This is Love Displayed

When did you first hear about the death of Jesus? When did you hear the word “crucified” for the first time? What were you told it all meant?

Who told you about Jesus? How did you feel then? How did it form your beliefs, or challenge them? What is your theology built upon?

I invite you to go back to the beginning. To your first memories of the story of Jesus dying on the cross. Spend a minute remembering, reconnecting yourself to that time in your life. Whether you consider yourself a follower of Jesus or not, I assume you’ve heard about him. Go back there… whether it was 50 years ago or 5 minutes ago, think back to how you were introduced to this story…

We looked at Mark’s account of the crucifixion story on Sunday (Mark 15:21-32). I think it’s safe to say that the story has become very familiar to most of us. As has the way in which we hear it. For most of us, we heard something about Jesus as children. And our understanding of who he is, who God is, and who we are in light of the story began to develop upon that first hearing. Whether we were aware of it or not, those earliest messages were lodged deeply into our minds, and all future messages would be either accepted or rejected based on how they aligned or competed with what we heard first.

So… What did you hear? And, how have your beliefs been built around what you first heard? Has your understanding grown or changed? Do you cling to one right way to believe? How do you feel when your beliefs are challenged or threatened? When someone presents a worldview that is completely contrary to what you believe to be the “right” way? What if I told you were wrong? About all of it? Is your heart beating faster even now, as you read these words? Yes?

Then you know how many felt when they encountered Jesus’ preaching. That feeling in your chest, the heat that is climbing up your neck and into your cheeks–the crowds that Jesus spoke to during his ministry could relate. Those who shouted “Crucify him!” probably felt the same heat–a heat that led to anger, rage, and eventually, violence and murder.

I know the feeling–I think it’s safe to say that we all do. It’s easy to get caught up in dualistic thinking. Black and white, right and wrong… And once we “know” what is “right”, we will defend it–often, at all costs–against what we, by default, deem “wrong”.

Before Jesus began his ministry, the Jewish people knew what was right. They lived according to the Law of Moses, the ten commandments, and the other 600+ commandments that were written into the Hebrew scriptures. They were highly religious people who were waiting for their promised Messiah–the one who would come and fulfill all of their expectations. He would be a conquering king who would free them from Roman oppression. He would enact retributive justice against their enemies and his military might and political power would be superior to any the world had ever seen. Never mind that prophecy painted a picture of a humble, servant king–they had heard from their earliest days that a king was coming who would rescue them. And so they waited, longing for this king.

Jesus burst onto the scene proclaiming an upside-down kingdom in which the meek, humble, poor, broken, sick, and marginalized were elevated while the rich, powerful, and righteous were brought low.

The blood of many boiled. Their hearts raced. Their palms got sweaty. The lump of rebuttal grew in their throats until it exploded–over and over again–in anger and accusation. Never mind that it was the son of God challenging their beliefs–the sky could have split and the blinding light of a thousand angels could have descended around them and many still would not have changed their minds. These people saw Jesus turn water to wine, heal the crippled and the lepers, raise people from the dead… Why was none of this sufficient to move their understanding? Because…their beliefs were too important to their identity… To their livelihoods... To their maintaining their power and credibility. To their alignment with the “right” side of the argument. Jesus didn’t fall in line with what they’d always been taught, with how they’d always done things before, with the laws and sub-laws, with their understanding and their priorities & agendas–so they had to come against him with everything they could muster. Because… if they were right, that meant Jesus was wrong.

I think it’s possible that we cling to our understanding of the “Easter” story in a similar way…

The story of Jesus’ death is foundational to our faith, so we cling to a rigid understanding that we heard–probably as children–and we refuse to bend our ear to hear the story afresh, to consider that there may be more to the story than what we’ve grafted into our teaching and our learning.

Pastor John suggested in Sunday’s message that we’ve focused on the “price paid” and lost sight of “love displayed”. I agree. We have built for ourselves a transactional faith, a punitive system, a “tit-for-tat” understanding. We, as humans, have a ravenous desire to make sense of things… humanity has always had this desire. Even though many of us have committed to memory, “Lean not on your own understanding…”, this is exactly what we do. And our understanding, like that of the first hearers of Jesus’ message, is so terribly incomplete. Biased. Filled with expectations and selfish motivations. Infantile in regard to the higher thoughts and ways of our trinitarian God. When something doesn’t make sense to us, we grasp at plausible explanations, we use terminology we understand, and we minimize the mysterious to fit into our iron-clad boxes of belief. Until we experience something so other, so beyond, that it explodes our boxes and wakes us up to what we couldn’t see before.

