Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 16

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

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

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

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

Paul’s letter ends with these words:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

Image result for romans 16

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

Sermon on the Mount: Being Over Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moore goes on to write,

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

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

“Without love, all fruit is plastic.”

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

joy that overflows,

peace that subdues,

patience that endures,

kindness in action,

a life full of virtue,

faith that prevails,

gentleness of heart, and

strength of spirit.

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

(Galatians 5:22-23)

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

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

Jesus goes on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

That’s much easier said than done, right? Yet, it is what Jesus explicitly teaches his followers. What are these words from Jesus doing here, in the middle of the sermon on the mount? And how can we actually not worry?

As we prepare to walk through some of what Pastor John set before us, I’d like us to remember what Jesus has been teaching through his epic sermon to this point. He is revealing to his listeners a new way–the way of his kingdom. He is reminding those with ears to hear that, more than behavior modification, he is after heart transformation. The condition of our hearts matters more than anything we say or do externally, because our hearts are what lead us, always. Hearts that are willing to learn and grow, hearts that make space for his kingdom to grow inside of them, produce good fruit.

This week’s passage is not a sharp turn away from these things that Jesus has reiterated over and over to this point. It is deeply connected to the rest of his teachings. I think that might be easier to see in these verses if we look at them backwards, because the key point–what everything else hinges on–comes at the end. If I were to summarize this passage (Matthew 6:25-34) backwards, it would read like this:

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Matthew 6:33 tells us to, “…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” I believe this is the verse the rest of the passage hinges on. And I won’t pretend for one second that this isn’t a hard teaching. Many of the verses in our passage are so familiar because they’ve become clichés, happy phrases we see on notecards and couch pillows. These are not easy teachings. Nothing Jesus has taught thus far in the sermon on the mount is easy. But his teachings are simple, in that they’re not complicated or designed to trip us up. Remember, we learned that his yoke–his teachings as our ultimate rabbi–is light and not burdensome. Let’s carry that understanding with us as we dig into this week’s passage.

Is Jesus saying that if we seek his kingdom above all else, we will escape trouble and hardship and have everything we need in this life? I don’t think so…

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Jesus speaks these words to his disciples as his crucifixion nears. He assures them there will be trouble. Makes it pretty clear that there’s no escaping it. But he also tells them that in him they can have peace. He tells them, even before his death and resurrection, he has overcome the world.

So what does it mean when Jesus says that if we seek first the kingdom of God, we’ll have all we need? And how do we not worry when he guarantees that this life will bring us trouble?

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

We find Jesus. Our daily bread. The rabbi whose yoke is unlike any other.

If we seek the kingdom above all else, we will always be led straight into Jesus’ arms. I am slightly concerned about sounding redundant here, but God won’t let me get away from this. The entire sermon on the mount unveils the kingdom and every bit of it points us back to the One who’s doing the teaching.

What does it mean that if we seek first the kingdom, we’ll find Jesus? And how does that keep us from worrying? Look with me at Revelation 1:18. Jesus says,

“I am the living one. I died, but look—I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.” (NLT)

If Jesus holds the keys to death and the grave, what is there to fear, really? Even if the worst comes, he is Lord. Even over death.

I don’t mean any of that to sound superficial or easy, because I know it’s not. This life is painstakingly hard. Our hearts are broken over and over. Suffering is part of each of our stories. Which is why it is so key to remember that we are loved, held, pursued, and rescued by a co-suffering God, revealed in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

Pastor John talked to us on Sunday about rescue, how our limitless God comes for us. He also asked some questions that aren’t easy to answer, at least not for me. He asked if God has ever abandoned us, let us down, not shown up? Has he ever walked out on us? I wish I could say no to all of these questions. But there are still loose ends in my story, times I did feel let down by God, moments when he didn’t show up–at least not in a way I could see. Some parts of my story have found resolution over time–but sometimes it is only in looking back that I can see I wasn’t ever abandoned, because it sure felt like I was in some of my most desperate moments.

I wish that I could say that as my faith has grown and my maturity has deepened, I have ceased worrying. But that wouldn’t be true. The things of this world can feel so big–at any given moment there is much to be concerned about globally, nationally, politically, economically, ecologically, relationally, personally. There are issues accosting every part of our humanity, because in this world there is so much trouble.

And this is where it is essential to remember Jesus’s words, “Take heart. I have overcome the world. I hold the keys to death and the grave.”

Jesus’s assurances don’t deny our struggles and pain, but they do remind us that we are humans with limitations, living in a toilsome world that Jesus has already overcome.

There are parts of my life that to this point lay unresolved. Things I don’t understand–yet. But for every one of those moments, there are multiple stories of rescue, times when my God has shown up and revealed the voice, heart, presence I needed at just the right time. Because the truth is, our God never leaves us alone. Even when we run in fear or anger or confusion, we never reach the edge of his gaze, his hand, his pursuing love.

Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

To choose to focus on our worries is to elevate them, to worship the power of our own (unproductive) thinking, which leaves us spinning. Nothing changes by placing our minds on these concerns, by allowing our thoughts to consume us. All that changes is our own emotional, mental, and physical health. To worry actually takes hours off our lives. It harms us.

Instead of setting our minds on such things, we are exhorted to,

“. . .keep your thoughts continually fixed on all that is authentic and real, honorable and admirable, beautiful and respectful, pure and holy, merciful and kind. And fasten your thoughts on every glorious work of God, praising him always.” (Philippians 4:8, TPT)

Or, in other words,

“Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” (Matthew 6:33, NLT)

Seek first the kingdom. Find Jesus there. He has overcome this troublesome world, and he holds the keys to death and the grave. So don’t worry. His love conquers all our fears.

–Laura

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday it’s God who gives us life. When he said that, the chorus from the song Great Are You Lord by All Sons and Daughters came to mind: “It’s Your breath in our lungs, so we pour out our praise.” Your breath. God’s breath in our lungs. Pause for a second. Inhale deeply. The air, the lungs, the muscles that allow the breath to happen…it’s all a gift–or millions, and millions, and millions of gifts, from God, that happen all the time.

Which of us by worrying can add a single moment to our lives. Which of us by worrying can even provide our own breath? We are fearfully and wonderfully made, and we can’t “make” any of it happen. God gives life, and breath, and designed us for every movement, every thought, every emotion. He’s given us the ability to reason, to learn, to grow. He’s given us talents and gifts. Each of our five senses are gifts. He’s given us a spirit so that we can connect with the Spirit of God. We are completely and totally dependent upon God for the design and functioning of our very beings. Yet we worry. We think: What if God isn’t really enough? And then fall for the lie, and live as if it all depends on us.

Laura and I took last week off, but I’m going to go back and retrieve the verses that come right before the worry passage and then paste in Laura’s inverted paraphrase from above so we can see these two passages together. Matthew 6:19-24 (TPT) reads like this:

Don’t keep hoarding for yourselves earthly treasures that can be stolen by thieves. Material wealth eventually rusts, decays, and loses its value. Instead, stockpile heavenly treasures for yourselves that cannot be stolen and will never rust, decay, or lose their value. For your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure. The eyes of your spirit allow revelation-light to enter into your being. If your heart is unclouded, the light floods in!  But if your eyes are focused on money, the light cannot penetrate and darkness takes its place. How profound will be the darkness within you if the light of truth cannot enter! How could you worship two gods at the same time? You will have to hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t worship the true God while enslaved to the god of money!

