Joy: Press On; Grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul goes on to describe how very good he was at following all the religious rules–if anyone could boast in doing it right (according to man-made standards), it was him. I don’t know if we can fully grasp how privileged and powerful Paul was–and how much he used that privilege and power to elevate himself and oppress those who worshiped differently than he did, especially those who had met Jesus. And then, Paul met Jesus. His encounter with Jesus changed the entire trajectory of his life–so much so that he writes to his Philippian friends: Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord!  To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. My passion is to be consumed with him and not clinging to my own “righteousness” based in keeping the written Law. My “righteousness” will be his, based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ... I continually long to know the wonders of Jesus more fully…(3: 7-9, 10a TPT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

(John 14:16-17, TPT)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

Last week we wrapped up our series that covered the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Sunday, we started a new series that will take us through the book of Romans, believed to be the last of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. Before we dive into this letter, let’s consider the author–Paul (previously known as Saul)–as well as the historical and cultural context into which this letter was written and received.

The book of Acts introduces us to a man named Saul. We first hear about him at the trial and subsequent stoning of Stephen, a servant-leader in the early church. “…Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:58b, 59b, NIV) Who was this young man named Saul? Later, in a letter written to the Philippians, he writes of himself:

I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. (Philippians 3:5-6 TPT)

Saul’s credentials identify him as one of the most religious, zealous men of his day. Acts chapter 9 tells us that he breathed out “murderous threats” against followers of Jesus and arrested and imprisoned as many of them–men and women–as he could find.

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. (Philippians 3:7-8, TPT, emphasis mine)

What caused this about-face? How did the murderous, arrogantly righteous Saul become enraptured by the singular passion of knowing Jesus as his Lord? He had an encounter that changed everything. Acts 9 tells the story, which we won’t go into here, but encountering the risen Jesus altered this young man’s course for the rest of his life. Encounters with the real Jesus have a way of doing that…

It is believed that the letter to the Romans was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, around 56 AD. He addresses both Jewish and Gentile believers in his writings, and makes it clear that he is including all those in Rome who are loved by God (Romans 1:7). He expands this thought, as we’ll see throughout the coming weeks, to make clear the power of God to bring salvation to all who believe, without exception. It is important to note, as we begin, that the church grew out of a Jewish culture, in a land under Roman rule, where Greek intellectualism was becoming more and more prevalent. As Pastor John emphasized Sunday, knowing the context as we dig into scripture is extremely important.

Author Tim Stafford wrote in his introduction to Romans in Zondervan’s God’s Justice Bible:

“Paul brings good news about a new king for the ages, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. . . All people, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, are called to put their faith in him. . . to be filled with his Spirit, and as God’s new people to live a life pleasing to him–a life of justice. This new people become the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. We live, Paul says, in the final act of God’s story. . . For Paul, justice is bigger than politics or sociology, as important as those are. Justice is cosmic, summed up in the reign of Jesus and a world set free.”

This is the set up for the book we’re about to explore. It is packed with theological ideas and stirs questions and considerations that still leave many theologians confounded today. That means the Spirit has new things to teach us, as the Spirit always does, if we’re willing to lean in and learn.

So (finally!), let’s begin…

In Sunday’s message, Pastor John outlined the attitude with which Paul carries himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and what we, as modern-day followers of Jesus, can learn from his example. He covered the first seventeen verses of Romans chapter 1. If you’re at all familiar with the way Paul writes, you know that seventeen verses is a lot of words. So I won’t include the whole passage here. Rather, before I wrap up my portion, I want to come back to something I touched on earlier…

The only reason we have the book of Romans and all of Paul’s other letters in our Bibles today is because Saul had a real, life-altering encounter with Jesus. Without that experience, the Apostle Paul would have remained the zealot Saul, and we might not even know who he is today. What a tragedy that would be. Fortunately, for him and for us, we follow a Jesus who doesn’t disqualify any one of us because of our stories, but rather pursues us in the midst of our mess to infuse and transform our stories into clarion calls for the kingdom of God.

It is precisely because of who Saul was before he met Jesus that he was able to reach the world as Paul, a (willing) slave to Jesus and his ways; called, set apart, and empowered by the Spirit (whom I’ll call Grace, taking my lead from author and theologian Bradley Jersak) to carry the gospel of salvation (we’ll look at this word in more detail in just a moment…) to the world. As Pastor John articulated in his message, we may not have the ‘credentials’ we think we need to do the work we are called by God to do, but our encounters with Jesus transform us. Our encounters, our stories–they speak. Our stories become our credentials.

Back to salvation… this is a word we’ll encounter frequently in our study of Romans. It’s a word that has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the Church, one that is important to our understanding of faith and the work of Jesus in our lives. So I want to revisit what the word means in scripture.

In a message Pastor John preached a couple of years ago, he told us that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. I wrote in my portion of the blog that week:

“The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute. The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal. So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

We were in the book of Philippians that week, not Romans, but the Greek word Paul uses in chapter 1 of Romans that is translated into the English word “salvation” is the same word defined above, soteria. On Sunday Pastor John emphasized the safety and security, the invitation into wide open spaces and freedom that is implied in a thorough understanding of the salvation Paul is writing about in this letter. Wholeness, a balm that leads to healing, safety, security, and freedom for all, for everyone–this is the definition of salvation we’ll be referring to during this series. Salvation, as John said in his message, is never about “behavior modification.” That was never God’s idea. Humanity superimposed that framework onto the healing work of Jesus.

However… when we encounter the living Jesus, when his life enters our stories and brings us to life, the healing and wholeness his love brings changes everything–including our behavior, especially identifiable in the way we treat others. Paul writes in Romans 1:14: Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (TPT)

What does he mean when he says that love obligates him? Furthermore, what does it mean for him to identify himself as a slave of Jesus? Don’t these words seem counterintuitive to the idea of salvation that we identified above? It certainly doesn’t sound like freedom, does it?

It is helpful to look at what the word translated “obligates” means in the original language. The Greek word, and its root forms, means to owe, be bound, offer the advantage, and can be used metaphorically to mean, “the goodwill due.” I like that last one best. Because when we encounter the love of Jesus and that love begins to grow in us, we want others to encounter him, too. If I am learning to love my neighbor (all others) in the same way I am loved by Jesus, then I will naturally want to offer in goodwill what I myself have received by grace.

Brad Jersak writes in his book, A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith,

“By the Grace (transforming energies) of the indwelling Spirit, love becomes a law of nature–our new nature. . . Triune Love is a divine verb Who entered space-time history through the Incarnation. Divine Love necessarily appears or it is not love at all. That act of love is Jesus Christ–the eternal Word enfleshed as perfect, cruciform Love. . . Jesus repeatedly insists that our identity in him be expressed in the Way of our being, humbly demonstrated when his Grace-energized life lifts us up just as he was lifted up–to give ourselves unselfishly, to forgive others supernaturally and to co-suffer with others according to Christ’s compassion and empathy. (Note: Grace is another name for the Holy Spirit, just as Word is another name for Jesus Christ. The transforming Grace who lives in us bears the fruit of love. In fact, all of Grace’s gifts and fruit are expressions of love.)”

“Love becomes a law of nature–our new nature” when we have a personal encounter with Jesus. It is his love and goodness in its power and fullness that so captivates our beings. Enraptured (the literal meaning of “fear of God”) by his love, we willingly choose the same surrendered, self-emptying, cruciform ways of living and loving that Jesus himself modeled. Our willing enslavement is perhaps better understood in terms of a covenant relationship. He has promised and demonstrated his perfect faithfulness, his unconditional love, his with-ness to us; he’s offered us the cup of his love in the manner of a marriage proposal, inviting us to commune with him forever, to allow his life to be born within us and produce kingdom fruit for the world. He himself is irresistible. Paul’s identifying himself as a slave to this Jesus is evidence both of the change in Saul-now-Paul, and also the captivating love and Grace he encountered on that road to Damascus.

My fingers are cramped from typing that last section, because the words flowed out faster than I could write them, like a fire within my bones that had to get out. That passion, that energy, is Grace, the Spirit of Jesus that I have encountered on the most unlikely days, during the ugliest seasons, in the midst of the most destructive choices I’ve made in my life. There are so many labels I could give myself, so many points along the way that I “should” have been disqualified from God’s call on my life to carry his kingdom within this messy, broken vessel. But those labels, those choices–they don’t define me, so I won’t even mention them here. Because I have encountered Jesus and his healing, freeing salvation over and over and over again. And his love has become my law of nature as he changes me and grows life where death once reigned.