I think this happens over and over again as we journey with Jesus… I think it is the only way we grow beyond ourselves…

Jesus knew that those in the crowd on the day of his crucifixion were trapped in iron-clad boxes built of tradition, law, power, nationalism, control, fear, violence, retribution… He knew they expected a powerful king to ride in on a magnificent white horse and rescue them.

He did come to rescue them. And us. And all of humanity. But not in the way that anyone expected…

In verses 31-32 of chapter 15, Mark writes:

“…the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.”

They did see something that day, something that, through the ages, would compel many to believe. But they didn’t know what they were seeing, and what they thought they saw wasn’t what they wanted to see. They wanted to see power and might displayed, a display that would have fulfilled their expectations of a strong king…

We have been taught to see a suffering savior, whose blood made a way for our forgiveness and salvation, whose death for our sin pacified an angry God whose ability to forgive depended on the shedding of blood. Seeing this way satisfies our transactional, punitive, retributive, dualistic understanding. In a world where the strong and powerful rule, where violence is controlled by larger displays of violence and military might, a “price paid” understanding of the cross wins the day. It satisfies our need for vengeance and justice.

And it minimizes the extravagant love of our God. 

When we focus on the “price paid”, as many of our hymns and worship songs, as well as many sermons–old and new–do, we lose sight of the “love displayed”. What the crowd around Jesus actually saw–without being aware of what they were seeing–was the self-emptying love of a Creator who allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by his creation. They saw one who far exceeded their expectations of a powerful king, because only self-sacrificing love could look out from the cross with forgiveness in his eyes. They saw the only force powerful enough to change the course of our violent humanity–an unabashed display of perfect love. As they called out in mocking tones for Jesus to break free from the bondage they had put him in, they didn’t realize that his refusal to come down meant they could be freed from their bondage–bondage to the kingdoms of this world and all of the violence it causes.

This is what they saw–but they couldn’t see it in the moment. 

So…what do we see when we look at the cross? Do we see the price paid or the love displayed? Our answer determines how we see God, how we see others, how we see ourselves… If we are to follow Jesus, to live into his likeness as we grow in him, then it matters how we see this monumental event.

What do I see today? Self-emptying love, an extravagant love that neither plays the victim nor creates victims, but is willing to lay one’s own life down to show that there is another way to live. I see that restoration is more beautiful and more loving than retribution. That justice is actually Shalom–a return to wholeness, to all things being set right according to the restorative nature of our creator. This is what I see today. Am I right? I don’t know. But seeing this way… it is changing me. It is changing how I see God, how I understand the kingdom Jesus came to deliver to our hurting world, how I see those around me, and how I understand my own role as a Christ-follower. Self-emptying love is not a watered-down understanding of the cross–not to me. To me, it is the most demanding, most beautiful, most connected way to live this life. It makes me kinder, more loving, and I hope, more like the Jesus who keeps showing me how to do it. 

What do you see? How does what you see guide your life? Your interactions? Your decisions? Is what you see the same as it was all those years ago, when you first heard the story of the Jesus on the cross? Or has your understanding changed? There isn’t a right or wrong way to answer these questions. We are all going to see a little differently because we are unique creations and we each relate differently to our creator. That’s what makes community so beautiful, so vibrant–the unique perspectives we each bring that challenge our biases, our assumptions, our expectations, our world views. Somewhere along the way, this became threatening and we stopped asking questions. We decided that if we didn’t all see exactly the same way on every point that gave our group our identity, the defectors were wrong, heretical, and doomed to our idea of hell. This is the mindset that led to the murder of our Jesus. It’s what leads to praying for and enacting violence and murder upon our “enemies” today…

Jesus showed us a different way… will we see it? Do we have eyes to see his love displayed?

–Laura

Mark 15: 21-32, our passage from Sunday, begins with Simon from Cyrene being drug into the madness that was happening as Jesus was on his way to be crucified. Nothing in the passage suggests that Simon was even watching;  Mark words it like this: He was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. (v. 21)  Simon was sucked into the story and couldn’t escape. Do you ever wonder what he must have been thinking? The violence of the world affects all of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Somehow, either by being willing participants, silent observers or those just trying to pass by, we can’t escape the madness of the world’s systems. The only solution to all of the crazy is the love of God displayed, which stands in stark contrast to the ways of the world.

