Roman Road Less Traveled: Life

Jesus was radical. Jesus was a revolutionary. Jesus was unlike any other teacher that had been, or ever will be. Those who encountered Jesus face to face, who walked with him, lived with him, learned from him, mourned his death, first doubted–then celebrated his resurrection, watched him ascend and received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit after his ascension, knew this.

Paul knew of Jesus, but saw Jesus’ ministry and mission as a threat to all he had built his life on–namely the Jewish law. Jesus, in Paul’s view, was a threat to his scripture-based life. If you know Paul’s story, you know that he was present, and gave his approval to the stoning of Stephen. Acts 9:1 tells us Saul (Paul) “was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers, so he went to the high priest…” and gained permission to head out on a mission of arresting and persecuting followers of Jesus. If you are familiar with the story, you know that while he was on his way to fulfill his self-appointed mission of violence, Jesus knocked him off his high-horse, blinded him, and introduced himself to Saul (Paul) as the one whom Saul was persecuting. That encounter with Jesus forever changed the trajectory of Paul’s life. Paul had been an agent of death–now he would be teaching what God’s radical love and grace look like, and what abundant life truly is.

Last week we looked at Romans 5:1-11 where Paul highlights the good news about hope and life and reconciliation. This week we move to Chapter 6. Paul, a trained attorney, is continuing to make his case for life. As a quick reminder, the “book” of Romans is actually a letter to a group of believers in Rome. It wasn’t divided into chapters and verses when Paul wrote it, so even though we are highlighting verses each week, we are taking into account the whole of the letter. With that said, I am going to back up to the part of chapter 5 that we didn’t cover last week. In 5:12-21 we learn that sin and death entered the world through one man’s poor choice. Paul writes: death followed this sin, casting its shadow over all humanity, because all have sinned…(however) there is no comparison between Adam’s transgression and the gracious gift that we experience. For the magnitude of the gift far outweighs the crimehow much greater will God’s grace and his gracious gift of acceptance overflowthis free-flowing gift imparts to us much more than what was given to us through the one who sinnedthis gracious gift leaves us free from our many failures and brings us into the perfect righteousness of God—acquitted with the words “Not guilty!...condemnation came upon all people through one transgression, so through one righteous act of Jesus’ sacrifice, the perfect righteousness that makes us right with God and leads us to a victorious life is now available to all! (5: 15-16; 18 TPT).

Note that the emphasis of the passage is not Adam’s or our sin–it’s mentioned, but Paul’s emphasis is God’s gift of grace, of acceptance, of exoneration and he continues this theme in chapter 6 which begins with a question: Now what is our response to be? Shall we sin to our heart’s content and see how far we can exploit the grace of God? 

Paul’s answer to his own question: What a ghastly thought! We, who have died to sin—how could we live in sin a moment longer?  (J. B. Phillips)

How would you answer Paul’s question? What does it mean that we have died to sin? What does it look like to not live in sin?

Paul continues to drive home the point that we must resist the temptation to revert to our own strength and live as moralists, legalists or “cheap grace” proponents. Moralists divide the world into good and bad behavior and try to be “good for goodness sake”. Legalists believe following all the rules and measuring their success by comparison to others makes them good–(and when they can’t meet their own standard they feel guilt and shame). Those who choose “cheap grace” believe Jesus’ full forgiveness means they can live any way they want to. All of these methods leave out a relationship with Jesus. Each one is focused on self and human effort (or lack thereof)–I can be good enough to be accepted, I can be better than everyone else and be accepted, or I am accepted and therefore can live however I want.

What does Paul, based on his own radical experience with Jesus, teach? Verses 6:3-4 say…don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were…buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life....

…or as the NLT translates it: …we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.