Don’t worry about tomorrow–there is enough trouble in today. Instead, seek the kingdom of God above everything else, and God will take care of you. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or wear, as though your God doesn’t know your needs. Why does your faith falter? Your father cares about the wildflowers–he’s dressed them in splendor. He will surely care for you. Can worrying add even an hour to your life? Look at the birds, how God provides for them. Aren’t you more precious to him than they are? This is why I tell you not to worry.

Laid out this way, it is easy to see the connection between the two passages. We seek treasures on earth, Jesus wants us to seek first God’s Kingdom. We seek money so we can take care of ourselves, Jesus tells us God will take care of us. Jesus warns us that the pursuit of stuff, the love of money, our focus on the kingdom of this world will lead our hearts away from God, and he reminds us to store up treasure in heaven, which The Passion Translation footnote defines like this: Heavenly treasures are eternal realities, such as loving others and doing good, revealing truth, and bringing Christ’s light to the world. None of these “treasures” can be stolen or ever lose their value.

So we have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount. What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded, and Laura reminded us above, the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation.

I think we can all admit it’s a struggle. We vascillate between worry and faith, between seeking our kingdom and God’s kingdom, between living for ourselves and living for others, between self-strangulation and Spirit transformation.

We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Laura beautifully reminded us that the whole sermon on the mount points us to Jesus–no matter what things look like on this side of the veil, he is with us and will never let us go.

Seek the kingdom of God above everything else, for your heart will always pursue what you value as your treasure.

–Luanne

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The Lord’s Prayer #3

We will begin this week where we left off last week…

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” 

(Matthew 11:28-30)

Pastor Beau started Sunday’s sermon with the same verses I closed out my portion of last week’s blog. As he prepared to preach, he didn’t have any idea what Luanne or I were writing about–yet, God was already leading him to connect the same dots. I love it when that happens! He read us these verses out of Matthew 11, and then shared with us a brief summary of Matthew 1-6. He reminded us of what Pastor John has taught us to this point from the sermon on the mount, highlighting the many places Jesus invites us to think differently, to see things a new way, to prepare our hearts to encounter his kingdom. (The last few blog posts include summaries if you’d like to revisit the material we have been learning.)

Beau challenged us to, once again, set aside what we have become familiar with and be willing to let God teach us something new. He emphasized the importance of coming to familiar passages–like The Lord’s Prayer–with open hearts and minds. He reminded us that, throughout the entire sermon on the mount, Jesus is introducing an upside-down kingdom. This now-familiar prayer is no exception.

He read us the prayer, and then explained it in a similar way to how I wrote about it last week. His focus was on how each line connects us to Jesus. When he finished walking us through the lines of the prayer, he said,

“The Lord’s Prayer is a moment to pause, to breathe… Trying too hard to check boxes off a list becomes overwhelming. We forget that we’re asking God for Jesus in this prayer.”

He then took us back to Matthew 11, only this time he read it from a different translation:

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

(Matthew 11:28-30, NLT, emphasis mine)

I highlighted the word yoke because what Beau shared with us about this word blew my mind on Sunday… When we think of this word, what generally comes to mind? The wooden piece of equipment placed on the backs of oxen so they can pull a plow, right? I’ve heard plenty of beautiful, informative sermon illustrations that employ this interpretation of the word. But what Pastor Beau shared was brand new to me.

Apparently, in ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, were easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.

Yes, I audibly gasped as I listened to this new teaching about one of my favorite passages of scripture. And it makes so much sense.

In The Lord’s Prayer, we are asking God to daily--every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we are asking for the yoke of our rabbi. And we are guaranteed that in that yoke, in the set of teachings we desire to model our lives after, we will find rest for our souls. I will never get over the beauty of our Jesus, the kindness of our God, the fresh revelation of the Spirit that leads us beyond our own understanding.

Pastor Beau asked us to breathe in Jesus, so that we could exhale Jesus into the world. He asked us to consider what burdens we are carrying, and then he shared that during this season of unknowns there has been a song that has ministered deeply to his heart. He paused in his sermon to share it with all of us. Here are the words:

I’m caught up in Your presence
I just want to sit here at Your feet
I’m caught up in this holy moment
I never want to leave

Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You

Oh, I’m sorry when I’ve just gone through the motions
I’m sorry Lord when I just sang another song
Take me back to where we started
I open up my heart to You

I’m sorry when I’ve come with my agenda
I’m sorry when I forgot that You’re enough
Take me back to where we started
I open up my heart to You

Take me back, take me back, take me back to my first love…

I just want you
Nothing else, nothing else
Nothing else will do

I’m caught up in Your presence
I just want to sit here at Your feet
I’m caught up in this holy moment
I never want to leave

Oh, I’m not here for blessings
Jesus, You don’t owe me anything
More than anything that You can do
I just want You

“Nothing Else” by Donzell Taggart–

As I listened to this beautiful song, the words, “I’m caught up in Your presence, I just want to sit here at Your feet…” grabbed my attention. I couldn’t help but think of Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while her sister Martha worked away in the kitchen. Luke 10: 38-39 tells us:

As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 

(NLT, emphasis mine)

Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, soaking in his presence–taking on the yoke of her rabbi… We don’t have time here to go into all the reasons this scene was such an affront to the culture of that day, but it was so significant. It is also a beautiful illustration of what Pastor Beau taught us on Sunday.

The yoke of Jesus–his ways, teachings, leadership–is unlike any other yoke. We may carry many yokes–volumes of teachings, full of rules and expectations that don’t fit and are burdensome and heavy to carry–but we need only carry one.

Jesus teaches us to pray a prayer through which we ask God daily for Jesus. And when we ask for Him, when we position ourselves at his feet soaking in his presence, he shares with us his way. He carries his yoke with us so we can watch how he does it–all of “it”, and learn from him. Our souls long for this yoke, to be still and breathe in the Holy rest Jesus offers us. He is our daily bread, all that we need, and he longs to fill us with himself.

As I close this week, I find myself praying the same words I prayed last week:

My prayer for us is that we are formed and transformed as this prayer that Jesus gifted us becomes part of our daily lives–as He, himself is woven deeper and deeper into the core of who we are…

–Laura

Matthew 11:28-30 - I Will Give You Rest - Free Art Download ...

The Lord’s Prayer-Part 2

There is so much in this week’s few verses, that I almost hate to take the time to recap. Fortunately, Laura and I are a team, so, I trust between the two of us, we’ll cover it as well as we can–and hopefully create a hunger for each of you to dig in even more deeply.