Laura emphasized God’s love on display as the focus of Jesus’ crucifixion. I agree with her and believe that to focus on the love of the cross is to open the door to abundant life living.  The thread that weaves itself throughout all of scripture is that God loves his creation. He loves us; the desire of his heart is that we know how loved we are and then respond to that love by learning to love ourselves and others as his fearfully and wonderfully made masterpieces.   (Eph 2:10; Ps 139:14).

Choosing to focus on the extravagant, unfathomable display of God’s love contrasting it against the horrors of the crucifixion scene changes everything, including us.

Jesus himself said: Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:13)

Romans 5:8 tells us: God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

While we were still sinners. While all those who were perpetrating all of the madness of his mock trial, false charges and crucifixion, God was demonstrating his love for them. While we live our self-absorbed, personal agenda, me-first lives, God demonstrates his own love for us.

One of the most familiar Bible verses of all time tells us that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16).

Asking Laura’s question from above, what portions of those three verses have you been conditioned to emphasize? For me, it’s “lay down his life”, “sinners”, “whoever believes”. However, I think if we begin to emphasize God’s love, we will see a different kind of fruit than we are currently seeing.

As Pastor John was preaching, I was struck by the religious leaders conversation amongst themselves. In verse 32, as they continue to support their own superiority and moral authority they say to one another Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.  

That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That we may see and believe. That he do it our way according to our expectations, meeting our approval.

According to Strong’s Concordance, the word believe means to commit oneself to. I recently read that in early Christianity the understanding of the word “believe” was to give one’s heart to. Pause there for a second; think about some verses you know that incorporate the word believe and substitute “give your heart to”, or “commit oneself to”.

So, after all that the Pharisees and teachers of the law had seen in Jesus’ earthly life, they continued to mock him by saying let him come down, save himself, and we’ll commit ourselves to him…ha!  They had no intention of committing themselves and their hearts to him, proven by the fact that after the resurrection they created all kinds of conspiracy theories and lies in order to maintain their position of power.

In today’s western Christianity, oftentimes to believe means to submit yourself to a system of doctrinal phrases. You can Google search lots of churches these days. Most of them will have a page that says “What we believe” or “Statement of faith”–something like that. Most of those pages are a list of doctrinal statements.  I don’t know what every church’s doctrinal page says, but wouldn’t it be beautiful if one of them said: We have given our hearts to the truth that God is love, that he loves you, he loves us, he loves everyone in the world and he wants us to live Spirit empowered lives that demonstrate his love to everyone everywhere.

Emphasizing God’s love for us, in us and through us would change everything.

During the Easter season, there are those who will pray at the foot of the cross and watch movies about the crucifixion in order to be reminded of how depraved they are in their flesh, and how much Jesus suffered for them. I’m not denying that we all have issues, but I think if we stay stuck year after year in our own depravity our focus tends to remain on ourselves.  What have we given our hearts to?  Our own depravity or the love of God who highly esteems us, who has made us new and has called us his beloved children?

Last week I included a quote at the end of my portion of the blog that I am going to include again–who knows– it may appear next week too:

Clare of Assisi…saw in the tragic death of Jesus our own human capacity for violence and yet, our great capacity for love…Discovering ourselves in the mirror of the cross can empower us to love beyond the needs of the ego or the need for self-gratification. We love despite our fragile flaws when we see ourselves loved by One greater than ourselves. In the mirror of the cross we see what it means to share in divine power. To find oneself in the mirror of the cross is to see the world not from the foot of the cross but from the cross itself. How we see is how we love…” (Delio, Making All Things New).

I tried to do that this week, to look at people from the vantage point of the cross. One moment was especially interesting. I was on a train with a man who was either psychotic or very high. He wanted to sit near us, and truthfully, it was a little unnerving when he asked if he was welcome there. His behavior was unpredictable, but all of a sudden I was reminded to look at him from the vantage point of the cross. What would Jesus be thinking about this guy?  Immediately my heart moved from fear to compassion. I said a prayer for him, and could feel my entire insides softening toward him. To see the world from the cross itself, the display of God’s love, changes everything.

Is our focus on wrath or love, retribution or restoration, self or others, punishment or forgiveness, depravity or fullness, fear or peace, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God?

How we see is how we love.