What does that mean? What does “baptism” mean? The actual definition of the word is:

  1. to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)
  2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one’s self, bathe
  3. to overwhelm

That may not be new information to anyone, but what I love is the history of the word that can be seen in the pickle recipe written in 200 B.C. by a Greek poet and physician named Nicander. The recipe contains two Greek words, the first being “bapto” which means to dip, and “baptizo” which in a moment will become more clear. To make pickles, first you “bapto” the vegetable in boiling water. Then it is removed and is “baptizo” into a vinegar solution where it stays and becomes something new–it is transformed–permanently changed. (blueletterbible.org)

The word Paul is using in Chapter 6 is “baptizo”–the type of immersion where one resides and that leads to permanent change. I’m reminded of Naaman in the Old Testament. He was a Syrian commander who contracted leprosy. His Jewish servant told him there was a prophet (Elisha) that could heal him. When Naaman sought Elisha, Elisha sent someone to tell Naaman to go immerse himself 7 times (the number signifying wholeness) in the Jordan river. Naaman was mad, he wanted Elisha to wave his hand and heal him instantly, so he decided he wasn’t going to do it–he was choosing sickness over immersion. His servants asked him, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” (2 Kings 5:13). So Naaman swallowed his pride and did as Elisha suggested, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. Total transformation.

Paul is telling us, in Romans 6, that the death of Christ is our gateway to total transformation. We are baptized into his death and then raised to live new lives as transformed people. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians tells us in 5:17 that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! (NLT)

Christianity is about life–it’s not about our sin or how wretched we are; it’s about our forgiveness, our healing, our transformation into Christlikeness…

Jesus tells us in John 17:3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent

…and in John 10:10  I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John wrote of Jesus: In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. (John 1:4)

Paul goes on to tell us: our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin…When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God.  So…consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. (6:6; 10-11)

And lest you be concerned that the work of transformation comes from human effort, remember that Abraham believed God, and God credited it to Abraham as righteousness.

Our part, in the journey of transformation is to believe God–not in God, but God. Part of believing is to renew our minds. Jumping ahead in this letter, Paul reminds us: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. (Romans 12:2)

And Jesus’ brother James tells us in James 4:8 to draw near to God and he will draw near to you.

I don’t know how it works–but I know in my own life, when I began to embrace the truth that God wasn’t disappointed in me, wasn’t mad at me, but loved me, accepted me, forgave me, saw me as right because of what God in Christ has done–not because of my own effort to be good enough– I began to really fall in love with God and to immerse myself in God. As that happened, I spent more and more time with God–and I am absolutely not who I used to be. I have been changed. I am still changing. God, who began a good work in (me) will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil. 1:6)

This God, who already sees us fully acceptable, breathes Jesus’ life into us through the Holy Spirit and gifts us with a beautiful, holy, inviting life-light, as he makes us whole, healing us along the way, and using us to invite others in.

God’s free gift of overflowing abundant Spirit-filled life begins as we get to know God the Father and Jesus whom he has sent. Immersion in God’s gift of life through death leads to transformation.

–Luanne

I had never heard about the pickle recipe until Luanne shared it above. I love it so much. She shared with us that when the vegetable (for the purposes of my next point, I’m going to call it a cucumber) “is “baptizo” into a vinegar solution…” it, “…becomes something new–it is permanently changed.” Permanent change. The pickle cannot be un-pickled. It cannot go back to its cucumber form. That’s the nature of transformation. Luanne used versions of this word at least seven times in her writing, according to my unofficial count. It is also the word I couldn’t stop thinking about as I listened to the message on Sunday morning.

When Pastor John talked about baptism signifying that we have a new life to live, transformation was all I could think about. That led to me thinking about metamorphosis–and, more specifically, about how metamorphosis turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you already know that Luanne and I like to write about butterflies. And you might also know that we have written about metamorphosis before–but not in the context of baptism. To refresh our memories, here is what I wrote two summers ago regarding this miraculous process:

“A caterpillar is hidden within the cloak of its cocoon. And while it’s in there, it literally dies. Its organs disintegrate, and from that soup of cells, a butterfly is born. When the time is right, the cloak of the cocoon falls away, and the beautiful butterfly is free to fly. Death and resurrection.” 

Death and resurrection…

Luanne wrote, “We are baptized into his death and then raised to live new lives as transformed people.”

