, when character and trustworthiness are questioned, it causes division and a breakdown in relationships. It’s difficult to move forward in relationship when you find out the stories that others have been believing–and spreading–about you. When it’s specifically because of our beliefs about Jesus, and the way that he’s calling us to follow him, it can be hard to know what to do.

To all of us who have experienced something like this, Pastor John reminded us of what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. I’m going to share the Message paraphrase and The Passion Translation, and I encourage us all to read it slowly and let it sink into our hearts.

 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom. Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.” (Matthew 5:10-12, Message)

“How enriched you are when you bear the wounds of being persecuted for doing what is right! For that is when you experience the realm of heaven’s kingdom. How ecstatic you can be when people insult and persecute you and speak all kinds of cruel lies about you because of your love for me! So leap for joy–since your heavenly reward is great. For you are being rejected the same way the prophets were before you.” (TPT)

It never feels good when we feel like we’re being persecuted.  It doesn’t feel like blessing, and it doesn’t make us feel glad or ecstatic. But the thought that persecution for doing what’s right can drive us deeper into the kingdom, that God is pleased by our commitment to him, and that many before us–including Jesus–endured rejection, can be a comfort to our hearts in the midst of the pain.

We also have to be willing to look at the other side and ask more hard questions…

Have we been the ones entertaining stories in our heads? Have we believed those stories, questioning people in our hearts without ever asking them the questions we have? Have we entertained our own assumptions and listened to the rumors others have spread to the point that we believe them as truth? Have we become the rumor spreaders, the ones doing the attacking and discrediting?

Read that again, and ask the Holy Spirit to shine a light on anything you carry as “truth” that began as a story in your head. And then listen. I am pausing to do the same, asking Jesus to give us all soft, willing hearts of flesh so that we can see ourselves rightly. It’s easy to see how we’ve been attacked. It’s much harder to admit when we have been the ones doing the attacking…

Welcome back. Whatever Jesus may have highlighted for each of us, we would be wise to move toward owning our stuff, no matter how hard that might be. As Pastor John shared with us on Sunday, there is no freedom in the stories in our heads. The more we feed those stories, the more true they feel to us. But in actuality, they only lead us further away from the truth. It’s in holding on to the ways of Jesus and to his teachings that we come to know the truth that sets us free. (John 8:31-32)

I want to take us back to our story to look at how Jesus handled his questioners so that we can learn from him. The Pharisees wanted Jesus to perform on their terms rather than let his life and actions speak to who he was. They wanted to have power and control over him. They didn’t understand what his ministry was about. It was never about showy theatrics to Jesus. It was about bringing his upside-down kingdom to bear in the lives of real people–all people. It wasn’t about making himself known–what he did, he did out of love, not ego. They wanted Jesus to bow to their whims–he would not. Why? Because he knew who he was. His identity came from his father. And he knew why he was here. They wanted to show the world that this guy wasn’t who they thought he was. But Jesus didn’t have anything to prove or anything to defend. The text tells us that he sighed, told them no, and walked away. He didn’t get defensive and argue.

Ultimately, the words, ways, and miracles of Jesus portrayed a picture of God that didn’t look like the picture the Pharisees held and taught. Jesus came as the perfect image of the previously invisible God, and the things he did, the way he loved–who he was–didn’t line up with the stories in the Pharisees heads about what God should and shouldn’t be like. They held to the belief that they had it all right. So Jesus, then, must be wrong. And they were out to prove it. The stories in their heads were so loud, so fixed, so pervasive, that they couldn’t see what was right in front of them.

How often is that true of us when it comes to Jesus, and to others? Where do we need to set aside our own “rightness” and look instead to the righteousness of the one we say we follow? Where is our “asking for a sign” actually more like demanding that God show up in the way we want him to? Where are we clinging to power and control at the cost of those around us?