–Luanne

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Grace (Like Never Before)

This week, we jumped back into Mark to continue exploring the stories of Jesus and how, when he showed up, he began to do things differently–like they had never been done before. We’ve taken a long look at joy, compassion, forgiveness, and hope. This week, we turned our attention to grace. This concept may have been the most shocking one of all, because it stood as an affront to everything they’d been taught–their entire way of life under the law. In the gospel of John, John writes it this way:

“For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”     (John 1:17)

But the people around Jesus, especially those who had built their lives upon the law, struggled to see this beautiful new way of being that Jesus brought into the world. The story we looked at on Sunday highlights the Pharisees’ focus on the law, and their lack of understanding about grace…

One Sabbath day as Jesus was walking through some grainfields, his disciples began breaking off heads of grain to eat. But the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”  Jesus said to them, “Haven’t you ever read in the Scriptures what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He went into the house of God (during the days when Abiathar was high priest) and broke the law by eating the sacred loaves of bread that only the priests are allowed to eat. He also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!” (Mark 2:23-28)

We find this story immediately following the one in which the Pharisees questioned Jesus about why his disciples weren’t fasting. Do you recall how that story ended, the words that Jesus said? He said, in verse 22,

“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We have already seen, in the first two chapters of Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduce a whole new way of thinking and a whole new way of being in the world. He calls it the kingdom–and he takes his listeners one step further with every encounter they witness. The stories build upon each other (Jesus is a brilliant teacher!), but few were able to listen and learn in such a way that they could follow the plot line. In the verse above, Jesus eluded to the new that he brought into the world not being able to fit within the old containers they were accustomed to. John 1:17, the verse I started with, highlights the tension. The old way was the law of Moses. The new way, the way of the kingdom, included the perfect balance of grace and truth–grace that is only possible through Jesus, outside of the constraints of religious laws and rituals.

The Pharisees, though, weren’t interested in the new wine Jesus was offering…

…And sometimes we aren’t, either.

It’s not fun to look for ourselves in the personalities we’ve come to disdain on the pages of scripture. We’d much rather see ourselves in the faces of those Jesus healed, in his disciples who (albeit, imperfectly a lot of the time) followed him, and sometimes, in Jesus, himself. But if we’re honest, we might look a little more like the religious elite of the day–those who were considered expert and accurate expositors of the law. Those who followed Jesus and his disciples around looking for one misstep, pointing out each failure, and highlighting all the places the less-informed were falling short–

Those who really did not understand the power and the gift of grace.

This is the fourth story found in the second chapter of Mark. In each story we’ve seen the Pharisees in close proximity to Jesus and his followers, and repeatedly questioning them. First, they questioned Jesus’ authority in their minds when Jesus forgave the paralytic. Then, they questioned Jesus’ followers about why he would eat with tax collectors and sinners after the calling of Levi. Notice that they asked his followers about him, rather than asking Jesus himself. After that, they questioned Jesus about why his followers weren’t fasting in the way others were. Again, they didn’t go to the ones their questions were about–this time they went to Jesus regarding his followers. And here, in the final story in this chapter, they question Jesus about his followers again, this time making sure he sees what they see:

“…the Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look, why are they breaking the law by harvesting grain on the Sabbath?”

They begin their accusation with the word ‘Look’, alerting Jesus to what they are finding fault with, in case he is somehow unaware of the lawbreakers in his midst…

Pastor John said on Sunday, “Why were the Pharisees watching?” It’s an interesting question, especially as we look deeper into the story. The Pharisees were the religious elite, the teachers of Mosaic law as well as other traditional laws not found in the scriptures. Their strict adherence to laws regarding fasting, purity of food, and the observance of the Sabbath set them apart. Their focus was on the rules and the traditions–especially in regard to the holiness of the Sabbath. The one original law, “Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” (Exodus 20:8, NLT), had become 39 individual laws. In the disciples grain-picking actions, they had broken four of the 39 laws.

The really sad part of this is, the Sabbath was given to humanity by God as a gift–not as a burden or a ritual. It was intended to be a day of rest, a day with no work, for the purpose of resetting our focus and connecting with our Creator. We see in this story that it had become something very different to the religious elite of that day. It had become a day of duty, ritual, rules, and control. The Pharisees may have been resting from their regular jobs that they held in society, but they were in full-blown work mode when it came to their religious duties. They weren’t resting and focusing on God. They were focused instead on the rules, and on critiquing and judging the followers of Jesus (and probably everyone else, too), pointing out the ways in which others were falling short of the law.