Last week in our Sermon on the Mount series, we began to dig into the first few phrases of the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s prayer comes in the middle of Jesus’ teaching on When you give…When you pray…When you fast–the three pillars that keep us connected to God and to community. Let’s remind ourselves what Jesus says about prayer:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

 This, then, is how you should pray:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
 Give us today our daily bread.
 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matthew 6:9-13)

Last week we dug into the significance of God as our Father, of the hallowedness of God’s name, of His kingdom and His will being done on earth as in heaven. This week the verses turn toward us. It’s significant to note that the verses don’t turn toward “me”. Each of us is part of a greater whole, a kingdom people who God wants to use to bring His kingdom of love and light to the world.

Pastor John pointed out that it seems odd that we’ve just addressed and honored God and his desires and then we say “give us”. In our English understanding, it’s almost as if we say, God, you’re great and awesome and your kingdom and will matter a lot, but now, I’m going to demand some things from you…give me my bread today…

So, digging in a bit to what Jesus is actually teaching us to pray is a good idea. In the address of the Lord’s Prayer, the word hallowed is an imperative verb. I don’t think I knew it was a verb until Pastor John pointed it out. I’ve always thought of it as an adjective describing God’s name, so this is something new to ponder. I love that. As is my practice, I looked it up for myself in the concordance, and sure enough…it’s an imperative verb. What it means is that we hallow, acknowledge, separate from profane things God’s name today, tomorrow, and for always. It’s an action that we carry out.

“Give” in the phrase Give us this day our daily bread, similar to hallowed is an acknowledgment, a declaration, that it is God who provides for us. The really interesting word in this passage, however, is daily. 

The Greek word “daily”, found in the Lord’s Prayer in Luke and in Matthew, is not found anywhere else in the Bible. Scholars and commentators have been puzzled for centuries about its actual meaning. It was not a word commonly used in the Aramaic language. I find that fascinating! What was Jesus trying to communicate in using this obscure word? I read through a number of different commentaries and, like Pastor John, can see that the most common understanding falls in line with “now, tomorrow, and continuously”, so the phrase can be thought of as God, you provide now, tomorrow and forever; you are the God who gives, who provides, who will never stop.

Even the word “bread” is discussed heavily among biblical scholars…was Jesus teaching about actual bread? Daily sustenance? Spiritual sustenance? Many scholars believe this was a declaration of dependence upon God for life–not a desire for opulent living (more than enough), nor a desire to be destitute–just a humble and grateful dependence upon God for all of our daily needs.

This makes sense to me in light of Thy kingdom come, thy will be done” and a verse that we haven’t yet come to in the Sermon on the Mount.  In Matthew 6:31-33, Jesus teaches So don’t worry and don’t keep saying, ‘What shall we eat, what shall we drink or what shall we wear?! That is what pagans are always looking for; your Heavenly Father knows that you need them all. Set your heart on the kingdom and his goodness, and all these things will come to you as a matter of course. (J.B. Phillips)

More familiar translations say Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.  

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him.  Looking at the lives of Jesus and his disciples, they traveled constantly.  Jesus was basically homeless. For sustenance, sometimes they fished, sometimes they ate in the home of friends, sometimes they ate in other people’s homes. Sometimes they slept in gardens, sometimes they were in the homes of friends or family–they were rich in relationship, they were rich in community, they were rich in spiritual matters: they weren’t rich in material goods, yet they never went without what they needed for life and sustenance. God provided daily what they needed as they traveled sharing the good news of God’s loving kingdom being right here, right now. God promises to do the same thing for us when we seek His kingdom first.

The next phrase: Forgive us our transgressions as we forgive those who transgress against us, is also (not surprisingly) filled with deep meaning.

The one word sin in our English translations is one of five words found in the original languages. “Sin” can mean:

  1. Missing the mark
  2. Crossing the line
  3. Slipping up
  4. Knowing right and choosing wrong
  5. That which is owed

In the Lord’s Prayer, number five is the word used, so the phrase can be prayed, God, you forgive us that which is owed, as we forgive those who owe us something. 

Jesus asks us to pray this prayer on a daily basis, so each day we have the opportunity to acknowledge that we haven’t done life perfectly, we haven’t lived up to our responsibilities, we owe something,  and we can bring that to God. We don’t come to God in shame, but with honesty and humility. In one of the prayers that I pray most days of my life (sometimes multiple times a day), there is a portion that states: I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved you with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself. I am truly sorry and I humbly repent. 

Basically — God, I own it. Will you please forgive me? (And God will–he already has).

Then, we acknowledge that we desire to forgive those who owe us; those who haven’t lived up to our expectations, who owe us an apology, an explanation, an acknowledgement of how they hurt us,  or something else.

Jesus wants us to forgive like he forgave–even if they don’t ask. Oooo…this can be hard!

Pastor John encouraged us to hold in our thoughts the way God treats us. Romans 5 reminds us that we were enemies of God, we hadn’t asked for forgiveness or reconciliation and yet, God loved us, initiated relationship with us, and forgave us, without our asking when he placed himself on the cross in the person of Jesus.

That’s how God wants us to be. When we harbor anger and bitterness it destroys community. When we choose grace instead of entitlement or getting even it changes the world. When we forgive this way, we embody the beatitudes, we let go of our understanding, our rights, and listen to Jesus teach us, you have heard it said, but I say...  We become the answer to Jesus’ prayer…Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.

When we pray these forgiveness words daily, acknowledging their meaning and desiring their fruit, the behavior of others doesn’t stick to us anymore. We learn to let the offenses go; we leave others in God’s hands, and we become transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ as a result.

As we dive deep, there is plenty to ponder in these two phrases. I’ll leave the third phrase to Laura.

–Luanne

As I begin to type my portion, I am sorting through hours of thoughts… I have no idea where this is going to go yet, so I’ll start by bringing you into the space I’m in right now…

I am pondering the third phrase of this week’s message, the meanings I discovered as I prepared to write, and I’ll get there–but not yet. When I opened the website I always use to find definitions for the original Greek words used in our scriptures (Blue Letter Bible), my eyes landed on their verse of the day. I’ve never before noticed that part of this particular webpage. Today, it was Ephesians 2:14, For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” When I read the words, I paused, because this verse has been meaningful to me for many years. I remember the room I was in nearly a decade ago when it struck me that Jesus doesn’t simply give us peace, but He IS our peace. If we have him, if he lives within us, we always have peace. I was thinking about the verse a day or two ago, and here it was again, reminding me…

I moved on from there to dig into the meanings of the words in our passage. As I studied, I remembered something I had written about in this blog previously and set off to find that post. Scrolling through dozens of posts from a couple years back, my eyes landed on a highlighted verse. It was Ephesians 2:14. Again. As I read the familiar words again, these lyrics floated up from the quiet music I have on: “Be our peace… Christ our peace…”

Hmm. Okay…

I continued scrolling, looking for one specific post, and found myself caught up in our words from seasons past. Tears spilled down my cheeks as I read pieces of Luanne’s heart and my own captured in pictures painted with words from days gone by. Each post took me back to the time it was written, to the circumstances that we found ourselves in during those moments in time. I read about the kingdom, about love, about Jesus and how everything really does revolve around him and his way of love. We’ve written the same thing in different words over and over again. And woven into these recurring themes are threads of our own lives, our stories, lessons learned, the concepts we are still wrestling with–the ways our experiences illustrate the truths that have come to define our lives.