Wherever we each find ourselves today, we can–and need to–hold on to what is true. The truth is that Jesus is real and he is good. He sees us, he is for us, and we can trust him, even when it doesn’t make sense. His character is unshakable. His trustworthiness is unmatched. His love is unconditional and overflowing. He is the clearest picture of God we’ll ever see. And he has done so much, given us so many signs that prove to us that this is who he is. May we look to him as our guide and our example. May we trust him, even in the dark. And may we model our lives after him and his ways, as partners with him in his kingdom work.

–Laura

When I read that Jesus’ response to this group’s questioning was a sigh, I feel for Jesus. This deep sigh occurs one time in the New Testament, and this is the place. It literally means to draw up deep sighs from the bottom of the breast, (Strongs). In my own life, this type of sigh usually accompanies an ache in my chest and a desire to cry. I don’t know if it was the same for Jesus, but it could have been. Jesus loves all people, this group of Pharisees included, but Jesus will not force himself on anyone. I believe Jesus desired to minister to people in this region, to set people free from bondage, yet right away there was a roadblock in the hearts of the religious authorities, so Jesus sighed deeply and left the region. How many people in Dalmanutha didn’t have a personal encounter with Jesus because the religious system created a wall?

As we look back over portions of the book of Mark that we’ve studied this year, we can recall that in chapter 1, Jesus healed and taught and the people were amazed because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law (1:21). 

In chapter 2, Jesus forgave the sins of a paralyzed man and the teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).  Jesus read their thoughts and responded,  “Why are you thinking these things?  Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?  But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” (2:8-11) 

We could continue going through the book of Mark and read account after account of questioning and accusation coming from the religious leaders questioning the authority of Jesus. It happened in region after region, city after city, synagogue after synagogue… Jesus was a threat to their power. Jesus was a threat to their understanding of how the religious system worked. Jesus was a threat to the way they thought about God. They didn’t understand Jesus and the way he did things, and for the most part, they didn’t seek to.

But there were a few along the way who sought deeper understanding. In John 3 we learn that there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” (John 3:1-2). It is in this conversation with Nicodemus that we learn that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17). The entire conversation is beautiful.  

Nicodemus is mentioned two other times in the gospel of John. In chapter 7, when the Pharisees wanted the temple guards to seize Jesus and they didn’t, the Pharisees accused the guards (and Nicodemus) of being deceived by Jesus, and of being ignorant by saying:“Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed in him? No! But this mob that knows nothing of the law—there is a curse on them.” Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn a man without first hearing him to find out what he has been doing?” They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7: 48-52) In other words, “we know and you don’t–don’t question us.”

The last time Nicodemus is mentioned is at the burial of Jesus: Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. (John 19: 38-40)

There is something so stirring about the account of these two powerful men caring for the body of Jesus. I wish we could know more about them and what happened in their lives after the resurrection of Christ. What I do know, and why I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that he had questions too–but his questions came from a desire to know more, to go deeper, to seek further understanding. The group of Pharisees in Dalmanutha’s questions came from a place of arrogance; they thought they knew more and already had full understanding, so Jesus needed to be proved wrong. Another reason that I introduced Nicodemus into this narrative, is that we can develop stories in our heads about the Pharisees, and Nicodemus reminds us that not all of them resisted Jesus. We can develop stories in our heads about all kinds of groups. It’s good to remind ourselves that every group is full of individuals, and each individual is unique.

When I was in counseling a few years back, my counselor taught me how to ask for clarification in a way that led to conversation rather than to conflict. She said that I could begin by saying “I have a story in my head that may or may not be true. Can I share it with you to get clarification?” (Of course, I am going to the source, not to other people). “I have a story in my head” is a completely different type of question than “Where were you? Who were you with?” etc.  One leads to conflict, one leads to conversation and clarification.

Pastor John reminded us that questions only find answers when they’re asked and if we let them spin in our heads we create stories. If we then share those stories (based on our perceptions) with others, it can erode relationships, create division, and cause a great deal of harm. It would appear that the vast majority of Pharisees were involved in murmuring and grumbling behind the scenes about Jesus, drinking the poison of their own thoughts, letting that poison affect those around them, and leading to death rather than life, bondage rather than freedom, hopelessness rather than hope. Jesus, the life-bringer, desired to set them free, but the hardness of their hearts would not allow it.