The origin of our English word metamorphosis is in the Greek word metamorphoō. It means transfigure, transform, change. It is found four times in scripture. The second half of the compound word, morphoō, is found only once. Luanne already included one of the verses our word is found in, Romans 12:2. Here it is again in the Amplified Bible translation:

And do not be conformed to this world [any longer with its superficial values and customs], but be transformed (metamorphoō) and progressively changed [as you mature spiritually] by the renewing of your mind…  

Here another occurrence of the word in a verse that has been on my mind since Sunday:

And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed (metamorphoō) into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV)

These two verses use the word metamorphoō in relation to Jesus’ followers. The other two times it is used, it describes Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2:

And His appearance changed dramatically (metamorphoō) in their presence; and His face shone [with heavenly glory, clear and bright] like the sun, and His clothing became as white as light. (Matthew 17:2, AMP)

After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured (metamorphoō) before them. (Mark 9:2)

The one time the word morphoō shows up is in Galatians 4:19. Paul writes,

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed (morphoō) in your lives. (NLT)

Before we put all of this together, I want to show you two other translations of 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we all, with unveiled face, continually seeing as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are progressively being transformed (metamorphoō) into His image from [one degree of] glory to [even more] glory, which comes from the Lord, [who is] the Spirit. (AMP)

Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured (metamorphoō) much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. (MSG)

Metamorphosis is not instantaneous. It is a process. This is true for the caterpillar as well as for us. For the caterpillar, it is literally transfigured, which means “change the shape of” in its original Latin form (Oxford Languages). The caterpillar, hidden inside the cocoon, falls apart–all the way down to the cellular level. There, in that place of death where it is not what it was nor is it what it will become, its cells are restructured and its components are reconfigured. When the process is complete, the cocoon falls away and the brand new creation–the butterfly–is revealed.

What about us?

I want to go back to one of the definitions Luanne gave us for baptism earlier. She told us it can mean overwhelmed. Anyone other than me feel overwhelmed lately? Do we know what the word overwhelm actually means? “Whelm” by itself means: engulf, submerge, or bury (someone or something). That sounds pretty bad, right? Who decided we needed to add “over”? The definition for “overwhelm” is: to bury or drown beneath a huge mass, to inundate, to defeat completely. (Definitions from Oxford Languages) Yikes. Bury… drown… defeat completely. Sounds like death to me. Which is unlovely in every way I can think of except one. The way it explains what happens in baptism…

Our submersion in baptism–when we are engulfed, inundated with water all around us–it symbolizes the in-between, the “caterpillar soup” stage of metamorphosis. It symbolizes how, when we submit to the transformation process, who and what we used to be completely falls apart–down to the soupy, cellular level. It would appear that all is lost in that moment of defeat. But it is not. Instead, it is liminal space–the initial stage of what will be an ongoing process, where we occupy a position on both sides of a threshold, however impossible that seems. In that place, the energy of the life of Jesus infuses every cell, every broken piece, all the components of us–the good and the bad. When we are raised out of the water, it symbolizes the bursting free from the cocoon, as brand new creations. Death to resurrection.

Notice I said that Jesus’ energy, his life, infuses ALL of the components of who we are. We emerge with our stories intact–we are still who we are–and we are also brand new creations. The cells of the old us are the cells of the new us–same as the caterpillar/butterfly. But they have been altered, infused, transformed. We emerge the same person, but we are not the same.

This is what baptism symbolizes. Does all of that really happen in the short moment we are submerged in water? Yes… and no. I can’t explain it because it is beyond what we can know or understand. The act of baptism is an outward expression of inner change. I won’t pretend to know the order of things, nor do I believe one has to be immersed in water to experience the baptism of the Spirit that ignites the changes I described above. What I know is that baptism as we understand it is symbolic of the lifelong metamorphosis we experience as followers of Jesus. The caterpillar to butterfly change is not instantaneous. It is a process.

The verses I listed above tell us what our metamorphosis will look like over time:

We are transformed and progressively changed [as we mature spiritually] by the renewing of our minds. We are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. Our appearance is changed dramatically, and our lives are gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him. This process will continue until Christ is fully developed in our lives.

This is the transformation process that baptism symbolizes. The Spirit is the cocoon that holds all the parts of us as the life-energy of Jesus continually transfigures us into the image of his love. Once we say yes to being immersed in him, once the process of transformation begins to infuse every cell with his life, we cannot go back to the before. We are in the pickling process, and there is no going back. Once our components are altered, they cannot be unaltered.

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…

Luanne wrote this:

Christianity is about life–it’s not about our sin or how wretched we are, it’s about our forgiveness, our healing, our transformation into Christlikeness…

Our journey with Jesus is one of continual metamorphosis. We don’t get to fly out as a fully-formed butterfly in the middle of the story, yet we do experience the beauty of soaring under other wings from time to time. There is a both/and to our experience of death-to-life. But the moment we say yes to Jesus, the moment we are brave enough to fall apart, trusting that transformation is on its way, is the moment we begin to know–intimately, at the core of who we are–that, “Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country.” (Romans 6:5b, MSG)

–Laura

You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Heart Condition

Last week, we followed Jesus into Gennesaret and the surrounding villages. We found him in the marketplaces, healing the masses who flocked to him. This week, we saw that the sick and needy weren’t the only ones who followed Jesus.