There is so much more I could say, so many stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for another week. It’s about time I wrap up my portion and hand this over to Luanne. So I’ll conclude with this… Part of our call as Jesus-followers is to leverage who we are–our stories–and all that we have to carry Jesus to the world. Living as our real selves–with our scars, failures, and every part of our histories–is what makes us effective kingdom-bearers. Our stories are to be leveraged for the kingdom of God. Saul was not disqualified. I am not disqualified. You are not disqualified. We are set apart and empowered by Grace, as slaves only to Jesus, to carry the kindness and love and story of God to the world around us. I think that’s so beautiful.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of setting us up for this series, and I’m not going to add much to what she wrote; however, it is deeply important that we understand Paul’s greeting and the first portion of the letter he wrote to real people in order to set the stage for the rest of the series. A lot of these verses are familiar to us; let’s commit to willingness–willingness to see things through a new lens; to resist the temptation to settle into familiar interpretations, and to pick and choose verses. Paul’s overall message is inclusive and grace-filled…sometimes we miss that. Here we go…

I’m going to be super honest here–people I love have been hurt by verses from the book of Romans; there are scriptures in the book of Romans that have been pulled out of context and used to “other” and harm people, so I want to throw out a reminder–when Paul wrote this letter, it was not divided into chapters and verses. It was written as one long letter. Ten or eleven years ago, I decided to read it as a letter. I read it over, and over, and over again. I read it in multiple translations. I listened to it read to me. I don’t know how many times I read/heard it, but what I came away with is this: Every human being on the face of the planet is messed up. God, through Jesus, entered our mess, introduced us to his all encompassing grace and his incredible unconditional love—for all of us. No one is left out of God’s love. As we move through this book–we must resist the temptation to pull a verse here or a verse there out of context in order to fit a narrative or agenda. Romans is one whole letter with a beautiful overall message.

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

A couple of things to note: In Romans 1:5 Paul writes through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship… Notice that he lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

Continuing in verse 5–the grace that came before the ministry of apostleship empowered Paul …to call all the Gentiles… for his (Jesus) name’s sake. This is a huge statement. Before Jesus, Paul was a fanatical, war-mongering, violent, self-righteous, zealot. After getting to know Jesus, not only does Paul tell the Jewish people that Jesus is their Messiah, he tells them that they are accepted by God; that God’s way is the way of grace; therefore, they are accepted right now. He tells them they are set free from the weight and impossible expectations of the law. And he extends that message to the Gentiles as well.

If you close your eyes and picture “the Gentiles”, who do you see? I most often see people who look like me, which is an inaccurate picture. The Gentiles include every single person who is not Jewish. Revelation 7:9 gives us the description: I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Do we picture this great ethnic diversity when we picture Paul’s audience? The ministry of Paul was ground-breaking. It was radical. It was inclusive. And it was God-called and God-ordained.

Another thing to note: Paul didn’t set himself up over the Roman believers. In verses 11 and 12 he writes: I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

We are all in this together, and each one of us has gifts to bring to the table. We mutually encourage one another. I am deeply grateful to have friends who both challenge and encourage me by what God is showing them, and who allow me to to do the same. New lenses, new understanding, stretching our faith, growing as we share stories of our unique life experiences and what God is teaching us through those experiences–it’s all part of being God’s kingdom-people.

And one last thing to remember as we move through this letter–the most famous verse from this greeting: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

Laura wrote this beautiful definition of salvation based on the original language: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

The power, the energy of God brings healing and wholeness to everyone who believes, then three times Paul writes… righteousness….righteousness…righteous.

What does Paul mean by righteousness? You all, it’s the same word dikaiosýnē that we wrote about in The Sermon on the Mount series. Jesus used this word twice in that sermon: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosyne) for they will be satisfied. And seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (dikaiosyne)…

Dikaiosýnē; equity (of character or act). The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

In some Bibles, the word dikaiosýnē is translated as the word justice–that’s how it is in my Portuguese Bible–blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; seek first the kingdom of God and his justice. It’s hard to grasp the full meaning of this word, since it’s not native to our language, but it encompasses being rightly related to God, being rightly related to others, equity—-shalom…

Equity can be hard for us human beings to grasp. We like to earn/deserve things and compare ourselves to others. We want things to be fair. To the Jews of the day, the fact that God included the Gentiles in the kingdom; the fact that Jesus wasn’t just their promised messiah but the messiah for the whole world; the fact that the Law they had sought to obey in order to have a relationship with God wasn’t required of Gentiles; it all seemed unfair. The first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t seem fair. God’s way is the way of equity. Through Jesus, all have the same access to the kingdom of God; to God’s love; to God’s grace…it’s all about God opening the Way to all of us. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t choose who is worthy and who is not. We must pause here and think: is there anyone that you or I think is not included–at least not until they change?

God’s way is not our way. God’s way is not based on human behavior–ours or anyone else’s. God’s way is wide open to everyone everywhere. That’s why it’s such good news!

So Paul says…I’m not ashamed of this inclusive message of God’s healing and wholeness. It’s in this gospel, this good news, that we see the real God. We see God and experience God’s love and grace. We extend to others, for the sake of Jesus, this ministry of grace and love–and it happens as we live by faith.

The righteous will live by faith (NIV) . The just will live by faith. Those wholly conformed to the will of God (dikaiosyne), will live by faith.

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome. Together, let’s explore the Roman Road Less Traveled.

–Luanne

Poetry of the day: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874-1963) —  Steemit

You’ve Heard it Said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

Luanne wrote in her portion,

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder they were hungry for the bread of life…

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

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

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

Treating each other with dignity and honor…

Luanne wrote,

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Psalm 139, TPT)

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

The psalmist writes these words,

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

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

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

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

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

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

The psalm ends with these beautiful words:

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

Sermon on the Mount #1

I am extremely excited about the new series Pastor John began on Sunday. For the next 22 weeks will be diving into Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew chapters 5-7.  For those of us desiring to follow Jesus (his way) on planet earth, the words he spoke in this sermon are of utmost importance.

With that being said, today we are going to look at the first 5 verses of the fifth chapter in Matthew. Before we hit our passage, let’s briefly skim over what Matthew covered in Chapters 1-4 of his gospel: Chapter 1 contains the genealogy of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit conceiving Jesus in Mary’s womb. Chapter 2 contains his birth story including the visit of the Magi, the escape to Egypt, the return from Egypt; Chapter 3 contains Jesus’ baptism and the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son. Chapter 4 contains the temptation Jesus endured in the wilderness, the calling of his first disciples; we learn that “From that time Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent (change the way you think), for the Kingdom of heaven is here” ( Mt. 4:17). Matthew 4:23 tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom“. Matthew 4 goes on to say Jesus traveled, healed the sick and freed the demon-possessed. If I counted correctly, in these four chapters there are seven verses in which Matthew mentions that Jesus’ life and actions were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, so before we ever get to the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew has established Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

One more detour before we get into the sermon itself–Jesus is doing a new thing. Everything Matthew has told us so far is mind-blowing as he establishes the true identity of Jesus. Large crowds from lots of regions can’t get enough. So Jesus goes up on a mountainside, he sits down (as was the posture of rabbis in that day when teaching). The disciples drew near (disciples are students—those who wanted to learn from what Jesus had to say, not just experience what he could “do” for them).

“Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he opened his mouth to teach them saying…”(4:25, 5:1-2)

He opened his mouth (that’s the literal Greek phrase)–I believe this is very intentional because in the Old Testament we learn:

Isaiah 55:10-11As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Deuteronomy 8:3: He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

And he taught them saying…(Mt. 5:2).  

It’s important to note that Matthew ends his entire gospel with these words of Jesus: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:18-20)

Teaching is different from telling. Teaching is interactive; teaching requires relationship; good teaching requires modeling, good communication, and willingness to come alongside the student. The goal of teaching is for the student to learn something that will affect his/her life. We know that we have “learned” when the lesson becomes part of us and we can teach it to someone else. A good teacher loves his/her subject and loves his/her students. A good French teacher not only knows and loves French but knows how to help his/her students to learn French. Students don’t leave that teacher “doing” French. French becomes part of them.  Jesus, the Son of God, not only knows what the kingdom of heaven on earth looks like, he knows how to help us learn so the kingdom of God can become part of us and flow out of us like language flows out of the French speaker. Learning requires being challenged; learning requires watching, listening, practicing, making mistakes, correcting mistakes; learning requires humility.