Jesus will not show off to prove our accusations wrong. Jesus’ displays of power and his miracles were always for the benefit of those to whom he was ministering. They were demonstrations of love, and pointed to God the Father, the God of love who had been misunderstood and misinterpreted.  Jesus was showing us who God really is.

In investigating our own internal stories, sometimes we don’t know the state of our own hearts, so it’s wise to pray, Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. (Psalm 139:23-24) And then let him show us. We are all works in progress, as long as we don’t resist what God desires to do in us and in our midst.

What are your questions? What are the stories in your head? Are you seeking truth, or seeking to be right? Jesus said to the Jews who believed in him, “If you are faithful to what I have said, you are truly my disciples. And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:31-32). Let’s seek to know what Jesus said, live what he modeled, and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. Yes, ask questions…but questions that lead to life, not death.

–Luanne

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Limits: Freedom to Choose

The story of King Herod and John the Baptizer isn’t very fun to read. We don’t get to breathe a sigh of relief at the end of it as things are set right and pain is redeemed, because in this story, it’s not. It’s a story about a man who had a lot of power and the freedom to make a lot of choices without being questioned. Most of his choices were terrible, and nearly all of them were influenced by the desires and opinions of others. He even acted against his own convictions–after all, he had an image to preserve, a reputation to hold up.

The end of the passage we studied last week told us that Jesus’s disciples did what he sent them out to do: they healed people and drove out demons in his name. In the first verse of this week’s passage (Mark 6:14-29), Mark begins by telling us that “King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.” King Herod’s reaction to what he heard was, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” And then we get to read the whole story about the events that led to the beheading of John.

Why was this King Herod’s initial reaction to hearing about Jesus and his disciples? It likely had something to do with the word about–he hadn’t met Jesus, he didn’t know him. He had heard about him. And what he heard reminded him of someone else. Someone whose death he was responsible for. Perhaps his reaction was what it was because he had a guilty conscience. Maybe he was very aware of his wrongdoing, and maybe he was afraid of the consequences.

If we’re honest, when we read this story we can’t escape the reality of sin or the truth that, while most of us haven’t had someone killed, Herod’s string of bad decisions feels a little too familiar.

So. Let’s talk about sin.

What is sin, exactly? It is commonly associated with other words like condemnation, guilt, shame, exposure, evil, bad, wrong… I’m sure most of us could add a few more to that list. It’s a common assumption that sin entered the human experience in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. What is less commonly known is that the word “sin” doesn’t show up until a couple of chapters later. And it doesn’t show up as an action. Its described more like a temptation, almost a persona…

Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, both gave offerings of their labor to God. Most of our English translations say something like “God looked with favor on Abel’s sacrifice but did not look with favor on Cain’s.” If you look at the original language and the root words, it’s pretty difficult to make a case for the word “favor” showing up in the passage at all. The definitions of the original words basically say “God looked at Abel’s (and the word used for “looked” here has more negative connotations than it does positive, though it does have both) and he didn’t look at Cain’s.” It really doesn’t say anything about “how” God looked or didn’t look. I mention this not because I’m some kind of scholar–I am definitely not a theologian. I mention it because we all heave projections onto our God sometimes that make him look nothing like who he really is. What we do know is that Cain took it personally, however it happened.

J.D. Myers, in his book Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, writes:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him. God warns Cain that sin is crouching at his door, seeking to devour him. (Gen. 4:7) …Sin is first introduced and defined in the Bible as the cycle of imitative desire leading to rivalry, blame, scapegoating, and violence.”

This description makes me think of James 1:14-16:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” (NLT)

Cain was jealous of whatever he thought his brother had. His desire was to win, to be better. His desire led him straight into the arms of sin. Sin’s desire was to have Cain–to consume him–and their union gave birth to violent actions which led to Abel’s death.