Chapter 7 begins by telling us that the Pharisees–we don’t know how many of them there were–and teachers of the law came down from Jerusalem, a sixty-mile trip. The text says they “gathered around Jesus and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled...” (vs.2).

We’ll get to the agendas and motives of these guys in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the word “defiled”. The Greek word for “defiled” is “koinos”. It means “common; not set apart.”

Pastor Beau reminded us that these religious leaders always had an agenda, and we see Jesus call that out throughout the gospels. They had a way of honoring God with their words while their hearts were far from him. Jesus told them as much in this story.  They weren’t upset about dirty hands being unwashed as much as they were identifying that those hands had just been in the marketplaces, in the presence of those “others” that they kept themselves separate from. Many of their “laws” and traditions were put in place to keep them from being identified as common, from getting too close to those on the “outside” of their group. Their traditions communicated to those who weren’t set apart like them, “You don’t belong.”

These laws and traditions took up all their heart space. They didn’t have room within their many observances to love God or neighbor and, worse, they often twisted their laws in order to get out of showing love to their neighbors–even, at times, their own families. They used the “God card” to justify their intentions, decisions, and actions.

Can we admit that sometimes we do the same things?

Pastor Beau exhorted us to own our motives. He asked us if we are willing to look deeply into our own hearts and own what is behind our thoughts, intentions, actions. Jesus told the Pharisees plainly that it is not what goes into the body that makes one unclean, but what comes out. All forms of “uncleanness” proceed from our hearts.

Later, when his disciples asked for clarification, Jesus said, For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness.” Pastor Beau emphasized that this entire list can be done within our hearts–without us ever acting out any of them physically. These things can be kept hidden while, on the outside, we look good, holy, and godly. Jesus had some strong words related to this very thing in Matthew 23:25-26:

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

Jesus’ motives always centered around love and the kingdom he was introducing. It was a brand new way of relating to God and to one another–one not dependent on the observance of tradition and entirely uninterested in separateness. Because community is such a prominent value in the kingdom, Jesus flipped the script on religious exclusivity. He saw through the shiny, put-together outsides and focused on the inner motivations. His emphasis was always on loving our neighbors. He had no interest in lip service from those who sought to remain set apart from the commoners.

Pastor Beau invited us to examine, and then own, our motives. He then exhorted us to surrender our judgments. We can pass judgment as individuals, and as a community. Our judgement, as Beau pointed out, can be internal or external, and can be directed at others or ourselves. Regardless of what or who we’re judging, judgement leads to division. It separates–even if only in the depths of our hearts. What we believe and perceive about someone else–or ourselves–often leads to arrogance, an us/them mentality, and often, condemnation. We don’t have to look very far in stories that include the Pharisees to find this to be true. In this story, we can see that they held perceptions about, and judged, the “others”, the disciples, and Jesus. They traveled sixty miles to do it.

But the temptation toward judgment can be as close as our own skin. It takes work to lay down the things we hold onto to make us feel better about ourselves. Ultimately, that’s what passing judgement does. It diminishes one to elevate another. This gets tricky when the one we judge is ourselves. Thankfully, “God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17, NLT) Through him, we can learn how to lay our judgements down.

In Mark 7, Jesus models his kingdom way of interacting with the “other” when a Gentile woman came to him pleading for him to heal her daughter. As Pastor Beau pointed out, Jesus–exhausted and depleted as he was–engaged the woman in conversation. He acknowledged her presence, and listened–without judgment, with the intention of hearing her. At the cost of his own time away. We see Jesus do this over and over again in Mark. He was driven by love and compassion. Always. If we want to be like Jesus, if Christ-likeness is our goal, we must follow his example, and lay down our judgments, too.