Sometimes, our attention to the law is the very thing that causes us to break it…

Jesus responded to their question. He responded a few different ways… He reminded them of a story that they certainly knew, about David, one of their hero-Kings. And then he said this:

 “The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord, even over the Sabbath!”

He reminded them of the original intention behind the Sabbath commandment–rest from work and time to connect, refocus. He flipped what had become their script regarding the rules about this holy day. And then he tells them plainly that he has authority–even over the laws that they held so dear. Because he brought into our world new wine–the wine of the kingdom, wine that could not be held within the containers of the law–especially the impossible laws that had been added by the religious to God’s original instructions for his people. And this kingdom ushered in an era where grace would take over where the law had failed; where grace would make up for shortcomings and failures, and all the ways we could never get it right.

How sad that their focus on the traditions they held as sacred and holy prevented the Pharisees from seeing the Holy one standing among them…

How heartbreaking that religious duty and rule-following had so consumed their hearts and minds that their vision had become clouded with judgement and accusation, and they could not experience–much less offer–the extravagant beauty of grace…

Can we see ourselves making the same kinds of mistakes? Can we identify where church obligations and rule-following have become our focus, and ripped our vision away from the One we say we’re serving? Can we be honest about our judgement and critiques of other followers of Jesus who practice their faith differently than we do? Rigid respect of rituals will replace relationship–every time. Relationship with others–those we are to love–and relationship with Jesus–the One who calls us to that higher love and empowers us to live it.

We may not readily identify as those who hold fast to rituals and traditions, but many of us are consumed and controlled by our understanding of how things should be done–or how they’ve always been done before. We’ve talked since the first week of this series about the importance of being willing to “repent”–to change our minds. And this week, we have the same opportunity. To set aside our incomplete understanding and align our thinking with the mind of Christ. To allow his Holy Spirit to renew our minds. To accept that growing things change–and if we’re willing to embrace that, we’ll be changed day by day into those who look more and more like the One we follow.

Are we brave enough to take an honest look at ourselves, friends? To see where we look more like the ones focused on the law than like the One who offers grace? I pray that we can do this. I believe we have to do this–for the sake of the Church of Jesus everywhere, and for the sake of our witness to the world around us…

–Laura

I love what Laura wrote. Every word. We so easily forget how powerful grace is. We appoint ourselves as judge and ruler forgetting that in the new wineskin there is no place for that. Many in our church family have been through a study that begins by reminding us that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden–the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of life. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil leads to death. Jesus came to bring life, and in His life there is no room for judgement. That’s not our role in His Kingdom. Our role is to love God, to love ourselves with godly love, and to love all others as we carry this message of love everywhere we go. We get to choose which tree to live from, and sometimes we (I) swing back and forth between those trees multiple times in a quick minute. However, I’m probably not alone in being able to recognize that there is different fruit both in and around me based on which tree I choose to eat from.

What does that have to do with the message of grace?  Everything. I think that we all have a tendency to want the 39 rules that make everything black and white–do this, don’t do that. It feels easier to us that way. But it requires zero faith. We can follow rules without having any real relationship with God; however, life doesn’t happen in black and white–there’s a whole lot of gray, a whole lot that we don’t understand and will never understand. We’ve tried to systemize theology and tie it up in a nice neat explainable plan. I don’t think it’s that simple…

I was having a conversation with someone that my son was dating who said we have to learn to offer grace in the gray.  That phrase has stuck with me. Grace in the gray. God’s grace allows us connection with Him, the grace I extend towards others allows for connection with them. I feel fairly confident that picket lines, hateful comments, and feelings of superiority have not drawn people toward the love of God. Love extended, no matter the circumstance, has. We’ve got to do better.