Maybe you’ve heard sin described as “missing the mark”. The bible makes a pretty strong case for this particular definition. But missing the mark of what? Perfection? Holiness? Godliness? I’m not sure–the Bible doesn’t directly tell us. But I really like the way Myers describes it in the book I cited above:

“Sin is living inhuman lives; lives that do not treat others as human beings made in the image of God, and lives that do not live up to our full potential as human beings in God’s image. Sin causes us to live as less than human.”

That feels like a good description of “missing the mark” to me. It certainly applies to the actions of Cain and King Herod. Sadly, it applies to many of my own choices, too…

Pastor John told us a few things about sin. He told us that sin is arrogant. It leads us to believe that we’re somehow beyond or above its consequences. It gets our attention–either through guilt or through shame. It seems rational at the time. It tells us we’re somehow in the right, or justified. So we deny what we’ve done and we minimize the impact of our actions. It begins to shape how we think. And with every step we take toward sin’s invitation, we become more and more consumed by it. Sin tells us that we are our own god. We are above consequence, and we are in control. It becomes agonizing over time, despite the lies we tell ourselves, and it begins to weigh us down. We forget who we are and whose we are, and we feel far from home. We begin to identify ourselves as bad, and we become convinced that something is inherently wrong with us. 

Herein lies the limit. We limit our own ability to experience the ever-present love of our God when we fall into the murderous embrace of sin. Sin wants to destroy us–not by sending us to the flames of some kind of hell. By encasing us in a cloak of lies that prevents us from feeling the love of the one who has never–and, hear me, will never–turn away from us. Sin doesn’t actually succeed at keeping us from God. But it limits our ability to sense and to know his love. We miss out on the experiential knowing of the withness of Jesus because we project our own guilt and shame onto our relationship with him. And so we hide. We run. We pull sin’s arms tightly around us to shield us from the wrath we imagine is coming…

But the only wrath that comes our way comes as the natural consequences of our actions.

The wrath is never from the one who made us, loves us, and never stops coming for us. There is no place so far that his presence won’t meet us there. Even if we make our bed in the place of the dead, he’s there. (Psalm 139)

His hand never, ever stops reaching for us. Sin doesn’t keep God from us. Ever. In the book A More Christlike God, Brad Jersak writes:

“Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee. The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.”

There is always a hand that is extended toward us, no matter where we are or what heinous thing we have done. In reality, there is no “coming back” into God’s presence. Because there is nowhere his presence is not. There is only the choice to yield to the already-there God, letting his hand pull us from the churning belly of sin, and allowing ourselves to be absorbed into the love that is–and always has been–our home. Or there is the choice not to. Our choices can limit our ability to experience that extravagant love–but our choices can never remove us from the presence of the one who is with us, wherever we go.

–Laura

I love every word that Laura wrote and don’t have much to add; however, when she was speaking of Cain and Able, she includes this quote from J. D. Myers:

“Sin is first mentioned in the Bible when Cain becomes angry at his brother Abel and enters into rivalry with him.

The word rivalry jumped out at me. I think our western consumeristic mindset leads us to live in a constant state of rivalry.  The definition of rivalry is: competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.  It’s a mindset that we are permeated with, but which will eventually erode our souls. 

Every advertisement that we see, every person that we compare ourselves with, every time we spend money that we don’t have to purchase something because we want it, or because it’s the “in” thing and we don’t want to be left out, every time we hustle for our worth and try to make ourselves indispensable to another human being, every time we pre-judge another person without knowing them at all, every time we treat (or even think) of someone else with disdain, every time we feel envious of what another has, or feel “less than”, every time we harbor bitterness because of what we think someone else deserves, every time we go along with the crowd against our own convictions–like Herod did–it’s all based in some sort of competition to be liked, to be accepted, to be superior…

That’s what Cain was feeling when he felt inferior to his brother. God, in his goodness, came to Cain and said to him  “sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” (Gen 4:7). Then Cain had a choice to make.