…he taught them saying…

Blessed are the poor in spirit,  for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3 NIV), or worded another way: What wealth is offered to you when you feel your spiritual poverty! For there is no charge to enter the realm of heaven’s kingdom. (TPT). 

Right away we see that the word “blessed” in the NIV is translated very differently in The Passion Translation. Pastor John informed us that “blessed” is a very difficult word to translate…it’s much larger in concept than our traditional understanding conveys.

The Passion Translation has a footnote regarding how they translated the Aramaic word which teaches us: “The Aramaic word toowayhon means “enriched, happy, fortunate, delighted, blissful, content, blessed.” Our English word blessed can indeed fit here, but toowayhon implies more—great happiness, prosperity, abundant goodness, and delight! The word bliss captures all of this meaning. Toowayhon means to have the capacity to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

Bliss means perfect happiness, great joy…hmmm.

The Greek word translated “blessed” is makarios. Lutheran commentator Brian Stoffregen helps us to grasp its significance by writing: “In ancient Greek times, makarios referred to the gods. The blessed ones were the gods. They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. The blessed ones were beings who lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people…”

Hmmm.

Pastor John shared with us that “blessed” is the essence of wholeness–being made whole.

This first of the nine beatitudes about the “poor in spirit” being blissful, being made whole, living beyond all the cares of life–is the subject of the first “be like attitude” for kingdom of heaven people. It’s the first phrase of this sermon from the open mouth of Jesus that will water the earth and not return empty. Paul wrote about this poor in spirit attitude in Philippians 2, when he wrote:

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privilegeshe took the humble position of a slave…he humbled himself in obedience to God…(NLT)

Going back to The Passion Translation’s footnote we are reminded again that in translating “blessed”: The word bliss captures all of this meaning… to enjoy union and communion with God….. The implication of this verse is that the poor in spirit have only one remedy, and that is trusting in God. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.”

There are many who are born into poverty who must truly depend on God for every morsel of food. Yet, if you’ve been graced with the opportunity to be among the poorest of the poor, you will observe that even in the midst of great hardship–enviable, abundant joy and rich generosity exist in their communities. It makes no logical sense–but Jesus didn’t tell us to look for logic in the kingdom of heaven on earth.  It’s beyond logic and goes into the beautiful realm of mystery.

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

Aaagh….there’s so much more to write, and I’m barely even scratching the surface of the first of the three beatitudes Pastor John talked about on Sunday, but I must leave room for Laura to write, so I humbly close my portion here with one final thought. We are in the midst of a global pandemic. Many of us are sheltering at home these days. We aren’t able to hug our friends, to meet together as a body of Christ, to visit family. Some of us are not able to work, have lost jobs that seemed secure, have become sick, or have lost loved ones to this virus. Things that we thought we had some form of control over we’ve discovered we have no control over. This is a perfect time to humble ourselves before God, confess our true and total dependence upon him, allow him to meet us where we are and teach us about reliance during this time.

Blissful are those who recognize that we are all in this together; we can’t depend upon ourselves for our material lives, physical lives or spiritual lives; we are utterly dependent upon God for every heartbeat, every breath. Living with the humility of our acknowledged utter dependence opens the doorway to living in and living out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now. (my paraphrase)

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I am bursting with excitement about out new series. I have been enamored with the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes for a few years now, ever since I was challenged to read through scripture differently. I attended a conference–one Luanne and I have each referenced in previous posts–that stirred a hunger in me to read the Bible in a new light. We were challenged to look for the leasts, to see from the perspective of the marginalized and oppressed, and to think deeply about the setting and culture. Most importantly, we were invited to set aside our default way of looking at the text and to invite the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see all of scripture through the lens of Jesus alone.

I returned home with a desire to dig into the words of Jesus like I had never had before, and I started in the book of Matthew. The Holy Spirit reveals truth, and Jesus is the truth. And when I began to search for the truth, for the treasures that lie beneath surface readings of scripture, the Spirit opened the floodgates!!! I began to see Jesus, his ways, his priorities, and mostly his kingdom–the thing he spoke about more than anything else--everywhere!!

There may be no better illustration anywhere in scripture of the upside-down ways of Jesus’ kingdom than what we see in the sermon on the mount. It’s that good, that telling of the heart of the one who opened his mouth to teach it to his followers. It’s a bold assertion to make, I know. At the end of these 22 weeks, you may agree with me, or you may not. But for now, at this point in my journey with Jesus, nothing illustrates kingdom principles better than the words recorded in these three chapters.

Luanne did a masterful job of setting the scene for this new series. There is nothing I feel like I can add to her introduction, so I’ll pick up where she left off. Before I do that, though, I wanted to share some thoughts from some people you have probably heard of regarding the importance of the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes.

“The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the sermon on the mount.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dallas Willard defines the discipleship Bonhoeffer referenced this way,

“Discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you.”

The process of becoming includes–according to Jesus–becoming like a child, and also includes the humility Luanne wrote about:

“Learn this well: Unless you dramatically change your way of thinking and become teachable, and learn about heaven’s kingdom realm with the wide-eyed wonder of a child, you will never be able to enter in. Whoever continually humbles himself to become like this gentle child is the greatest one in heaven’s kingdom realm.” -Matthew 18:3-4, TPT

How do we become like children again? Henri Nouwen said,

“Becoming like a child is living the Beatitudes and so finding the narrow gate into the kingdom.” 

James Bryan Smith asserts that,

“The Beatitudes, far from being a new set of virtues that further divide the religious haves and have nots, are words of hope and healing to those who have been marginalized.”

Regarding these marginalized that Smith speaks of, Mother Teresa believed that, “In the poor, we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.”

How do we find our way into living in this upside-down way Jesus presented in the sermon on the mount? Pope Francis believes it’s by way of the Agape love we extend to one another. He said,

“Agape, the love of each one of us for the other, from the closest to the furthest, is in fact the only way that Jesus has given us to find the way of salvation and of the Beatitudes.”

High praise indeed from well-respected, faithful voices. But what difference would it actually make if we reorganized our lives around the principles Jesus teaches in this sermon? Franklin D. Roosevelt seemed to think it would make all the difference. He said,

“I doubt if there is any problem in the world today–social, political, or economic–that would not find happy solution if approached in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.”

Do we have social, political or economic problems in the world today? Perhaps more than ever before, especially now, in these challenging days… What if all of these voices are right? What if this upside-down kingdom ushered in by the one we say we follow actually made a difference in the way we live our lives? What if we listen to his words, but more than simply listening, allow ourselves to be taught, changed–so that the words become part of us? So that we embody the ways of Jesus and his kingdom in a way that changes the church and the world?

There is power in the self-emptying, others-seeing, humble, upside-down way of Jesus. It will never line up with the power-grabbing ways of the kingdoms of this world–that’s not who our God is. Are we willing to take a closer look, to lean in and learn, to let ourselves soften and be changed? I hope so. Because I happen to agree with those whose words I listed above–this sermon has the power to change the world, because it is the heart of Jesus. But before it can change the world, it must come to life within us.

Luanne covered the first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

The second is,Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

(Matthew 5:4, NIV)

Have you mourned? Grieved? My guess is we have all felt the ache of mourning. A deep dive into root words and etymology reveals that the Greek word used here that was translated “mourn” in English means, “to lament, wail; to feel grief and sorrow; to suffer.” Blessed are those who experience this kind of ache?

Yes.

Why?

“…for they will be comforted.”

If you’ve been in the throes of grief–perhaps you’re there now–you have likely experienced the inexplicable comfort, the withness that seems to come into our lives as a companion to grief. This comfort that Jesus speaks of here, it is the Greek word parakaleo. This word means to come alongside, to encourage, exhort; to be with.  It is strikingly similar to another Greek word, parakletos. Jesus uses this word four times in scripture, and each time he is referring to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter he promised would come once he was no longer physically with his disciples.

We are blessed because we do not grieve alone. We are blessed because the same deep, caring comfort we receive from the Spirit in our darkest moments lives in us and empowers us to extend that same comfort to others. Have you been the recipient of love that moves toward you in your sorrow? Have you had the opportunity to move toward others in their grief? I have been fortunate to experience both, and I can say with no hesitation, I have felt blessed by these Spirit-filled moments of comfort–the receiving and the giving.

This mourning goes beyond grieving a personal loss. It is also our response to the needs around us; it is what drives us to move toward suffering, injustice, corruption, brokenness. We are able to respond to all that is hard because we are empowered by the Comforter, the Spirit who lives within us and leads us on.