Finally, Pastor Beau invited us all to embrace the process, and further, to embrace that we’re in process. The entire message touched me deeply, but this last point hit me in my core. Beau spoke about the way Jesus did things, how he moved in the world. He often did things that his followers–and critics–were surprised by. The ways he healed, how he engaged others, the tangible ways that he entered into the lives of those around him were often different than how people thought he should do things. We were reminded that even though Jesus performed instantaneous healing–miracles in a moment–these were a point in the longer stories of the lives of those he touched. The miracles were part of the process–they didn’t replace the process.

Beau encouraged us to not rush the process. He compared it to a construction site. He said that construction sites are generally unattractive. They are loud and messy. The work is difficult and dangerous. And, I would add the obvious, incomplete. If the project is finished, there is no construction zone. Beau asserted that most of us do not enjoy living in the middle of a construction zone. But, is there any other way of living as we journey with Jesus? 

This analogy hit me hard. I am constantly frustrated by construction zones, especially if the construction is of the road variety. These zones are inconvenient, slow, and often difficult to navigate. They re-route us around old, familiar ways. We cannot navigate road construction zones on autopilot. because the detours require that we pay attention.

If I apply the same principles to the construction zone that is my life, I am no less frustrated. The work seems never-ending. And that’s because it is. Life is a process. Healing is a process. Becoming whole, and living into the example of the one we follow is a process. The only way to circumvent it is to halt construction. To put away all the equipment, put up a decent exterior to hide the busted up inside and send the contractor away. This is one way we can fall into traditions and “laws” that keep the garbage hidden in our hearts. It’s how we end up passing judgement–we condemn the out-in-the-open messiness of another because we’re working so hard to conceal our own. These motives and judgements hinder the process–and often halt it altogether.

I don’t like being messy. I don’t love danger. Risk is hard for me. I have a tendency to agree with the things that have been spoken to me throughout my life and so, passing judgment on myself is pretty easy. I carry a lot of fear. And while vulnerability is a value I hold dear, one I try to embrace as much as I know how, there is a big temptation sometimes to erect walls around the construction zone of my life and hide safely inside.

Some people’s broken somehow looks fairly neat and tidy–that’s never been the case for me. The “house” of my life is constantly under construction. Sometimes, it takes the form of deconstruction, sometimes it’s reconstruction–which can often feel so much harder–but it’s a perpetual conglomeration of incomplete projects. Sometimes, the construction process gets even more tricky to navigate when an under-qualified sub-contractor (me) acts on impulse and tries to do the work that only the general contractor (His name is Jesus) is qualified to do.

Have I mentioned that I don’t love construction zones??

I’m going to have to learn how to do just that. We all are, if we want to continue our journeys with Jesus. Whether we like it or not, each of our lives is a construction zone. Some days, a project that was in shambles becomes whole, but we are still in process. Some days, there should be caution tape wrapped around every inch of us, but we are still in process.

And Jesus wants to guide the process. He’s the only one who can repair what’s broken without inflicting further damage. He doesn’t ever belittle our brokenness. He doesn’t shame us or condemn us on the caution-tape days. His way is always gentle, kind, full of grace and mercy and real, unconditional love. And he takes care to create beauty out of what’s broken. If we let him. 

Embracing the process means that we have to get comfortable with being real. And real can be messy. Earlier I mentioned that the Greek word for defiled actually means “common, not set apart.” There is a beauty in embracing our commonness, and that of everyone we encounter. The word itself, “koinos” is where the word “koinonia” comes from. This word shows up 20 times in the new testament, from Acts to Revelation. It means “fellowship, communion, intimacy.” 

I can’t express how much I love this. What the Pharisees wanted to avoid by maintaining their separateness becomes something the early church held dear. I think it is one of the clearest ways to see the difference Jesus’ way made in the hearts of those who chose to listen to and follow him. What was a dirty word, one that let people know how unwelcome they were, gave birth to a word that invited all into community. The community of the common. Because it’s never the traditions we keep, the judgement we pass, or the things we try to build on our own that make the common magnificent. Jesus is the magnificence in our commonness. Because he showed us that what was truly magnificent was living fully human and fully alive while in process. And when we do that together, the common turns into communion…

–Laura

The lifelong process of being transformed into the image of Christ is messy. Beau mentioned, and Laura expounded on the thought that construction zones are messy–they sometimes feel chaotic. For a gal who likes inner peace, the process can sometimes feel excruciating.