That scripture reminds me of the scripture in Luke 22:31-32 when Jesus tells Peter that Peter will deny him. Jesus says: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you (plural) as wheat.  But I have prayed for you (singular), Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”  

Again, we see the warning, and the promise that Jesus is right there waiting with open arms through the season of our poor choices, and at the moment of our repentance. He does not reject us–ever.

Remembering that the word repentance literally means to change our mind removes the fear of condemnation. Repentance, in some circles, sounds like an awful thing, a condemning thing–yet Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world. (John 3:17)And he tells us through the Apostle John that …perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. (1 John 4:18 NLT).  

Last week, author Jonathan Martin tweeted “to repent is to remember: to remember who you are, to remember who God has always said you are; to recognize, to know, again; to come to yourself; to be who you’ve always been, but not allowed yourself to be.”

If we allow ourselves to see ourselves as unique, one of a kind, beloved image-bearers of God–fully known and fully loved, and learn to see others in that same way–rivalry falls to the wayside.

King Herod was loved by God. King Herod made a series of bad choices, beginning, in this account, with marrying his brother’s wife, which led to the prophet John the Baptist pointing out his immoral behavior, which led to John’s arrest.  Herod’s wife hated John and wanted him dead, but Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. (Mark 6:20)  Herod threw a party, his step-daughter danced in front of his guests and he was so pleased he promised her anything she wanted–up to half his kingdom. She asked her mother what she should ask for, her mother wanted John the Baptist beheaded–the daughter asked Herod for John’s head. The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her…(Mark 6:26)

Even in Herod’s series of people-pleasing poor choices, God loved him. It’s interesting to read the detail that John’s message puzzled Herod, yet he liked to listen to him. I believe God was drawing Herod to himself through John.

We all make poor choices. We all compare ourselves to others. We all “miss the mark”. We all have a tendency to think that we will not reap the consequences of our poor choices. We all rationalize our actions. We all push God away. We all separate ourselves from experiencing the fullness of God’s love. But God never stops loving us. God never pushes us away. God never leaves us. God never turns his back on us.

This week’s limit….we limit our experience of God’s unconditional love in our lives when we choose to “let sin master us”, when we choose to follow our own desires, when we choose to please others against our own convictions, when we choose to diminish ourselves or puff up ourselves in comparison to others, when we let our thought lives run amuck, but God…he never limits his love for us. It is a constant, it is his very character…God is love.

I read this quote the other day–I don’t know who gets the credit for it, but I love it:

                          “Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to make a simple point:                     never mind what you’ve done, just come home.”

This is the heart of our God–just come home. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. Don’t be afraid. None of us is going to do life perfectly. We all fall short. And in the mind-blowing way of our God–His perfect love is there to receive us with open arms–always. 

–Luanne

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Over All…Death & Disease

161CDF9B-4494-44C9-8C1A-1351FB2E872BMark 5:21-43: the story of “a dead girl and a sick woman.” Most bible translations I’ve seen title it something like that. I wish that wasn’t the headline… The story, really, isn’t about the illness or the dying–it’s about a Jesus who sees, names, flips the script on the cultural norms of his day, and restores Shalom–brings wholeness and sets all things right–in every life he touches. But I don’t know how we’d make a neat, succinct title out of all that…

This story has been one of my favorites for a couple of years now. Ever since I heard a brilliant social psychologist and theologian named Christena Cleveland tell it in a way I had never heard it before. There is so much tucked away inside this passage, so much that is easy to miss if we just read the words off the page. As I thought about how to present these things, I felt like the best way to do that is to simply tell the story in expanded form. So, what follows will be a mixture of the story straight out off the pages of scripture, the original Greek words and definitions used, the cultural nuance I have learned from Christena and others, points from Sunday’s sermon, and some of my own thoughts, too. I want you to find yourself in the midst of these people, breathing the same air, watching this beautiful story unfold. So, if you’ll allow me the creative liberty, I am going to write this in story form, without explaining or notating. The expanded definitions of words come from Strong’s Greek Lexicon. Everything else is how I’ve come to understand this passage–with the help of many others–at this point in my life. Without further ado…

News of what had just happened to Legion was spreading like wildfire throughout the region. People have been camped out near the water for days, waiting for Jesus to return. They have all heard the story, and they all have questions. Many have needs, and they are holding on to their last shred of hope… maybe he holds the keys to their miracles, too?