The last beatitude Pastor John covered on Sunday is, Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” ( Matthew 5:5, NIV) Meek can be a tricky word for us. We tend to think of it as a synonym for weak. It can conjure thoughts of smallness, timidity; of one who is fearful, shy and quiet. Let’s look at it how it is phrased in the Passion Translation:

“What blessing comes to you when gentleness lives in you! For you will inherit the earth.”

The word gentle can carry some of the same connotations in our minds as the word meek. But what it means might surprise you. The footnote in the Passion Translation tells us,

“Jesus is saying that when you claim nothing as yours, everything will be given to you. The Aramaic word, makeekheh, implies being both gentle and flexible.” 

Pastor John reminded us that gentleness is a response somewhere between anger and apathy. He shared that it is both a posture and an implied action. It is a fruit of the Spirit that moves us to engage, challenges our indifference and empowers us to respond with both flexibility and restraint.

In this beatitude, we are told that those in whom gentleness dwells will “inherit the earth.” In the original language, this is quite the gift. It means, “to become a partaker of, to receive their allotted portion of the land as an heir; to receive a place to stand on the ground of this earth.” Wow. The gentle, the flexible, those who are moved to act but not out of anger, those who don’t take anything for themselves–these “meek” ones will receive what is set aside for them as heirs. Those with no ground to stand on will be given a place of their own to stand. I don’t know how this one plays out in Jesus’ kingdom, but it is beautiful. Especially when I consider those who are driven from their lands, who are refugees in a foreign land, and all those who exist between two lands, waiting for a place to call home. Jesus says these gentle ones, they are heirs that have ground to stand on in his kingdom.

We are invited in these first three beatitudes to begin to see differently. Jesus taught differently than the other rabbis of his day. He carried in his words none of the arrogance that marked other prominent teachers. He spoke highly of the downtrodden, the marginalized, those who were used to being at the bottom of the barrel in the eyes of the culture of the day. He elevated the “leasts”, and as we learn from him, we have the opportunity to do the same–“to live in and live out the kingdom of heaven right here, right now,” to borrow Luanne’s beautiful words.

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

–Laura

File:Aerial view of Masada (Israel) 06.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

 

 

See the Signs

One of the greatest things about following Jesus is there is always more to discover. Every account in scripture has deeper meaning than a one time reading could ever convey. Everything Jesus did was intentional, multi-faceted, complex, loving, purposeful, wise, and a myriad of other things. Since Jesus is the full revelation of God and “all the fullness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell in him” (Col. 1:19), it makes sense to reason that the thoughts of Jesus are not our thoughts, the ways of Jesus are not our ways–that his ways are higher than our ways, and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Is. 55:8-9) In order for us to have the mind and attitude of Christ (Ph. 2:5) we must be willing to dig in– to seek, to see, to be changed. Jesus tells us that if we seek we will find (Mt. 7:7), but this is not a one time a week Sunday morning encounter; this is a lifelong journey with Jesus, one in which we discover new things and receive fresh revelations, as we allow the Holy Spirit to open our eyes and teach us.

Many of the things that Jesus did point to other things. Signs were part of his ministry. Signs are still part of his ministry. Pastor John defined signs as indicators of something greater–of there being more to an event than the event–he also cautioned us not to seek the signs, not to worship the signs, but to worship the One who gives the signs. Each sign is one piece of a much bigger picture. I like to think of signs as something that can give us holy wonder and curiosity. We can interpret signs in many ways–we may be right, partially right, or we may be wrong in our interpretations–so hold all of that loosely; however, pay attention. God is not silent and there are still plenty of signs to be seen.

Sign is the root word of signature and significance; therefore, can we say that God-given signs carry significance and bear His signature? I’ve shared many times about the summer I was in a difficult season and was praying in my backyard when a swallowtail butterfly flew right to me accompanied by the words “I see you, you are not alone.” For the next couple of months, every time I was deeply troubled a swallowtail would appear and my heart would hear the same message.  It was a few months later, long after the swallowtails had disappeared for that season,  that the power of the sign of the swallowtail and the message it carried literally kept me alive. I recalled it all through a long hard winter, even receiving a drawing of a yellow butterfly from a child in the month of January that year. It’s been eight years since that season, but every swallowtail I see reminds me of God’s faithfulness and his care for me during that time. Each one is significant–a sign to remind me that God sees me–I am not alone, and whoever happens to be with me when I see a swallowtail hears that message from my mouth–God sees, we are not alone. A sign. A message of significance. God’s signature.

This week our passage had us in Mark 8: 1-9 the feeding of the four thousand. A couple of weeks ago we wrote about the feeding of the five thousand. The feeding of the four thousand often seems to take a back seat to the first miracle, but it has much to offer, especially when compared to the feeding of the five thousand. What signs can we see in these miracles?

Jesus had compassion on both crowds, but the compassion had a different root. In the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus had compassion on the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). He took them under his wing, taught them many things, and provided guidance and leadership. He was concerned about their spiritual hunger.  In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus was moved to compassion by their physical hunger. He said of them  “My heart goes out to this crowd, for they’ve already been here with me for three days with nothing to eat.  I’m concerned that if I send them home hungry, they’ll be exhausted along the way, for some of them have come a long, long way just to be with me.” (Mark 8:2-3 TPT)

Could we take from these two similar but different stories the sign that Jesus is concerned about spiritual and physical needs? He ministered to both of those needs, and he led his followers to do the same. Is it a sign that his Church today, his followers, you and me, should be addressing both the spiritual and physical needs of the world?

In the feeding of the five thousand, we learn right away that there is both bread and fish to be multiplied. In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus asks the disciples how many loaves they have and learns that they have seven loaves. Jesus takes the seven loaves, gives thanks, breaks them, and has the disciples distribute the bread. Then we find out that there were a few small fish as well. The emphasis seems to be on the bread. Why? Is it a sign?

In the gospel of John, Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). In John 6:51 Jesus says I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. In Matthew 26:26 we learn that at the last supper with his disciples before he was arrested he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”  Is the multiplied bread a sign that Jesus is here for the whole world, that when we come to him we find ultimate satisfaction?  Is it a sign that whatever we offer to Jesus becomes more in his hands–that our seven loaves can feed the masses and there will still be plenty leftover? Is it a sign that in God’s kingdom everyone counts, there is no shortage, that when those who have share with those who don’t have there is more enough for all?

Speaking of signs Pastor John encouraged us:

  1. To open our eyes and see signs as something Jesus used to help us see him in his fullness.
  2. To keep our eyes open and try to see all Jesus is trying to show us–not to see the sign as any type of conclusion–but as an indicator pointing to a bigger picture, a deeper truth, something significant.
  3. To stay focused on the Giver of the signs, not on the signs themselves.
  4. To blink. If we stare too intently for too long our eyes begin to burn, then they begin to tear and we lose clarity. Blinking helps us to see clearly.

In both miracles, there is great need in the midst of humanly impossible circumstances. There was no human way that 5000+ people or 4000+ people could be fed with the resources provided. I think this point is where many modern churches get stuck. We forget that nothing is impossible for God. We become skeptical (sometimes we call it logical). Often times the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds. Did he give us these biblical loaves and fish accounts as signs to help us remember that he can multiply anything we give to him in order to meet the needs of those around us?

Let’s be honest–the needs of the world, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. The needs right here in our city, both physical and spiritual, are daunting. Will our response be, “I’d love to get involved but I don’t have enough (fill in the blank) to make a difference? Or, I don’t really get what’s going on and am not sure I like it, so I’ll hang out on the sidelines and wait. Or will our response be “Father, how can I be part of what you’re doing?” and offer whatever we have. There’s more to offer than just money; we can offer our experience, our time, our homes, our hearts, our tables, our expertise, our love, our kindness, our encouragement, our prayers, our fellowship, our presence, our willingness to make space for whoever we encounter, our Jesus who loves all people, our Jesus who is moved with compassion over all the need, our Jesus who gives us purpose and includes us in his mission and ministry, our Jesus who takes what we offer, multiplying it beyond anything we could ask or imagine.

He chooses all of us to be part of his work on earth. He gives us personal signs to encourage us along, he gives us corporate signs to encourage us along, he gives us scriptural signs to encourage us along– all of these are indicators of something significant. Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.