This blog chronicles both our church’s and our own daily walks with God. Luanne shared above that “daily” in this week’s passage most clearly means, “now, tomorrow, and continuously.” She continues, telling us that the words Give us this day our daily bread, “…can be thought of as God, you provide now, tomorrow and forever; you are the God who gives, who provides, who will never stop.” The words I read from days gone by, they chronicle our daily seeking of the God who is our provider. Through the joys and the pain, the thread is God’s great love and his kingdom coming to and through us.

Just a minute ago, as I wrote about Jesus being our peace, these words floated up from the song that played “randomly”: “Your peace will make us one…” 

Friends, even as I type in this moment, I’m not sure where the Spirit is taking us. But I am paying attention…

Let’s jump back into our verses and we’ll see where we end up…

The last phrase from Sunday’s passage is Matthew 6:13:

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

The Message paraphrases it this way:

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

Again, there is much for us to explore in these few words. “Lead us not into temptation” is an interesting line that can trip us up a bit. As we consider what Jesus is saying to us here, it is important to remember these words from his brother James:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed…” (James 1:13-14, NIV)

What Pastor John identified on Sunday is that the statement “Lead us not into temptation…” is a declaration of our need for God to lead us rather than us leading ourselves. As we pray these words, we are acknowledging that where we lead ourselves is often nowhere good, and we need to be led away from those things that would bind and cause pain. The Message captures this idea above when it says, “Keep us safe from ourselves…” 

The second half of the verse is, “…but deliver us from the evil one.” Many English translations of this verse don’t include the word “one,” and simply read, “deliver us from evil.” A deep dive into the original Greek tells us that the broader “evil” is the working definition with a deeper root being a word that means “pain.” We’ll come back to that in just a moment… There is another word we need to look at first. It is the word deliver. What do you think of when you hear that word? Rescue? Birth? Save? It does mean all of those things in our English usage of it, but none of those capture what it means in this verse. It does, in its root form allude to a rescue, but a rescue that occurs by “drawing to oneself… like the flow of a current.” How beautiful is that? 

Back to evil… I mentioned that the word “pain” is a deeper root than “evil.” There is a deeper root word, though, and I find the meaning of this deepest root word so significant to our discussion of The Lord’s Prayer as a whole… The word that becomes “pain” and then “evil” is, in its original form, “poor.” And it means, “to toil for daily subsistence.” 

Luanne just wrote about asking God for our daily bread, to be our provider today, every day, forever. And the prayer finishes with words that mean (if you’ll allow my paraphrase):

“We need you to lead us away from the things that would bind us. Save us from ourselves. Rescue us from our pain–from our poverty, our toil for daily subsistence–by drawing us like a current to yourself.”

These words, built out of the definitions of the original root words, sound a whole lot different from our understanding of “temptation” and “evil”, but it flows a whole lot more with the preceding parts of the prayer, doesn’t it?

Before I close this out, I want to paint one last word picture…

Merriam-Webster’s online thesaurus lists one phrase as synonymous with the verb “toil.”

“Sweat blood”

This is the one synonymous phrase given for this word. Wow. We are to pray–in declarative form–God, draw us like a current to yourself, away from our struggle for daily survival, away from sweating blood. Lead us your way. Give us what we need each day, every day, forever, as you always do. Help us to offer forgiveness as you have. 

Jesus, in The Lord’s Prayer is teaching us how to ask God for HIM. I am fairly undone as I consider all that we’ve looked at and studied here…

Our holy, huge, sovereign yet personal, intimate Father—Your kingdom come…

The kingdom comes through Jesus…

Your will be done…

God’s will looks like Jesus…

Give us our daily bread, the bread we need today, every day, forever…

Jesus is our bread of life…

Forgive us as we, through you, forgive…

The forgiveness of God hung on display in the person of Jesus on the cross…

Lead us in your way…

Jesus is our way, our truth, our life…

Draw us like a current to yourself…

Jesus is the way to the Father…

Away from our toiling, away from sweating blood for our daily survival…

Jesus sweat blood as he prepared to empty all of himself that we might be saved–made whole. He toiled, he sweat blood, on our behalf, that he might become our peace.  

The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. 

There are many antonyms to the word toil, but one stood out to me among the others: rest. I’ll wrap this up with a passage that has become a recurring theme in my life, one I have included so many times before, out of Eugene Peterson’s gorgeous Message paraphrase:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

Come to Jesus, always to Jesus, daily and forever to Jesus, “For He, himself, is our peace…”

The Lord’s Prayer does what the Sermon on the Mount does, what all of scripture does: It points us back to Jesus–our way, our truth, our life, our daily bread and living water. And as we come to our Father on the current of Jesus our Savior, we are delivered into the image of Christ as we become “an anticipation of the age to come” (Expanded Lord’s Prayer, Brian Zahnd), as the Kingdom comes through us. 

My prayer for us is that we are formed and transformed as this prayer that Jesus gifted us becomes part of our daily lives–as He, himself is woven deeper and deeper into the core of who we are…

–Laura

Living Loved & Loving Others

We took a short break from our sermon on the mount series this week to hear from Trevor Schenk, one of our elders. Though his message wasn’t from the sermon on the mount, it fit in seamlessly with what we’ve been learning from Pastor John. One of the first statements Trevor made was,

“Jesus led a life that showed us how to love, how to live.”

He led us through passage after passage reminding us about God’s love, what it is and what it’s not. He reminded us that even when we’re living with hateful, murderous thoughts inside like we discussed last week, we are not exempt from the love of God that pursues us. He gave us many examples from the scriptures of people who chose to kill rather than to love, and yet God went to them and revealed his heart to them–changing them by the transformative power of his love and empowering them to love like him. He exhorted us to first embrace our own belovedness and then to learn from the example of Jesus so that we can model that kind of self-sacrificing love in our relationships with others.

The message was a “Selah” moment, of sorts–a pause to remember and reflect on how dearly loved and chosen we are by the Creator who calls each of us children, made in the image of our eternal God. It was also a call to live a life worthy of the one we claim to follow.

Rather than write a lot of extra words to expand on the message Trevor brought to us, I thought the best thing to do this week would be to give our readers what Trevor gave us–a moment to pause and reflect, a moment to ponder with fresh awe the deep, deep love of God lived out in the life of Jesus, and what that love requires of us as we relate with our fellow image-bearers.