Laura, when writing about the Pharisees asked if we act like them sometimes. The answer for me is yes.  Yes, I do. I would rather not admit that; however, if I’m being honest, I know that it’s true. When Jesus calls the Pharisees “hypocrites” he is using the word “actor” or “pretender”.  An actor plays a role. Am I alone in sometimes portraying an outward self that is not congruent with my inward self?

Jesus doesn’t think too highly of the Pharisee’s acting. Beau reminded us they had lost connection with the God they served, and were merely going through religious motions–acting religious, yet creating self serving loopholes to benefit themselves. They had lost touch with their hearts.

When Jesus’ disciples asked him for clarification regarding his conversation with the Pharisees and teachers of the law, Jesus told them:  

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them.  For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (7:21-23). 

The heart–out of the heart–out of the center of our being comes all kinds of things. In Proverbs 4:23 we are told to “Watch over your heart with all diligenceFor from it flow the springs of life.” (NASB) Another translation says Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (NIV)

The prophet Jeremiah reminds us that The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9).

But we are not hopeless–the Prophet Ezequiel reminds us God said: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezequiel 36:26)

The heart and the mind are where much of the battle lies. Sometimes it feels easier to live with a heart of stone. A heart of flesh feels things.  A heart of flesh is pliable. Sometimes we just don’t want that. We convince ourselves that hearts of stone are stronger, that they protect us–but truthfully, they don’t lead us anywhere good.

Jesus tells us that out of the heart flows evil thoughts, and then he lists what some of those evil thoughts can lead to. To give us a fresh perspective, I’m going to write the list backwards.

Evil thoughts lead to:

Folly, Arrogance, Slander, Envy, Lewdness, Deceit, Malice, Greed, Adultery, Murder, Theft, Sexual Immorality

I don’t think Jesus’ list leaves any of us out. It seems to cover the gamut. Sometimes in our arrogance, we pick a few things out of this list to judge more harshly, but Jesus doesn’t make any distinctions. These are the things that flow out of the heart when we allow evil thoughts to reign. Yet, as mentioned above, if we care for our hearts, if we watch over them carefully, from them can flow springs of life.

Paying attention to the state of our hearts is crucial to growing more like Jesus. I sometimes want to self-protect and when I’m living in that place, it doesn’t take long for my thoughts to turn “evil”, and a critical spirit to take over. My heart begins to turn to stone. Part of construction is the breaking down of stone. I like to think of the Ezequiel verse as God gently removing the heart of stone and gently replacing it with a heart of flesh–and sometimes he does. Other times it feels more like the stone is being chipped away with a pickax as I resist his work in my life, and other times a full-on stick of dynamite is needed. Some days I go back and forth between flesh and stone. Grace helps me to remember that we are all in process, myself included.

Since the thoughts and heart are intricately connected, it’s wise to remember we are encouraged to ask the Lord to create a new heart  in us (Ps. 51:10), we are encouraged to renew our minds  (Romans 12:2), we are encouraged to think on things that are  true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable–excellent or praiseworthy (Phil. 4:8) and we are encouraged to have the same mind in us which was in Jesus. (Phil 2:5). None of this flows from our natural selves–we need the help of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to surrender to the process of becoming whole.

After all; we are all in process. We are all a construction zone. Laura wrote above:

“Have I mentioned that I don’t love construction zones??

I’m going to have to learn how to do just that. We all are, if we want to continue our journeys with Jesus. Whether we like it or not, each of our lives is a construction zone. Some days, a project that was in shambles becomes whole, but we are still in process. Some days, there should be caution tape wrapped around every inch of us, but we are still in process.”

Let’s learn to be gentle with ourselves in the process. Let’s learn to be gentle with others in the process. Let’s remember that when Jesus points out — “hey there beloved one–you’ve lost touch with yourself; you’re acting” it’s because he loves us and desires that we live from the authentic, unique, set free, place that we were created for.

Just like the Velveteen Rabbit in the old children’s story, becoming “real” can be really hard—maybe some of the “fuzz” gets worn off the outside of us in the process, we might not look as impressive as we once did, we might even feel discarded for a season…but for the rabbit, and for us, being made real opens us up to experience and to give real love–the kind that transforms us and everyone around us.

Are we willing to do a little excavation work and own our motives, surrender our judgments, and embrace the process? It may feel painful at times, are we willing to continue even when it feels hard?  Are we willing to do what it takes to remove our masks and get to authentic living and “real” love?

–Luanne

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