–Luanne

“Oftentimes the skeptic says “I’m out” and bails. I’m not going to lie, sometimes it’s a wrestling match to stay full of faith, to believe, to be curious and full of wonder at what God is going to do when up against seemingly impossible odds…”

I’m not usually prone to skepticism. I tend to be an optimist–even, sometimes, an idealist. But there are situations and people that bring the skeptic out in me. The wrestling match Luanne described above is a real thing, especially when a situation that has felt daunting gets more daunting, and it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a time when it will be anything but daunting. It is in these situations, and in our interactions with these people– when we feel the skeptic in us rising up–that paying attention to the signs we are given is so very important.

I can’t help but think back to the end of chapter 6 in Mark when Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat with his disciples. In verse 52, we read that, “…they failed to learn the lesson of the miracle of the loaves, and their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson. (The Passion Translation)

Luanne ended her post with this exhortation:

“Look for God’s signature–his signs–they are all around leading us and others to follow Him, to know Him, to be amazed by Him, to see Him, to experience Him, to love Him…keep your eyes (and heart) open.” 

Both the story of the disciples I referenced and Luanne’s exhortation highlight a crucial component of sign-seeing. Our hearts.

The disciples saw the sign with their eyes. They were part of the miracle of feeding the 5,000 from beginning to end. But there was a disconnect somewhere. Mark 6:52 tells us exactly where that disconnect stemmed from. “Their hearts were unwilling to learn the lesson.” Would it be fair to say that they were being skeptics about what they’d seen?

Maybe defining what a skeptic is would be helpful.

Skeptic: a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual. a person who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others. a person who doubts the truth of a religion, especially Christianity, or of important elements of it. (Dictionary.com) 

I don’t know if the disciples were being skeptics. But I know that I can be. I also know that when I take things at face value, without engaging my heart, skepticism leads to more skepticism and I end up in an ugly web of my own spinning…

If we’re only seeing with our eyes and not also with our hearts, we will find ourselves skeptical of everything we think we see. 

There are situations where a bit of skepticism is merited. But when it comes to journeying with Jesus, skepticism will not serve us well. Being skeptical of the mystery and wonder of the kingdom will keep us from seeing the kingdom come. Skeptics can see with their eyes, but skepticism will place scales over the eyes of our hearts.

The apostle Paul prayed this prayer over the Ephesisans:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit. Why is this important? So that we will know and cherish the hope that is ours in Jesus, and so we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of his active power in us!

Hope and skepticism don’t go together. And if we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible. The “small” signs and wonders we see when we live with eyes and hearts wide open add up. And over time, we can begin to know the immeasurable, unlimited, surpassing greatness of the One we follow.

Some of the most precious gifts I’ve received from God would be completely meaningless to someone else. But to me, these “signs” are significant and bear God’s signature. Like Luanne’s butterfly, these signs from God’s heart to mine convey that I am seen, valued, and loved by him. I may not interpret each one correctly, and that’s okay. The goal is that the signs point us to God. They give us a glimpse of our own beautiful smallness in light of his inexhaustible greatness and remind us that there is always hope. Living with our eyes and hearts wide open to the signs along the way keeps us awake to the wonder and mystery of Jesus. The signs offer us glimpses of depths we wouldn’t otherwise see, and remind us that our God is alive, active, and right here with us, in the thick of everyday life.

May we resist the lazy, limiting way of skepticism and embrace the hope that comes with choosing to live with our eyes–and our hearts–wide open to the signs of God all around us.

–Laura

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Limits: Going

“Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mark 1:16).

This was the call. This was the mission. This was the journey. When Jesus called his first disciples, this was his invitation. As we’ve followed their journey through the book of Mark, we have seen Jesus teach them; we have seen Jesus demonstrate his authority over nature, demons, sickness, and death; we have seen Jesus love the least of these; we have seen how Jesus handles rejection and how unbelief limits his ability to perform miracles. And, we have seen that right after rejection, Jesus moved on and continued teaching.

Shortly after modeling that…

 He called the Twelve to him. Then he sent them out two by two. He gave them authority to drive out evil spirits.
 Here were his orders.”Take only a walking stick for your trip. Do not take bread or a bag. Take no money in your belts. 
 Wear sandals. But do not take extra clothes. 
 When you are invited into a house, stay there until you leave town. 
 Some places may not welcome you or listen to you. If they don’t, shake the dust off your feet when you leave. That will be a witness against the people living there.” 
 They went out. And they preached that people should turn away from their sins.
 They drove out many demons. They poured oil on many sick people and healed them.  (Mark 6: 7-13 NIRV)
The time had come for the fishermen to fish. Jesus was beginning to transfer the ministry to them. They were no longer going to just be his companions who sat at his feet and got a front seat to his miracles. It was time for them to begin to carry Jesus’ love and his ways to others.
I wonder if they were nervous? I wonder if they felt like they weren’t ready? What if they refused to go? Therein lies the limit--we can choose whether or not to go. Gratefully, these twelve chose to go.
Jesus encouraged them to pack light–it would not be necessary for them to take a lot with them. They could take a walking stick (staff), no food, no bag, no money. They could wear sandals, but they were not to take an extra tunic. They were to keep it very simple, and they were to accept and embrace the hospitality of others.
And Jesus equipped them with authority over evil spirits. 
That’s what they took. A walking stick, one set of clothes, and Jesus’ authority over evil spirits. I think it’s incredibly important to note that Jesus didn’t give them authority over people. He gave them authority over the dominion that oppresses people. All the way back in the first chapter of Genesis, we see that God made male and female in his image and likeness, and gave them dominion over the rest of the created world; to care for it. He didn’t give them authority over one another. And in this Mark 6 passage, he is still not giving people authority over other people. Any time one group assumes authority over another it leads to superiority and oppression–that is not the way of Jesus. So–the authority is over evil spirits.
The disciples went. They preached that people should “repent”, which literally means to change their minds. What were they changing their minds about? I would imagine since Jesus taught about the Kingdom and how near it is, that they were teaching the same thing. Jesus had not yet faced his crucifixion, so the disciples were carrying the news that God is here, he is close, his kingdom is here, he cares about you, his power is here, he meets you where you are, he sees you, he has sent us to you to show you his love and his power, and to set you free from the things that oppress you. His power–not our power. That’s important to note as well.
And then there’s that weird section that seems so contrary to the character of Jesus. He tells them that if they are rejected, they should shake the dust off their feet when they leave as a testimony against the people. Is he telling them to hold a grudge? That doesn’t seem to be congruent with the rest of Jesus’ overall message.
Thing number three that’s important to note: Jesus had just recently been rejected in his own home town. Remember how he marveled at the unbelief of the people there? Remember how he wasn’t able to perform many miracles? When he left that place, he moved on to other places and continued his mission, continued his teaching. The rejection of one place didn’t taint his heart as he moved on. And the witness “against” the people, is that they are remembered for their unbelief. Their own actions are the witness against them.
Pastor John taught us that the shaking of the dust off their feet was a cultural thing, and then he gave us a new way to think about that passage. Jesus calls each of us to go, to share, to be his witnesses in the world. Sometimes we will be met with an open door, sometimes we won’t. When we aren’t welcomed, when we experience rejection, we need to “shake off the dust” so that it doesn’t remain with us providing an opportunity to let a root of bitterness grow. We need to head into each new situation without being tainted by previously hard situations. That’s not always easy. Sometimes hard situations can cause us to want to give up, to isolate, to quit. We have not been given permission to do that. However, Jesus modeled, and taught his disciples–if an environment is rejecting your message, you don’t have to stay there. Move on. Don’t carry the dust of that situation with you–but move on. Sometimes it’s not a physical move, but an emotional one–let go.
Sometimes in our human stubbornness, we stick around because we want to change things in our own power. On the flip side, there are times when hardship comes our way and we leave too quickly. How do we know when to stay or when to go? The Holy Spirit will let us know. When my husband and I were preparing to move to Brazil, we were told that there would be hard times (and there were), but to remember our call–that it would be our call that would keep us there when times got hard. That was excellent encouragement.  In our ministry today, we remember our call when times get hard. The Lord has not moved us. Instead, he has taught us, grown us, shaped us, and held us through the hard stuff. Sometimes the hard is exactly what he uses to make us more like him, to teach us what it looks like to walk with a posture of forgiveness, to love unconditionally, and to remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood. Sometimes the hard stuff reveals things within us that need to be brought into the light and healed. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that going through hard seasons with Jesus (sometimes kicking and screaming), has led to some of my deepest seasons of growth with him. I don’t understand why it has to be that way, but many times it is. So move on when the Holy Spirit says to; stay when the Holy Spirit says to.
The line in Hillsong’s song “Oceans” that says “let me walk upon the waters wherever you would call me“…is a reminder that sometimes “wherever” means right where you are, right now. If that’s you, take a deep breath and give God your willingness to be where he wants you to be.
One other thing to keep in mind as we go: The protestant reformation happened in Christianity around 500 years ago, and the Latin phrase “sola scriptura” came out of that reformation. That phrase means “only scripture”.  There are four other phrases that were part of that movement as well:
Soli Deo gloria– to God alone be the glory.
Sola fide–only faith
Sola gratia–only grace
Solus Christus–only Christ
There is not an “only love”.