There he is. Jesus and his disciples just got out of the boat. The crowd is growing and pressing in. Everyone is eager to talk to him… So many voices. Suddenly, a surprised hush falls over the group. Someone just fell at Jesus’s feet. It’s Jairus, the synagogue leader! What is he doing? The crowd is appalled at what’s happening. Jairus, along with the other leaders, has been refuting every claim made about Jesus. They’ve been cautioning everyone to stay away from this “teacher”. He’s dangerous… he’s broken with tradition… his claims are heretical… They’ve told the community these things and more. So what is this highly esteemed leader up to? His very name means “whom God enlightens”–doesn’t he know he shouldn’t be doing this?

“My little girl, my daughter–she is dying! Nothing has helped… We’ve tried everything!” His voice is desperate, he’s pleading at the feet of Jesus.

“Please come! Come, touch her, lay your hands on my little girl, so she can be saved and healed–made whole again, brought back to life! Please come with me!”

He’s not the only leader in the crowd… He has to know the others just heard what he said, too. This won’t go well for him in the synagogue… It’s a bit of a surprise that none of them are saying anything to him yet. Maybe they’re waiting to see what happens–or maybe they’re simply too shocked to speak up.

Or… perhaps it’s the look on Jesus’s face that’s stopping them from questioning Jairus just yet… The compassion in his eyes–it’s unnerving. Who is really that kind? Surely he won’t go with him right now. He just returned from crossing through the waves again. He has to be hungry. Probably exhausted. Who could expect him to go anywhere right now? But there’s not even a hint of frustration on his face. 

Only compassion…

Jesus hasn’t said a thing yet. He simply helped Jairus to his feet and now they’re headed off. His followers that were in the boat with him, along with a huge part of the crowd, are following them. 

Jesus stops walking abruptly. “Who just touched me?”

What is he talking about? There’s a massive crowd around him–people are bumping into each other constantly. Everyone is touching everyone else…

“There are people all around you, friend.” It’s one of his disciples talking, giving voice to what everyone is thinking. “Why are you asking who touched you?” 

Jesus doesn’t answer the question. He’s quiet. He is looking all around, intently. But he’s doing more than looking– he’s looking to see, and not just with his eyes… He’s searching with his mind, too. He’s looking with a desire to know, to become acquainted with this person he’s searching for. He’s looking to know them experientially. He wants to care for and pay heed to whoever he’s looking for… That’s the kind of looking he’s doing.

Someone is moving toward him… 

Why is she here? 

The woman moving toward him shouldn’t be here. She knows that. She’s unclean, and according to the synagogue leaders, she has to keep her distance. It’s been twelve years since she’s moved freely among a crowd like this, twelve years since she’s been well. What is she thinking? Surely Jairus will tell her she needs to leave, that her being here puts everyone at risk of being made unclean, too. 

She looks so afraid. She’s trembling. Now she’s huddled at Jesus’s feet, and she’s talking. She’s telling him her story, starting from the beginning…

Jairus looks both annoyed and afraid… He knows his precious daughter may not have much time left. He’s not saying anything–yet. But the look on his face suggests that he might not stay quiet for long. There’s no time for delays or interruptions, especially not when it comes to this woman. She knows she’s not supposed to be here.