The main passage Trevor spoke from is 1 John 3, so I’ll include the verses he used below, as well as many of the supporting passages he shared with us. I am intentionally including a variety of translations. My hope is that you’ll take a moment to read through them slowly, ponder the words in your heart, and be reminded afresh of the deep love that pursues you, that pursues us all. Because this is what I have found to be true over and over again–

When we catch a glimpse of the Love that made us, that pursues us, that willingly died a criminal’s death at our hands so that we might understand there is nowhere he wouldn’t go to reach us… we can’t help but be changed. Love like that rearranges our hearts if we let it, and it keeps doing its good work until we learn to live cruciform like Christ–arms outstretched in love that looks outward and invites all to come in…

Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that he has lavished on us! He has called us and made us his very own beloved children. The reason the world doesn’t recognize who we are is that they didn’t recognize him. Beloved, we are God’s children right now; however, it is not yet apparent what we will become. But we do know that when it is finally made visible, we will be just like him, for we will see him as he truly is. And all who focus their hope on him will always be purifying themselves, just as Jesus is pure. . . Here is how God’s children can be clearly distinguished from the children of the Evil One. Anyone who does not demonstrate righteousness and show love to fellow believers is not living with God as his source. The beautiful message you’ve heard right from the start is that we should walk in self-sacrificing love toward one another. We should not be like Cain, who yielded to the Evil One and brutally murdered his own brother, Abel. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous. So don’t be shocked, beloved brothers and sisters, if you experience the world’s hatred. Yet we can be assured that we have been translated from spiritual death into spiritual life because we love the family of believers. A loveless life remains spiritually dead. Everyone who keeps hating a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone sees a fellow believer in need and has the means to help him, yet shows no pity and closes his heart against him, how is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds.

(I John 3:1-3, 10-18, The Passion Translation)

Be kind to each other, be understanding. Be as ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. 

(Ephesians 4:32 J.B. Phillips)

 You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor (acquaintance, associate, companion) as yourself; I am the Lord.

(Leviticus 19:18, Amplified Bible)

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

(Matthew 7:12, The Message)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

(1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG, 4-8 TPT)

Trevor encouraged us to be aware of what is in our minds and hearts. He reminded us that God already knows what is hiding within each of us but still refuses to give up on us. I read last week that St. Augustine said sin is, “…being curved in upon oneself.” Those few words have messed with me these last few days. They challenge me to look up, to reach out, to listen, to recognize what lives in the shadows of my soul. Being curved in upon myself–however good the reason may be, even when it feels like the only way to protect my heart–is the opposite of living cruciform, the opposite of Jesus’ display of self-emptying love. This week, my prayer is that we each have the courage to open, to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of living with arms outstretched as we continue to learn how to live as dearly beloved children of God.

–Laura

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth ...

Giving Reverses Greed

Our text this week is quite long, so I’ll do my best to sum it up before we really jump in. In Luke 12:13-34, Jesus is standing before a crowd and a man calls out to him. The man demands that Jesus act as judge in the case of the family inheritance his big brother is hoarding. Jesus says no, he will not make a judgement. He exhorts the listening crowd, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” (from verse 15, AMP) In this one line, we see an indication that more than one form of greed is present in this family feud.

He proceeds to tell all who are listening a story about a rich farmer. The word “rich” is truly insufficient for the level of wealth this one man possesses. His storehouses are full to the brim and his fertile land is still producing an abundance of crops. So the farmer thinks to himself… (Note that he does not consult anyone about any of his decisions–he makes these choices unilaterally.) He thinks, “Soul, you have many good things stored up, [enough] for many years; rest and relax, eat, drink and be merry (celebrate continually).” (verse 19, AMP) In the story, God responds directly to the man, saying, “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you…” Jesus finishes the story by telling his listeners that this is how it will be for anyone who hoards what they have and is not rich toward God.

Jesus then turns to his disciples and continues teaching them about the dangers of greed. He cautions them against cultivating a mindset of scarcity and makes it clear that, as citizens of God’s kingdom, we already live from a place of abundance. He tells them not to worry about anything–worry itself is futile–and reminds them of how even the most insignificant flower is clothed in dazzling beauty. Jesus exhorts his closest followers to live generously and completes the monologue with a statement that is very familiar to many of us: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (verse 34)

There is much to unpack in this rich passage. First, Jesus encounters two brothers. As Pastor John pointed out in his message, both displayed a different form of greed. This is likely why Jesus said, “Watch out and guard yourselves against every form of greed…” Greed doesn’t always look the same. It is insidious and it can wear many different masks. One brother was hoarding his father’s wealth, wealth that wasn’t his to begin with. He had received abundance, and was unwilling to share any of it–even with his own family. The other brother felt entitled to what was his by birthright–simply because he was a son. He didn’t work for it, but he wanted what he felt what his. He was longing for more, discontent with what he had.

Can we identify with either brother? 

Perhaps both?

Do we find ourselves hoarding and protecting what is “ours”, withholding from others when we have plenty to offer? Do we constantly grope and grab for more, longing for what is just out of our reach? Ponder these questions with me as we continue…

Jesus refused to settle the dispute between the brothers, and as was common for him, chose to instead tell a story. In the story of the rich farmer, we saw a man who was already very rich. He had more than he needed. When he saw that even more was coming his way, he consulted his soul–his mind, will, and emotions–and no one else, about what he should do. He decided that all of his excess, everything he had been blessed with, should be kept in massive storehouses, hoarded for his own private enjoyment. He had prepared for himself an extravagant retirement. He decided to take it easy, live the good life, relax and be happy.

How are we like the farmer? 

What do we do when we run out of space to store all of our abundance? What have we prepared for ourselves without counsel, without thought of anyone else? Is there something we have that we’re holding onto for our own enjoyment? What have we become enslaved to? What has possessed us and stolen our souls, our attention, our love?

When Jesus addressed his disciples, he said, “For this reason I tell you, do not worry about your life…” (verse 22) For what reason? To protect them against the power of greed that can rob us of our souls. Jesus went on to remind them that they need not worry about earthly wealth, what they’ll eat, what they’ll wear. Why? Because they have already been given the kingdom, if only they will access what is already there:

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and he will give you everything you need. So don’t be afraid, little flock. For it gives your Father great happiness to give you the Kingdom.” (vs. 31-32)

This entire passage may appear to be dealing with material wealth. It is–but there is more to it than that. What we have goes beyond our finances. It includes our gifts, abilities, talents, skills, time, and energy. Being “rich toward God” as Jesus instructed in our passage indicates being rich in relationship toward him, being rich in the ways of the kingdom. This would then include the fruits of the spirit produced in us and offered to others; it would include willingness, passion, and courage. Being rich toward God naturally makes us rich toward others, as we are living out of the abundance of the kingdom where God meets our needs with his presence.

Trevor, one of our elders, read a couple of passages of scripture before Pastor John’s message in our second service. As far as I am aware, he did not know what the message was about. Both passages he read struck me:

I thank you, Lord, and with all the passion of my heart
I worship you in the presence of angels!
Heaven’s mighty ones will hear my voice
as I sing my loving praise to you.
I bow down before your divine presence
and bring you my deepest worship
as I experience your tender love and your living truth.
For the promises of your word and the fame of your name
have been magnified above all else!
At the very moment I called out to you, you answered me!
You strengthened me deep within my soul
and breathed fresh courage into me.