I find it interesting, given that Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God and love others,  that “only love” is not part of the reformation theology. Maybe that’s why Christianity has gotten so mean. We’ve forgotten our call to love. Remember when Jesus said to the Pharisees:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life…(John 5:39-40).
This is what “sola scriptura” can lead to; disconnect from the life, the heartbeat, the ways of Jesus, and make us mean.

Yes, use the precious words of scripture to get to know Jesus, but don’t elevate scripture above Christ. Don’t go with an air of authority.  Don’t take a bunch of theological jargon. Don’t beat people up with Bible verses.

Carry the person of Jesus, the very life of Jesus whose Spirit dwells within you, to those around you. Jesus wants us to keep it simple. Share how he’s loved you, how he’s changed you, how he doesn’t condemn you, and demonstrate all of that by how you love others. It’s his love that changes things. It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his authority that pushes back the darkness. It’s his light that shines through us. The only way we can limit him is if we choose not to go…

 …we are all called to simply go.
–Luanne
Luanne wrote above, in regard to going wherever we are called, “… sometimes “wherever” means right where you are, right now. If that’s you, take a deep breath and give God your willingness to be where he wants you to be.”
I think we who have been around church or church-y things for any time at all have heard mixed messages around the idea of our “callings.” We see the pastor and we’ll say he or she has a call on their lives to preach. We support missionaries as they are called to faraway places to live their lives making disciples.
Sometimes, we are desperate to hear a “call” to anything other than our current lives so that we can feel justified in escaping whatever we don’t want to endure in that season. In times like that, it’s easy to over-spiritualize everything and believe we’ve heard a specific call, because our desperation is what’s driving us.
Sometimes, our lives are so dull, so boring, so seemingly inconsequential, that we beg God to call us to something that matters.
Some of us have been groomed for a “calling” that everyone around us is sure we were made for, so we move forward in their collective confidence in the will of God for our lives.
Oh, how we over-complicate the ways of our God…
What if our calling is more about our way of being in the world than it is about a role or a vocation…? 
I’m not suggesting that God doesn’t call us to specific things in specific seasons of our lives. I know that he does that. He’s done that in my life. But the things he has called me to have changed. The overarching call behind all that he has asked me to do, though? That has remained the same…
Luanne mentioned above that when Jesus sent his disciples out this particular time, the crucifixion hadn’t happened yet. The cross wasn’t yet in view for the twelve. She wrote,
“…the disciples were carrying the news that God is here, he is close, his kingdom is here, he cares about you, his power is here, he meets you where you are, he sees you, he has sent us to you to show you his love and his power, and to set you free from the things that oppress you.”
We know that Jesus summed up all of his teachings and all of the commandments in what he called the greatest commandment: love God and love others. And we know that his invitation was to follow him, learn from him, become like him, and bring others into his beautiful kingdom of love.
When you look at the message the disciples were carrying that Luanne described above, and couple that with the paragraph I wrote under it, it doesn’t sound like a vocation in the way that we typically understand that word. But it is a calling. It is the calling that we all share. But it will look different for each one of us.
Pastor John asked on Sunday, “How has God invited you to impact the kingdom with your one life?”
For some, that will play out on stages. For others, in hospitals. Some will travel to faraway lands. Others will teach in classrooms. Some will only ever hold the title of “Mom”. Some will run for public office. Whatever we do in our day-to-day will be the place we live out our calling. But our calling is not the roles we hold. Wherever we are– right here, right now–is where we are invited to live out our calling.
Our way of being in the world will either speak to the work of Jesus in our lives, or it won’t. It will either bring a piece of the kingdom to bear in the world around us, or it won’t. I think for all of us, it will be mixed. Sometimes we are mindful of “going” into our days, mindful of the call we carry to be ambassadors for Christ in the world around us. And sometimes we choose not to go, not to bring the fullness of the kingdom with us wherever we go. Sometimes, this is because our trust gives way to fear, and we drop the baton we carry. When that happens, as Pastor John reminded us, there is grace. It only takes one voice to pass on a message. When one voice falters, another rises up. We aren’t powerful enough to thwart the growth of the kingdom–fortunately, it doesn’t depend on you or on me. The whole thing hinges on the center, the source of the power, the giver of the message… It hinges on the creator of the imperfect vessels who are invited to be part of the greatest restoration the world has ever seen.
We won’t carry our collective calling perfectly. But if we’re willing to say yes to whatever our one journey looks like in the here and now, our willingness will make space for our limitless God to change the world through us. I want to be a part of that–even on the days when I wish my “calling” looked different than being a faithful follower in the right here, right now of today…
–Laura
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Fan the Flame–Fear of Failure

Everyone fears failure. 

This is where Pastor John started on Sunday as he brought us the second message in our new series. Last week Pastor Beau shared with us how the fear of rejection can throw water on the flame of the Spirit within us–the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind–and this week we learned about how fearing failure can have the same effect.

We all fear failing in one way or another, because we have all failed. We’ve all felt the sting of disappointment that failure brings. Pastor John reminded us that when we fail–as we all will–it’s important to remember that it is an event, it is not who we are. There’s a big difference between feeling the disappointment of failing–and expressing those feelings–and letting the disapproval of our failings define who we are. He encouraged us to learn from our failures, to begin to see failure as a friend

Those words are easy to say, easy to type, and exponentially more difficult to put into practice… How do we make failure our friend? We’ve all heard the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” John told us a story that brings this oft-quoted line to life. He told us the story behind the name of the popular formula, “WD-40”. The “WD” stands for water displacement. The “40” is part of the name because it was on the 40th attempt that its creator, Norm Larsen, finally got the formula right. He had tried and failed 39 other times. But he kept going, modifying his formula and his process, until it worked. He had clearly determined to learn from his failings, to see failure as an opportunity. Pastor John invited us to begin doing the same things.

The story is endearing and absolutely serves to prove a valuable point… but what about when our failures have nothing to do with a product we’re trying to create? How many times are we willing to get back up and try again when…

…we pick up that bottle after we swore we were done?

…we open that window and click on that website one more time?

…we scream at our toddler for the twentieth time in as many minutes?

…the grade on the exam falls below the curve yet again?

…We find ourselves looking out from behind bars?

…the flirtation crosses the line?

…we lose yet another job?

…we can’t stop eating what we know is killing us?

…the lies keep coming out too easily?

…that promise was just too hard to keep?

…we’ve bent the rules for our own benefit repeatedly?

…we give it everything we have, but it’s still not enough?

What then? How many monumental failures does it take to break our spirits? How many times can we claw our way back to the surface before we just can’t do it anymore?

The answer to those questions depends on what spirit we’re leaning into. If we have grabbed hold of the spirit of fear and timidity, if we’ve given ourselves over to the lies of that spirit, it will feel like we can’t get back up again…

Many of us have been there. Maybe many of us are there right now. But all is not lost...

If you’re living in the white-knuckled grip of the fear of failure, there is hope. Keep breathing. Remember what Pastor Beau shared with us last week–It may appear that your fire has gone out. There may be a thick layer of ashes covering your coals. But all it takes is a little stirring, a little rearranging, a breath of holy wind--to fan those dying embers into flames again.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7, NKJV)

Our human spirits may break beneath the weight of failure and the fear of failing again, the same way we might refer to breaking a horse’s spirit. But the Spirit we were given as a gift from God, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead that is now alive within us, cannot be broken! This Spirit reminds us to lean into the truth that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a, ESV) This Spirit tells us that all things are possible. This Spirit is stronger than fear, stronger than failure, stronger than death itself. This Spirit is the Spirit of God, the breath that formed all of creation. And the phony spirit of fear–even the threatening, potent fear of failure–is no match for the Spirit that is alive within us.

So how many times can we get back up and get moving? How many times can we try again when failure and fear mark our days? How long can we keep trying when it seems to be a futile effort?