A few days ago, a man with white supremacist ideology entered a mosque in New Zealand during prayer time and killed (as of this moment) 50 people.  That’s the tree of the knowledge of good and evil at it’s worst. The shooter thought that he and his ideology were good, that those who were praying in the mosque were evil, and that to kill them was a good thing to do. Last night I watched a video of Jews in New York lining the sidewalk outside of a mosque holding signs letting their Muslim neighbors know that they stood with them, that they love them, that they care. It’s easy for me to see which action will change the world for the better. It’s easy for me to see which action looks more like Jesus. Grace is love in action, and it showed up on that sidewalk between two faith groups that the world would like for us to believe hate one another. A few months ago when someone with white supremacist ideology shot Jewish people in the Tree of Life Synagogue, their Muslim neighbors showed up with signs, and support, and love. Grace is love in action. A year and a half ago, after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, a white supremacist’s life was changed because, as he spewed hate toward black clergy people, they responded by telling him that they loved him, that God loved him, and they attended to his injuries. A few days after the rally he sought out an African-American neighbor for a conversation, which eventually led to a friendship and a relationship with Christ. He is now trying to share the message of love with other people enslaved to white supremacy. Grace is when love shows up with feet, and hands, and heart, and tears, and joy, and solidarity, without judging, full of forgiveness, full of grace and truth. And what is truth? Jesus. Jesus tells us in John 14:6 that He himself is the way, the truth, and the life. God’s truth looks like Jesus. It doesn’t look like anger. It doesn’t look like condemnation. It looks like Jesus.

Sabbath is a gift of grace. Sabbath is a gift of life. Our culture doesn’t receive this gift well. In 2010 I attended an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality conference in Queens, New York, and one of the sessions was on the beauty and the importance of Sabbath. I found myself longing for it and purchased a book about it. For a season, I very intentionally set aside time on Saturday from noon on to “Sabbath”.  I loved it. The author of the book that I read (I’m not home so I can’t reference the book or author), was in Israel with her husband and talked about how beautiful the Sabbath day was there. No commercial businesses were open but parks were full of families having picnics, couples strolling by lakes, groups of friends fellowshipping and communing with one another. It was a day of community and connection. Sabbath begins on Friday evening and goes until Saturday evening, so on Friday evening they would have had their time to light candles and connect with God. There is a lot of beauty in that rhythm.

One of the things that I learned is that our work is never done. Sabbath doesn’t begin when all of our projects are neatly wrapped up. Sabbath is an awareness that the world will not stop turning if I don’t get my work finished. Sabbath is a surrender of my “to do” list, an acknowledgement that it is God who is sovereign and in control, and it’s okay for me to stop. It’s life giving to stop and enjoy God and those He has placed in my life. I believe that if we figure out how to have a few hours of Sabbath for rest, connection, and enjoyment, that we will become more grace-filled people.

Psalm 23 reminds us that God makes us to lie down in green pastures, he leads us beside quiet waters, he restores our souls. Grace comes from people whose souls have been restored by resting with (and enjoying ) God.

The ways of Jesus, those beautiful, gray, incomprehensible, grace-filled, faith requiring,  life-giving ways that we will never fully understand, will change the world for the better. Are we willing to let go of all of the “rules”—except for the rule of love—and move forward in the rhythm of grace?

–Luanne

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JOY (Like Never Before)

Once when John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting, some people came to Jesus and asked, “Why don’t your disciples fast like John’s disciples and the Pharisees do?”  Jesus replied, “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. “Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.” (Mark 2:18-22, NLT)

This short passage, which can appear a bit confusing at first glance, was the foundation for this week’s message. These five verses, Pastor John asserted, point us to joy–and show us the danger in making our religious rituals our focus.

Some people came to Jesus and asked… Who were these people who questioned Jesus? Our passage doesn’t identify them. Some translations use the word “confronted” rather than “questioned”, which could give us a clue about who they were. I think it’s also pertinent to our discussion to glance back at the previous passage and to look ahead to what comes next–setting these five verses in context will help us see what’s going on.

Last week, we read the story of the calling of Levi (Matthew), and the subsequent meal Jesus shared with him and his friends–the other tax collectors and sinners. When the Pharisees saw his blatant disregard for the Jewish laws and customs, they attempted to sow seeds of doubt among his disciples, questioning them about why their leader would do such a thing.

This week, just a few short verses later, we see “some people” questioning Jesus about why his disciples don’t observe the ritual of fasting that John’s (this is John the baptizer, Jesus’ cousin) disciples and the Pharisees observe regularly.

If we look ahead to the verses that follow this week’s passage, we see the Pharisees question Jesus again–this time regarding what they considered to be his disciples breaking the law of the Sabbath by picking grain. After this encounter, we see Jesus heal a man’s hand on the Sabbath–once again disregarding a tradition that had become a burdensome rule to follow.