(Psalm 138:1-3, TPT–emphasis mine)

Ask, and the gift is yours. Seek, and you’ll discover. Knock, and the door will be opened for you. (Matthew 7:7, TPT)

In the Psalm, we read David’s words of worship to God. He thanks God with all the passion of his heart, sings loving praise, and brings his deepest worship. Why? Because he called out, he asked God to show up, and being the good Father that he is, God did just that. He showed up and strengthened David deep within his soul. He breathed fresh courage into his mind, will and emotions, and this empowered David to respond with overflowing richness toward God.

We have constant access to this same overflow. Jesus told us in Matthew 7, Ask–you’ll receive; Seek–you’ll find; Knock–the door will be opened. What door? The door to the kingdom, and all of the abundance therein! We have nothing but ourselves to offer to our God. Everything else that we regard as “ours” was given to us. We can only be rich toward him when we’ve opened ourselves to receive the abundance of his kingdom and allowed it to change us. He has given us everything. He has been pleased to give us the kingdom. That line leaves me flabbergasted every. single. time.

What are we doing with all that he has given? 

When the father of the two brothers died, the mantle of “patriarch” fell to the older brother. It was his duty and honor to provide for and care for his family. But his heart and soul had been captured by greed instead.

We have been given the kingdom. The whole thing. An all-access pass to the presence of God and the gifts of the spirit. We who know Jesus are patriarchs and matriarchs–fathers and mothers–of our faith. How are we stewarding the abundance that we have been given? What are we doing with the abundant, generous, overwhelming love of Jesus that has been lavished upon us? Are we hoarding it for ourselves, cushioning our lives with it, using it as a barrier to keep others out rather than inviting them to the table to share in it alongside us? Are we using our gifts in a way that mirrors the self-emptying love of the one we say we follow, or are we using them to fill our own storehouses to overflowing? Are our hearts set on the kingdom? Are we passionate about sharing the abundance that has been poured out for all the world? Or are we attempting to contain it in a box that we’ve designed, a box that we can lock and hide and keep just for ourselves? What kinds of fathers and mothers are we–do we hold what we have just out of reach of those who need it most, or do we intentionally swing the doors wide and set a table of welcome to the bottomless feast of the kingdom?

Whatever our answers to these questions might be, take heart friends. If greed has possessed our souls, it’s not too late. There is an antidote. We can choose to give, and when we do we’ll find that giving reverses our greed. We can learn the mindset of abundance as we breathe in the fresh, healing air of the kingdom and clear the cobwebs of scarcity from our souls. But first, we have to get honest. And we must recognize our Source, and ask for what we need so we can change. We’ll find that our Father is pleased to give us access to all that he is and all that he has. He is pleased to entrust us with his kingdom. What will we do with it?

–Laura

This is a challenging message for those of us who live in a consumeristic, capitalistic nation. Having stuff we don’t need is our normal. Our culture’s definition of success absolutely lies in the abundance of our possessions, yet Jesus tells us: “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions. (Luke 12:15 NASB)

Our lives do not consist of our possessions. It’s interesting to note that in this verse, the Greek word for life is zoe which is what we normally think of as life–living, breathing, full of vitality…  However, farther down in the passage, when Jesus tells the story of the greedy rich man, some translations say “your very life will be demanded of you”, which makes it sound as if it’s the same word used in verse 15. It’s not. The word translated life in verse 20 is the Greek word psyche. Psyche indicates our inner selves, the way we think, the emotions we feel or suppress, our convictions and passions…those are all part of the psyche. The King James Version translates this verse in a way that is closer to the original meaning when it says:

I will say to my soul (psyche), Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul (psyche) shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? (19,20)
God’s response sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Why? Because greed, living for self, accumulating, hoarding, coveting, having a sense of entitlement is the anti-thesis of the Kingdom of Heaven, in addition, it leads to bondage, to worshiping other things, to chasing the kingdoms of this world, and to losing our psyches to worldly pursuits. God loves us and wants us free. Jesus came that we may have life and experience it in overflowing abundance (John 10:10).
What does that abundant, overflowing life look like?
Jesus tells us over and over and over that it looks like living by the principles of the Kingdom of Heaven where love for God and love for others is the highest priority. Jesus tells us that if we seek the Kingdom of God as our top priority, every other need we have will be taken care of.  Jesus teaches us to pray for the kingdom of God and for God’s will to be a reality on earth.
What does this kingdom look like?  Full and total inclusion. Jesus excludes no one. He gets frustrated with those who live with a religiously superior attitude, but he doesn’t exclude them. Not only does Jesus not exclude, he elevates the least likely…women, foreigners, tax collectors, sinners, the poor, the sick, the Samaritan; he ministers to the Roman Centurian, the Pharisee, the thief on the cross, the demon-possessed…  Is this what today’s Jesus’ followers look like? Is this what our churches look like? Is this what I look like?
Laura walked us through Sunday’s passage above, so I won’t go into it much here, but Jesus tells us to consider how God cares for the created world, he tells us not to worry about our clothes or our food and he goes on to say:

For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.  “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (30-34)

Even typing that out, I keep reading and rereading those verses. I need to do a constant heart check here. How am I doing in living generously? How many items do I have in my closets (yes, plural) that I rarely wear? How many extra dishes in my kitchen? Do I mindlessly spend money on myself? Yes. I do. I run after the things of the world and they add zero value to my life, my inner being, my essence. And as Laura mentioned above, these verses aren’t only about material things, although they certainly include that, and include caring for those less materially fortunate. What else has God generously blessed us with that we can use to bless others? What about grace, unconditional love, forgiveness, talents, gifts, wisdom, time, and on and on we could go. I’m not suggesting that we be doormats– Jesus is our example for how to do this. He had solitary moments where he pulled away from people and allowed God to restore his soul. He spent time alone time with his close friends. And, he ministered to the world.

In verse 21 Jesus tells us that whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God loses themselves along the way. We can become slaves to what we own or what we covet and self-destruct in the process.

What does it mean to be rich toward God?  Maybe being rich toward God means that we learn to pay attention to whether we are living in “I will…” rather than “Your will”.  The rich man who lost his soul to his riches said over and over again, I will tear down my barns, I will build bigger ones, I will store all my extra stuff, I will take it easy, I will eat, drink, and be merry, I, I, I, I,…  Maybe the opposite of being rich toward God is “I did it my way”. Maybe being rich toward God is what the apostle Paul encourages in Philippians 2: 1-5

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. Be free from pride-filled opinions, for they will only harm your cherished unity. Don’t allow self-promotion to hide in your hearts, but in authentic humility put others first and view others as more important than yourselves.  Abandon every display of selfishness. Possess a greater concern for what matters to others instead of your own interests.  And consider the example that Jesus, the Anointed One, has set before us. Let his mindset become your motivation. (The Passion Translation)

You may be thinking–I can’t live like that. It’s too hard, I’m too human, yet God, who has been pleased to give us the kingdom, has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us to live this kind of life, to love God’s way, to know His abundance, to share all that we have and all that we are for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom, and he gives us new beginnings over and over and over again.