As long as we can breathe in, and breathe out. We live because God’s very breath lives within us. If we can breathe, we can try again. Because that breath within us is a flame that never fully goes out. Even when we douse it… and choke the air out of it… and bury it under a million failures and the weight of all the shame… Because we belong to God and He gives more grace. (James 4:6). Always. When we can’t lift our arms to stir our own coals, He comes to us to remind us to just keep breathing. He keeps the fire alive when we feel the cords of the grave entangle us. He allures us into the wilderness of our failings to romance our hearts back into His embrace. He pursues us and gently leads us until we remember that we are not alone. We were given the gift of His Spirit–a Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. And this Spirit awakes our hearts to wonder–even as we wander, as we wrestle, as we sink into pits of despair–and to remember the voice of love. The perfect love that drives out all of our fear–even the poignant, loud, assaulting fear of failure that threatens to define not only our days, but our very lives.

Your Spirit can’t be broken… no matter the weight of the failures you carry. Just. Keep. Breathing.

–Laura

Failure. We all fear it. We all want to appear competent, confident, accomplished. Sometimes we pretend that we are all of those things as we desperately try to cover up how afraid and insecure we truly are. We put on the persona that we are perfect, have it all together, while inside we are crumbling under the weight of the fear that we might fail, or the shame of memories of past failures.

Jesus came to set us free in all ways, and His freedom includes freedom from the fear of failure. Galatians 5:1 reminds us of this: It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.  

We are encouraged to stand firm in our freedom. But how do we do it? It can be so challenging.

Pastor John reminded us, as Laura wrote above, that:

We all fear failure.

He also reminded us that:

We all go down.

We must strive to see our failure as an event, not as our identity.

We can acknowledge our failure, feel the disappointment of it, learn from it and get back up and keep going.

Pastor John told us that we can see failure as our friend. In truth, who wants to do that? But he’s right.  Personally, I’d rather not fail. I’m going to assume that I’m not alone in that. If I allow myself, I can sit here and let my mind wander to past failures and feel the shame and/or embarrassment that I felt as if the failure just happened moments ago. Or, I can sit here and think about all of the opportunities that I didn’t take advantage of, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t do it perfectly, or of the times that I just gave up because whatever I was doing was hard, so I just stopped, quit, failed. Ugh! It’s hard to think of those moments in a positive way. But when I let go of shame, and allow the Holy Spirit to minister to me, I can learn much from those moments–and that is always a good thing.

James 3:2 tells us that we all stumble in many ways.

Romans 3:23 tells us that all of us have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God.

And God, in His wonderful mercy, inspired the writers of scripture to include the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that we would know that we are not alone. The list of the faithful includes liars, adulterers, murderers, whiners, idol worshipers, cowards, a nation that turned its back on God over and over, the self-righteous, the proud, the betrayers, the greedy, the selfish, the faithless, and on and on.

When we read those accounts, I don’t know about you, but I am able to see their failures as events. I don’t define Abraham or King David, or Peter or any of the others by their failures. I am able to see God’s love, his faithfulness, his mercy in their stories–even if the consequences for their choices were hard. I can see God’s transforming work in the lives of those who continued walking with Him. Can I see His faithfulness and mercy in my story? Can you see it in yours?

God enters into our failures so that the world can see who HE is. We have no idea how God is going to use our failures to point others to Him, but He will if we let Him. It’s not our pretend perfection that draws people to Jesus. It’s our humanity, our stories, our failures that highlight His goodness, His kindness, His grace, His love.

Acknowledging this not only helps us to get back up, but it helps us to be there with grace for others who are struggling with failure or the fear of failure.  We are all in this together. And Jesus, He came for us all, He died for us all. He rose again for us all. He sent the gift of His Holy Spirit for us all–the Spirit of power, of love, of self-discipline, so that we can push through our fear, and fan our gifts into flame.

James 5:16 tells us to confess our sins to one another and pray for one another so that we can be healed.  In being real with one another, in offering grace to one another, in praying for each other, there is healing.  In that healing there is freedom. In that freedom we are unleashed in the power of the Holy Spirit, not to carry out our call perfectly, but to carry it out effectively.

His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

It is God who is working in us giving us the desire and the power to do what pleases Him. (Ph 2:13 NLT)

Embrace His grace, Embrace His power, Fan into flame the gift that you’ve been given. God is not disappointed in us for being human. He knows that we have and will mess up. He knows that we will be afraid, and want to hide behind our masks, I think that’s why the most repeated command in all of scripture is “Do not be afraid.” All of our failures are covered by His grace through the blood of Jesus. The power to live without fear is available to us through the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead–the same Spirit who lives in us. (Rom 8:11)  So do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:32) His kingdom where all are welcome. Where all are loved. Where all are forgiven. Where all are empowered. Where no one will ever be rejected, and all of our failures can be transformed into points of light and transformation and growth. Including yours.  

 “If you should fall again, get back up, get back up. Reach out and take my hand, get back up, get back up, get back up again. Get back up again. There’s only grace, there’s only love, there’s only mercy and believe me it’s enough. Your sins are gone, without a trace, there’s nothing left now, there’s only grace. There’s only grace.”  Matthew West

–Luanne

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Fan the Flame

For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you…for God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control  (2nd Timothy 1:6-7).

Pastor Beau took us to this portion of Paul’s second letter to Timothy on Sunday. It’s important to know that Paul and Timothy shared a special relationship–Paul loved Timothy like a son, and Paul saw things in Timothy that Timothy struggled to see in himself. Been there! I’m grateful for those whom God has placed in my life who have seen things in me that I struggle to see in myself and have encouraged me to step out in faith. I pray that you have those people around you as well.

Paul’s second letter to Timothy was the last one that he wrote before he was executed. He knew that his time was running out, so he is once again encouraging his young friend to grasp who he is in Jesus. He encourages Timothy to boldly take hold of the call on his life.  Paul had left young Timothy in charge of the church in Ephesus–a big deal for a young man. There were a lot of people in Ephesus, a lot of different life philosophies; there were people trying to distort the simplicity of the message of Jesus–and for all Christians who lived under the thumb of the Roman Empire in that day–there was a lot of danger as evidenced by Paul’s arrest, and the martyrdom of many, including-eventually- Paul.

Timothy’s fear made sense. Paul, in his love for Timothy (and his love for Christ), gently reminded him that the Spirit who lived in him was not a spirit of fear but one of power and love and self-control (or a sound mind).

Over the next few Sundays, we will be exploring different fears. Pastor Beau’s topic this week was the fear of rejection.

Rejection means to refuse, dismiss, desert, abandon someone. The Urban Dictionary says this about rejection: “It makes you feel depressed, lonely and like a worthless reject who will never amount to anything or find someone worthy to love or love you in return for who you are because you are not good enough.” 

Even reading that definition causes emotion to swell up inside me. Unfortunately, we’ve all experienced rejection at some point in our lives, and because of the worthless way it makes us feel, we then live with the fear of it happening again which affects our lives in more ways than we could ever imagine.

Pastor Beau worded it like this: “The fear of rejection is the product of lies we believe based on previous life experience.”

Those lies can include thoughts such as:

My value lies in what I do.

I’ll never be good enough.

My presence doesn’t matter.

I can’t depend on anyone.

If I don’t go along, they won’t like me,

and so many other things.

I really hate that rejection is part of life–it absolutely makes sense that we’re afraid of it. It feels horrible. It’s easy to identify past rejection. It’s more difficult to recognize how the fear of rejection, based on that past rejection, affects our lives on a daily basis. In order to do that, we must have some self-awareness.

Pastor Beau pointed out that the fear of rejection can cause us to reject others.  It keeps us from connecting. It keeps us locked up in our own prison. It keeps us from deep relationships. It keeps us from loving with all that we are. It keeps us from blessing others with our gifts. It holds us back from receiving the fullness of God’s love and forgiveness, and it keeps us from connecting deeply with ourselves and our God given purpose. When we find ourselves pulling back from others and building invisible walls, we must learn to do some personal inventory to try to figure out what past experience our current reaction is connected to. What fear is driving our behavior? Is it the fear of rejection?

Fear is powerless–until we give it power. 

So, the Apostle Paul, who wrote: Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10),  Paul, who experienced constant rejection in his ministry, and was imprisoned again because the message that he carried was once again rejected in violent ways, reminds Timothy–God did not give you a spirit of fear. Paul reminds Timothy that The Spirit that God gave to Timothy is

The Spirit of power,                                                                                                                               

               The Spirit of love,  

                              The Spirit of self-control. 

I believe that Paul’s word order was very, very intentional. I believe that Paul was remembering the words of Jesus, who told his disciples: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Paul was reminding Timothy that The Power within him was the One who would empower him to carry the message of Jesus and His Kingdom to those around him.