The look on Jesus’s face, though… Again, that compassion. What is it with this man?? He doesn’t look even the slightest bit concerned about the interruption. In fact, his eyes are glistening as he listens patiently. He’s leaning in now, getting a little closer so that he can really hear her… 

“Teacher, it’s been twelve years… I’ve lost everything, everyone,” she chokes out, between sobs. “I’ve seen all of the doctors. I’ve asked the synagogue leaders what to do. I’ve been prayed for. Nothing has made any difference at all. Nothing! I couldn’t live like that anymore… I heard about the man they lowered through the roof–how you healed him. I’ve heard other stories, too. But when I heard about the man in the tombs, I knew I had to try to get to you. I-I thought…” she pauses, looking around at all the eyes staring back at her, knowing that her admission could make her situation even worse. Her gaze lingers on Jairus–she can see the impatience on his face, his crossed arms. But he’s not saying anything. Jesus looks straight into her eyes, imploring her to continue. She takes a deep breath and continues, “I thought if I could touch you,” the gasp in the crowd is audible, “even if I just touched your clothes, I could be healed. And… as soon as I touched the hem of your cloak, I felt something change in my body. I don’t know how to explain it–but something moved from you to me and it changed everything…”

She takes a deep breath, pausing, fearing the consequences of her actions…

The enormous crowd had just heard this woman share her whole truth. Jesus was listening, so they did, too. They had never heard her whole story before. Even Jairus, the one “whom God enlightens”, appeared to be listening, surprised by parts of the story she highlighted–things he and the other leaders didn’t know. 

Jesus is smiling now. “Daughter,” he finally says.

Daughter? Jesus often uses the more generic word for “child” when he talks to people. It can mean son or daughter, and it’s the one he chose to use just a little while back when he spoke to the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof. This word, though, it’s the same one Jairus just used to talk about his daughter. Jesus is speaking to this unclean outcast using the same language this waiting father just used. Her face registers the shock of the moment–She had just endured more than a decade of obscurity, lived a nameless life defined by her disease. And now this teacher, this miracle-worker, was calling her “Daughter?” Who is this man who, with a word, could make her feel immediately loved and safe? Who is this one whose very presence is the embodiment of healing and power and light? 

Jesus continues, “Daughter, you are saved. You are healed and made whole.” Again, Jesus borrows the same word Jairus used when he asked Jesus to “save” his daughter… “Everything has been made right. Shalom has been restored to you–you are free.” Everything about her looks different now. Her face looks peaceful, there’s light in her eyes. The fear is gone. She stands up and is on her way.

While Jesus was talking with her, some people from Jairus’s house pulled the leader aside. “She’s gone. She died. Come home, let the teacher be,” they said.

If only they hadn’t been interrupted–maybe she wouldn’t have died before Jesus could have done something. The woman was healed as soon as she touched him. If only he would have kept walking rather than stopping to engage with her. Why did he have to let her tell her whole story? Now a twelve year old girl was dead…

Jesus must have overheard the people who came to talk to Jairus. He turns in his direction and looks straight at him, paying no attention to the presence of the others in this moment. He walks over, cups the face of the man in front of him, this father’s face that is contorted with pain, and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just believe.” Something in his eyes, in his voice, in his touch, maybe–something changed the look on the father’s face. 

Jesus pulls aside three of his friends, and they, along with him and Jairus start off again toward the home of the synagogue leader… No one else is allowed to follow any longer. The crowd disperses, pondering all that they had just seen and heard…

–Laura

Jairus was conflicted. He got to Jesus before this woman did–he was first! He had risked his reputation and fallen on his knees before this man. He knew his daughter was close to death–seeking out Jesus was his last-ditch effort to save her. Other means of medicine had not worked for his family either. It seemed for a moment as if there was a glimmer of hope when Jesus began to accompany Jairus–but then…the audacity! Jairus didn’t know whether to be angry with Jesus, the woman, or both. Who were they to make him wait?