 Jesus, who loves us and wants us to experience life his way spoke a pointed message to a New Testament church and then offered a beautiful invitation:

I know that you are neither frozen in apathy nor fervent with passion. How I wish you were either one or the other…For you claim, “I’m rich and getting richer—I don’t need a thing.” Yet you are clueless that you’re miserable, poor, blind, barren, and naked…. Behold, I’m standing at the door, knocking. If your heart is open to hear my voice and you open the door within, I will come in to you and feast with you, and you will feast with me…           (Rev. 3:15,17,20)

His table is open to all. His feast is abundant. He is generous. His way is life.

Will we give it all and enter in?

Luanne

Image result for table set for feast outside

 

2020 Perspective–Looking Back

“The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  Dallas Willard

Ready or not, we will soon step into a new year–and a new decade. 2019 is coming to a close, and 2020 is about to begin. I don’t know how your year was, but this girl is raising a hallelujah at the thought of leaving the last twelve months behind!

Well, sort of.

I was. Until I realized that my battle-scarred, weary self didn’t see any of 2019’s hard coming twelve months ago. And that makes me a bit wary about throwing 2020 a welcome party…

Pastor John’s message on Sunday came out of Philippians 3:12-14. I am including two translations of those verses below–J.B. Phillips, the one John used, and The Passion Translation. Take a minute to read the words and chew on them a bit.

J.B. Phillips: “Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ.”

TPT: “I admit that 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 invitation of reaching the heavenly goal and gaining the victory-prize through the anointing of Jesus.”

Pastor John shared with us that looking back can prepare us to move forward. He also warned us that how and why we look back matters. He advised us to look back in order to learn and to remember. We’ve written about the word remember before, how it means to stay connected to, that it’s antonym is not to forget, but rather to dismember. He advised us to avoid the kind of looking back in which we are concentrating on, dwelling on, or longing for where we’ve been. Those lingering glances, fixating on what was, can keep us from living. It can be a tricky balance, remembering and learning from our pasts, but not dwelling on or longing for what used to be. This can be especially difficult if we’ve faced a loss, or many losses–whether the physical loss of a person or relationship, or a circumstantial loss, like a relocation, a career change, or an emotional move.

John shared a quote from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner related to looking back in order to move forward. I couldn’t find the exact quote, but I did come across this one:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming. But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us. The name of the room is Remember—the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”
― Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces

If I’m honest, when I read in our passage, “I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal…”  from the J.B. Phillips translation and, “I do have one compelling focus: I forget all of the past as I fasten my heart to the future instead,” from The Passion Translation, I don’t feel a lot of excitement. I feel a bit of trepidation. A bit leaning towards a lot at times. I am someone who tends to be oriented toward the past. Nostalgia and sentimentality have always been part of how I look at life. Seeing the world and my life in this way also keeps me keenly aware of the pain of the past. Sometimes, that makes me want to run forward with abandon–but not usually. More often, I succumb to fears that the future could hold worse pain than the past. My past might be hard, but at least I know what I’ll see when I look into those memories. The thought of moving forward with arms outstretched toward whatever might lie ahead? Fastening my heart to an unknown future? These things can feel dangerous to a fragile, weary heart. I’m not typically one who fears change or looks ahead with cynicism and pessimism. But I am telling you–2019 had it out for some of us. 

That said, when I look at these verses alongside Buechner’s quote, it settles my insides a bit. His words read like an invitation to discover both who we are and who we’re becoming by way of remembering who we were and how far we’ve come. He invites us to step into the room where we are most alive to where our journeys have brought us. In remembering, like Pastor John talked about, we can see where God was in the midst of everything we’ve walked through. Remembering shows us how far we’ve come, and highlights the One who’s carried us all along.

This kind of remembering, it makes our passage easier to get excited about. Because it’s impossible to look back at the ways God has shown up without our faith being stirred to believe that he will continue to be that same God for us and with us–regardless of what our tomorrows hold.

As I pondered the message, a few other verses and some song lyrics came to mind:

“Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

–Isaiah 43:18-19 NKJV

Then He who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.”

–Revelation 21:5a NKJV 

 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV

Behold the Father’s heart
The mystery He lavishes on us
As deep cries out to deep
Oh, how desperately He wants us…

Behold His holy Son
The Lion and the Lamb given to us
The Word became a man
That my soul should know its Savior…

Behold I have a friend
The Spirit breathing holy fire within
My ever present help
Speaking truth when I can’t find it…

(Behold, Hillsong Worship)

I couldn’t get away from the word “behold” as I prayed through John’s sermon and what to write about. I spent some time leaning into the concept of “beholding” and what it means a couple of months ago. So I went back to look at some of my personal writing to try to connect the dots. This is what I found:

 “When did you last take the time to behold?

To behold a thing is to go beyond the passive seeing, past the every day looking that happens by default.

To behold is to be held within a moment…

When we behold something, our entire person is engaged in the seeing. The word itself means to mentally perceive, take heed of, experience, care for, contemplate intently, regard, observe, consider, partake of, discern–it takes us far beyond what we perceive with our eyes.

Sometimes we don’t realize we’ve been held in a moment until that moment passes…

But to truly behold is to regard with intention and care all of the things–not only the beautiful. It takes courage to behold the other things, namely ourselves

Why do I only pause to acknowledge and behold the beautiful, as though the rest is undeserving of being named?

If it is in the moment of beholding that we find ourselves truly held, then why would we avert our gaze from the moments that leave us most in need of an embrace?

There is beauty to behold even in the dark, even in the broken, and if we’re willing to look straight at it, to engage what we see with all the parts of ourselves, we’ll find that the beauty we encounter there will change us. And as we courageously behold, we will find ourselves held.”

As I reread my own words, I realized that the key to engaging in the past, present, and future in a healthy way just might be taking the time to behold. To behold our past–the hard AND the beautiful–is to observe it, to contemplate what it had to offer and to teach us, to honor it and find ourselves held within it as we remember. We have to look at it with courage in order to be changed by it. The same goes for our present. Staying awake to the moments of our lives, pausing to take them in and to discern the deeper meaning is another way that we learn. And we have to also be willing to look up when we hear the “Behold!” that beckons us into our future.

Each of our journeys is a dance. There are rarely either/or options. More often, we have the opportunity to engage in a both/and way of being in the world. Beholding offers us a way to look back in a way that can propel us into our future.

We need to know, though, that there is a massive difference between beholding something for a moment and allowing something to take hold of us. Pastor John asked us to consider what has taken hold of us, what might be growing roots in us. If our answer is anything but Jesus, we’re in danger of not being able to move forward.

I wrote these words as I prepared to make the transition from summer into fall, and I’m asking the same questions again now as we approach a New Year:

“What am I refusing to fully let go of as the next season presses in on me? What weight from yesterday am I carrying? Is there something I’m holding onto that will inhibit new growth in the days ahead? How do I stay connected to the learning, to the beauty and the process of seasons past and move forward fully yielded to the process?”

May we all be willing to ask ourselves hard questions, and willing to answer them honestly. May we behold our yesterdays and our current circumstances with the intention of learning and remembering how we’ve made it this far. And may we step with courage, with arms boldly outstretched toward whatever comes next because we have a God who is Emmanuel–God with us. He is the one who goes behind and before us, the one who calls us into our future and asks us to trust that he will walk with us and carry us–no matter what that future holds.