Paul also penned the words: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I posses to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1st Corinthians 13:1-3.)  Paul was reminding Timothy that the Holy Spirit would empower him to carry out his call with courageous agape love.

In addition, Paul wrote of self-discipline and a sound mind when he wrote the words: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.  (Romans 12:2 NLT) And, take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).

So, Paul is saying to Timothy–remember who you are in Jesus. Don’t fall into the enemy’s trap of feeling inferior or ill-equipped to be who God has made you to be. Instead, fan into flame the gift of God which is in you.

Clarence Jordan translated that verse like this: “I’m reminding you to shake the ashes off the God-given fire that’s in you.”

I. Love. That!

There is a God-given fire within us. Have you stoked it, or quenched it? Paul implores us in 1st Thessalonians 5:19 not to quench the Spirit.

Pastor Beau brought to mind a campfire and what’s involved in keeping the fire going. If the fire is not tended, it will grow cold; however, if it is stirred, if new fuel is added, if ashes are gently blown on, the fire will continue to burn.  And sometimes, it looks as though it is out–gray ash covers the coals, and no visible smoke rises, but if you throw water on what appears to be dead,  a sizzle is heard and steam rises from the buried coals that are still burning–it can be fanned into flame again.

Paul wrote these words to Timothy centuries before electricity was a reality. The weight of Paul’s encouragement for Timothy to fan into flame the gift of God was huge. Fire provided warmth, light, fuel for preparing food–fire sustained their lives. A household in ancient times would not have allowed their fire to go out. And if it did…neighbors shared live coals with one another, so that the fire could be rekindled. Lack of fire could be deadly. I’m sure that Timothy understood the life-giving importance of what Paul was implying. Do we?

We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit–the power of the Spirit that we’ve been given to carry the message of Jesus. We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them, who will never abandon them, who will never treat them as worthless, who has proved by the death and resurrection of His Son that they have more value and worth than they can imagine, and who invites them to His table which is open to all.

You have within you the Spirit of power, love, and a sound mind. Fan it into flame. Renew your mind. Reject the enemy’s fear mongering, and use your gifts to embrace the world with the warmth of the Spirit’s fire. Use the power within you to light the world with the love of God.

–Luanne

“We must fan into flame the gift of the Spirit… We must allow God to mess in our business, stir us up, rearrange things, show us how to think His way…and then carry the flame of His love to those who don’t yet know that there is a God who loves them, who will never reject them… and who invites them to His table which is open to all…”

His table. Pastor Beau talked about the table, too. He said, “Ultimately, we overcome rejection by coming to the table.” What table are they talking about? The table of communion. The Eucharist. The tradition that, sadly, has become an emotionless part of a church service for so many–but offers to us a solution for our brokenness, even the brokenness of rejection.

The solution to all our brokenness is found in more brokenness…

During the meal, Jesus took and blessed the bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples:

Take, eat.
This is my body.

Taking the cup and thanking God, he gave it to them:

Drink this, all of you.
This is my blood,
God’s new covenant poured out for many people
for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28, Message)

Jesus, knowing the men with Him in that upper room, knowing their hearts and how they would reject and betray Him in the next hours and days, offered Himself to them. His brokenness, to absorb all of theirs–and all of ours. His brokenness, so they–and we–could be made whole. He invited them into His new covenant in all of their brokenness, just as they were. They didn’t understand the gravity of His words–not yet. But they soon would.

Similarly, many of us don’t understand the implications of the invitation to come to the table. I didn’t understand. There is still some mystery around the way Jesus communes with us at His table, and I like it that way… But my understanding has certainly grown. I read in Ann Voskamp’s The Broken Way that Jesus’ words in that upper room are the same words spoken in a Jewish marriage proposal. That the last supper was actually a marriage covenant. Ann writes, quoting the pastor who told her about it,

“In other words, Jesus says to you with this cup, ‘I love you. I want you. I covenant Myself to you. I commit to you. This cup is the new covenant in My blood which I offer to you. Do you love me? Will you covenant yourself to Me?‘” She goes on to write, “Every abandonment ever experienced could be abandoned in this sacramental act… How can it be? When we’re naked and ashamed and alone in our brokenness, Christ envelops us with His intimate grace. When we’re rejected and abandoned and feel beyond wanting, Jesus cups our face: “Come close, my Beloved.”

This is the invitation. This is how we can begin to overcome rejection. By saying yes to His invitation. Pastor Beau emphasized that each of us has a standing invitation. Those words I wrote above? Jesus speaks them to all of us, over and over again. He asks us to come and be united with Him, to take Him in, so that He becomes part of our very being.

“All our brokenness is only healed by union–

With-ness breaks brokenness.” (Voskamp)

With-ness breaks brokenness… I love that so much. But that statement, while true of our being “with” Christ, means more than that. Because we don’t come to the table alone. We can, and should, commune with Jesus daily in our personal lives. But the picture is incomplete without one another. There is a with-ness that represents the Kingdom of God, the kingdom Jesus brought with Him when He came to us with skin on. It is the with-ness that Beau was talking about when he said that rekindling our fire happens individually AND in community. It’s not an either/or. And this is the part that a lot of us are afraid of…

Pastor Beau said, and Luanne highlighted above, that “the fear of rejection keeps us from connecting.” Ann, again from The Broken Way, writes:

We all long for the belonging of communion and yet there is this fear of the closeness of the fellowship. Love is our deepest longing–and what we most deeply fear. Love breaks us vulnerably open–and then can break us with rejection.

The fear of rejection can keep us from coming to the table. Even if we hear Jesus’ personal invitation to us, and believe that He wants us there, we’re not always sure we’re welcome to come. Because “they” may not want us there… As Pastor Beau said, we may feel that way because of a past church experience, or because someone put certain parameters or requirements around being “allowed” to come. We may have been wounded and felt rejection at the table, from those who wanted to control it.

But the thing about it is… the table belongs to Jesus. It’s His. He gets to do the inviting. And he makes it clear–over and over again, in the words He said, in the people He associated with, in the way He conducted Himself–that His invitation is open to all of us. Male, female, Republican, Democrat, divorcee, adulterer, addict, young, old, rich, poor, homosexual, healthy, ill, Catholic, Baptist, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, evangelical, transgender, immigrant, homeless, celebrity, veteran, felon, Black Lives Matter proponent, and MAGA proponent–all. are. welcome. at. the. table. ALL. Every ethnicity. Every nationality. The table levels the playing field. Because none of us is “worthy” of the body and blood of Christ. Not one of us. And if anyone is excluded from the table, then we all are.

John 7:37(MSG): On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink!”

If anyone is thirsty… come to the table. Come commune with Jesus. It is meant to be a place of welcome. A place of renewal. A place to bring our brokenness and share in the ministry of the breaking–together. No matter how many times we’ve rejected Jesus, He will never reject us. He keeps inviting us into His healing embrace. And He gives us the opportunity to be ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:15-18), rather than wielders of rejection. He invites us into His own brokenness, to experience the breaking of our own brokenness by the power of with-ness. And then He invites us to offer our brokenness and with-ness to others as part of the beautiful, upside-down Kingdom He brought to us. And in the middle of all the shared brokenness, as we sit together around His table, the power of fear–even the fear of rejection–is broken. Fires are stirred and kindled, lies replaced with truth, and the breaking births new life.

But we have to be willing to come. To respond to the invitation. To believe that there is a place where we are wanted and welcomed, a place where acceptance–not rejection–is bestowed on all. Jesus is waiting there. Will we come? Will we take the first step and trust that He’ll be there? If we have been the rejected one, if we are afraid, will we come? And if we have rejected others, will we hear the invitation as a call to lay down our pride and selfishness and let Jesus change our minds about some things? Will we come alongside those we see as “others”? Will we walk to the table hand-in-hand with those we disagree with? Will we take a seat next to someone we once vilified–or maybe still vilify?There’s no room at the table for arrogance or religiosity. It’s not a place to argue opinions or policies. We can’t judge each other at the table, because none of us belong there on our own merit. None of us. It is by the grace of God that we come. And we’re invited to come together, to see the image of God in each face around the table. We don’t have to agree on everything to come. We don’t have to believe exactly the same way. The invitation isn’t ours to give or withhold. It belongs to the One whose body and blood was given for all. It belongs to Him alone. He says, “Come”. Let your fear of rejection be broken by the embrace of the One waiting at the table with a place set for you…in the midst of the places set for all.

–Laura

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