Jairus was the synagogue leader–a man of importance. This woman was the type of person he deemed unclean and an outcast all the time according to the Torah–their holy scriptures. Surely Jesus would not tarry. Surely Jesus would hurry to heal the beloved daughter of the synagogue ruler. Surely when Jesus identified the woman who brazenly touched him, he was going to scold her for breaking the law and then hurry on. But no…Jesus gave her precious time. Jesus gave her his full attention as if Jairus wasn’t even a consideration. Jesus listened to her and let her go on and on about her story; he never cut her off, never told her he was on a different mission when she interrupted him, he acted as if she mattered–did she?

Did this audacious, unclean woman matter more than his daughter? It would appear so and it didn’t make sense!  And then the news came that his daughter had indeed died. What was he supposed to do now that his little girl was dead? His friends were telling him to leave Jesus alone, Jesus was telling him not to fear but to believe. 

Jairus recalled all the things he had heard about Jesus up to this point–the things that caused the religious leaders, including himself,  to squirm because they couldn’t explain or control them. Jesus didn’t bow to their authority.–that was one of the reasons Jairus sought him out–Jesus seemed to be able to think and act outside of their box. Is it possible that there could still be hope? 

Before they even arrived at the house it became clear that his daughter truly was dead–the ruckus of the mourners confirmed it. Now what? There had already been some talk among Jewish religious leaders that Jesus just might be out of his mind, and his next comment certainly seemed to confirm that. He said: “the child is not dead but asleep.”  Everyone knows the difference between someone who is dead and someone who is sleeping. Jairus’ friends laughed at Jesus–Jairus wondered if they were laughing at him too–their synagogue ruler who was desperate enough to consult the rebel who was flipping everything his people believed about God and the Torah on its head. 

But then Jesus sent all of them out. Some of the mourners protested, some of them were slow to leave, but after a few more precious moments ticked off the clock everyone was gone except for Jairus, his wife, Jesus’ three friends, and Jesus. They entered the room where this beloved child lay–Jesus, continuing his law-breaking rebellious ways touched her dead body taking her corpse by the hand. Jairus, again conflicted, wondered if law-breaking in this instance was okay? He desperately wanted it to be.

Jesus spoke to the dead daughter saying, “Talitha koum”–a term of endearment, a phrase meaning little girl or little lamb–get up. Jairus couldn’t help but think about the words of the prophet Isaiah who said: “He will tend his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Is. 40:11) . His daughter rose,  got out of bed, walked around, and Jesus asked them to get her something to eat. Jairus doesn’t understand what has just happened, he certainly can’t explain it, but all of a sudden he knows that he wants to be a lamb of Jesus too. 

Jairus begins to understand, though not yet clearly,  that everything he’s built his life on is being challenged. He’s beginning to see that all daughters are precious to Jesus, none is unclean, not the dead one, not the one who was bleeding. He remembers how Jesus healed a demon-possessed man, how he healed someone on the Sabbath. Could it be that no one is untouchable? Could it be that no one is unimportant or less-than in God’s kingdom? Could it be that their entire understanding of God is skewed–the understanding that leads to people becoming outcasts and being mistreated, the understanding that the people of Israel are superior to other people groups because they are the chosen people of God? He remembers that God told Abraham that through his offspring all people of the earth would be blessed. (Gn. 22:18) What does it all mean?  His twelve-year-old daughter is alive. The woman who had been bleeding for twelve years is healed.  Jairus begins to question his interpretation of the law. What will he do from this point forward, how will he teach, how will he rule, how will he handle the previously “unclean” after what he’s experienced on this day? 

What will we do when Jesus reinterprets our traditions, our understanding? What will we do when he tarries with the oppressed, when he gives us an opportunity to join our stories with the stories of those we’ve previously dismissed or haven’t made time for? In order to receive healing from  Jesus, the woman had to summon up incredible courage and put herself at great risk, Jairus had to humble himself and put himself at great risk. Neither one cared what anyone else thought–they just knew that they needed an encounter with Jesus, and I imagine, once they experienced the authority of Jesus displayed through his healing power, his resurrection power, his compassion, his kindness, his love–the walls fell down and they wanted everyone else to experience Jesus too.

Do we?

–Luanne