As Dallas Willard articulated so well, “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.” We get to decide if we will behold and learn from or dwell on and long for what once was. We have to look back in order to learn–but we don’t have to carry what we find or let it take hold of us. We get to choose. May we choose well as we move into this new year. For those of us who had a brutally hard year and those of us finishing the best year of our lives, I pray these words over our next year, from the song I referenced earlier:

Light up this broken heart and light my way
‘Til my time on earth is done
Oh, Holy Spirit
Breathe in me like Kingdom come

Oh, Holy Spirit
Let Your work in me be done…

Let your work in us be done…

–Laura

There is always the possibility of newness when one is in a relationship with God. Each new second can bring a new beginning. Each new day. Each new week. Each new year.

The new year, of course, is the time when everyone is focused on change, on resolutions, on how things are going to be different from this point forward, so I sit here and type on New Year’s Eve day, the end of 2019, the beginning of  2020, with lots of mixed emotions. 2019 was a difficult year on almost every front in my world. Yes, there were moments of beauty: a precious new granddaughter, even a miracle that I saw up close as God healed one of my children who could have died or had limbs amputated, but there was also a lot of hard–really hard, and some of that goes right with me into 2020. So, like Laura, I sit on the cusp of this year with some trepidation.

I’m not the type to put too much emphasis on resolutions or New Year’s celebrations; however, as I typed out the word “resolution” above, I was struck by its two components: re and solution. Re means “again” or “again and again”. Solution comes from the Latin word “solvere” which means “to loosen (solve)” (etymonline.com). To make a New Year’s resolution means to try to loosen something, to try to solve something again. In light of our verses from Philippians, this takes on new meaning for me this morning.

As Pastor John shared his message, he brought up a strange account from the book of Genesis about “forgetting” the past. It’s the account of Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt as she looked back while fleeing her city. I won’t even begin to try to explain that; however, Pastor John said that her looking back wasn’t like a glance in a rearview mirror; it was a longing for. She didn’t recognize that she was being saved as she left the past behind. She set her heart and her mind on her past and longed for it. Metaphorically speaking, being turned into a pillar of salt meant that she was stuck, there would be no new for her, her longing for the past left her immobile, unable to move forward.

As I pondered that thought, my mind went to something that I learned in counseling a few years ago. My counselor used an illustration in talking about our pasts–she said to think of our memories like our own personal DVD library. The stories that make up the library are our memories and will be part of our story forever.  We can remember them as part of the overall collection–one story of many, or we can choose to put one in the DVD player, press play, and watch it over and over. In other words, the Dallas Willard quote that Laura wrote above “The primary freedom we have is always the choice of where we will place our minds.”  is key to whether we stay stuck or move forward.

The Buechner quote is also key: “The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.”  

We are all becoming something–all of us being transformed–but in what way?

Looking back is necessary, but “living” back is detrimental. Looking back allows us to find healing, to find re-solutions as we loosen ourselves from the old we are tied to, and looking back allows us to remember God’s faithfulness and see how He’s changed us over time. Remembering God’s faithfulness gives us hope for the future because we know that God will be with us.  Paul, in this passage in Philippians, is remembering what he had let go of and the call he was pursuing. That type of remembering was his catalyst for moving forward.

As is the case with lots of scripture passages, depending on which lens we look through, there can be different takeaways. Our passage (Phil 3:12-14) in the NIV translations reads:

 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead,  I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. 

Quick breakdown:

Not that I have obtained all this or have already arrived at my goal: back up a little bit in chapter 3 and Paul is talking about how he tried to earn righteousness before God in his former life as a devout, circumcised Jewish man and discovered that it didn’t work. Paul had learned that our right standing with God (and others) comes through faith in Jesus alone and through that faith, allowing God to work in us so we become like Jesus in his suffering, death, and resurrection. He was forgetting (letting go of) living a religiously law-based life yet knew that he had not become 100% like Jesus.

I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me: What did Jesus “take hold” of Paul for? If we look at Acts 9:15 we learn that Paul (Saul)  was “a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” and that Paul would suffer greatly as he carried out his mission. 

So when Paul says that he’s not there yet, that he hasn’t taken hold of it yet, he’s talking about becoming like Jesus. Jesus took hold of Paul so that Paul would take hold of Jesus and become like Jesus, through faith, from the inside out. 

So when Paul says that he is forgetting what is behind, he’s talking about being a slave to the law, to a behavior-based attempt to be in relationship with God. He’s pressing forward to become more like Christ as he fulfills his mission to carry the name and ways of Jesus to Gentiles, kings, and children of Israel,

In the original language, the word “heavenward” does not exist. Paul’s prize is not talking about going to heaven. Young’s Literal Translation words it like this: I pursue for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. High calling can be translated as “high invitation” or “high vocation”. The “high calling” of God in Christ Jesus is to become like Jesus–to die to self, to allow the Holy Spirit to live the resurrection life of Jesus through us (the same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead and lives in us (Romans 6:10)), and to pursue that high calling, full of faith,  with everything we are, no matter what our earthly circumstances look like. Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote Philippians, yet was still pursuing his holy invitation. 

What was the goal of the invitation Paul received from Jesus? To bear the name of Jesus, to carry the name of Jesus wherever he went–even prison. 

Is that any different from the invitation God has given to us? 

Romanian theologian and Pauline scholar Corneliu Constantineanu, writes: “In stark contrast [to the ways of Rome] the apostle Paul announces the real good news, the gospel–God’s action to put the world right, to bring his peace and justice to this beautiful yet fallen and corrupted world. He has accomplished this, not through violence and war but through the self-giving life of Jesus Christ. This is the astonishing story we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians–the significant and wonderful yet costly journey of God’s redeeming the world and bringing his peace and justice for the entire creation. Jesus, not Caesar, brings peace and justice! This is the good news of the gospel that we read in Philippians.”

This is what Paul had given his life to pursue–Paul’s self-giving life, the prize he was after, the race he was running–was about letting everyone know that Jesus brings wholeness (salvation), Jesus brings peace, Jesus changes individuals and Jesus changes the world. 

As we head into 2020, let’s look back to see what we are becoming in order to forget the things that have not made us more like Jesus, or to abandon the ways that we have not carried Jesus to those around us, or to let go of the ways we have not died to ourselves.

Let’s re-solution our lives by beholding God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and allowing God to transform us as we sit in stillness before Him, allowing Him to do deep work in us. Let’s pursue the high calling, the invitation of God, to join him in his mission to bring the ways of the kingdom of heaven to earth (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven). Let’s not get stuck in the past and beat ourselves up when we don’t get it right, but confess and move on into Christlikeness as we surrender our ways to his ways–even if it includes suffering.

None of us have attained it yet, but is becoming like Jesus the desire of our hearts? It’s a goal worth pursuing.

Laura ended her portion of the blog with these words:

Let your work in us be done…

May that be our prayer and our desire for 2020–no matter what comes.

–Luanne

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