All of these encounters happen within nineteen verses. Jesus calls a tax collector as a disciple. Jesus eats with “unclean sinners”. Jesus’ disciples don’t fast. Jesus’ disciples pick grain on the Sabbath. Jesus heals on the Sabbath.

And those who had made a life of keeping and enforcing the rules and rituals of that day had a big problem with what they saw as an affront to their traditions and laws. They wanted to silence this new voice that had exploded onto the scene; they wanted to catch him, defraud him, expose him… Somewhere along the way, they had forgotten that the rituals (which, as Pastor John pointed out, are not inherently bad things) were designed to point to–not to become–the real focus. Their traditions were originally intended to keep them aware of the God they served, and focused on his presence among them. Instead, it was their traditions that kept them from recognizing the presence of God sitting among them, as one of them.

In this week’s passage, “some people” asked Jesus a question regarding fasting, a ritual that the Pharisees had begun to observe twice a week–with very visible displays of their extreme devotion to “God”. Jesus answers their question a few different ways:

 “Do wedding guests fast while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. They can’t fast while the groom is with them. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast. 

He employs here an example that a Jewish audience would absolutely understand. A Jewish wedding was the culmination of great anticipation, and it was enjoyed by friends and family during a week-long celebration. The friends of the bridegroom shared in the couple’s joy–a joy that was made complete by their union, and celebrated in their presence. In the gospel of John, John the baptizer uses the same example when his disciples realize (with jealousy, confusion, and frustration) that Jesus’ following is growing larger than John’s. In chapter 3, verses 28-30, we read John’s response to his disciples’ concerns:

You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”

Both Jesus and his cousin John use the context of a wedding to describe the relationship between Jesus and his followers (what we now call the Church). Jesus was telling those who would listen: I am the groom and I am here. Now. Present with my collective bride. And my followers, the friends of the bridegroom? They can’t fast now, because they are celebrating the arrival of me, the groom, who has come to live among you and to bring you into union with my ways–the ways of my new kingdom that has arrived.

In the text, we don’t see Jesus giving them any time to react or respond before he launches into his next two examples:

“Besides, who would patch old clothing with new cloth? For the new patch would shrink and rip away from the old cloth, leaving an even bigger tear than before. “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. For the wine would burst the wineskins, and the wine and the skins would both be lost. New wine calls for new wineskins.”

We see Jesus, in these two examples, expand upon the first. He is doing here what we’ve seen him do throughout this study in Mark. He is inviting his hearers to change their way of thinking, to become aware of who he is and of the new kingdom that has now come. He distinguishes the new from the old not by calling the old “bad”, but by explaining–again, in terms they would understand–that the old ways could not contain the new. The old cloth of exclusive laws that had defined the Jewish culture up to that point was not compatible with the new, inclusive kingdom ways. The old wineskins that had held the wine of self-promoting ritual and tradition could not hold the new wine of upside-down, self-sacrificing love for God and all others.

His answer to their question was a progression. Why didn’t his disciples fast like the others? First, they recognized Jesus as the one they’d all been waiting for, and their joy was complete in his presence. He was there, among them, living life with them. Fasting was intended as a way to focus on God, a way to show devotion to him over the things of this world. And now Jesus, God in human flesh, was with them! Focusing on him meant being with him, listening to him, learning from him–to fast while he was in their presence would have been unthinkable. Secondly, because they recognized him as the groom–as the one they’d been waiting for–they were participating in the new way of living that he was teaching them. (The laws of this kingdom–love of God and love of others–were not new for Jesus. The way of self-giving love has always been the way of the trinitarian God among us. We couldn’t seem to grasp that, though, so Jesus came to show us what has always been his way…) Jesus was explaining to them that the original focus of their old rituals and traditions was present among them. But because their focus had shifted away from God and onto the rituals themselves, their old cloth was shrunken and could not be merged with the new fabric of his kingdom. Their old wineskins had lost their elasticity and had become hard and brittle. They could not hold the new, rich, full-bodied wine of the kingdom without exploding into pieces.

He was showing them a picture of their hearts and minds… They had shrunken. They’d become hard and brittle, unable to expand or bend. I see the example of the wineskin as yet another invitation from Jesus to those who continued to question him. He let them know that the new wine he came to bring would burst the old, would completely replace it.

Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if they had asked him for it? If they had said yes to this new wine and let it explode their immovable hearts and minds into a million pieces so that bendable, elastic flesh could grow where all the stone had been? 

Some of them did. Later, many stories down the road, we read the story of one such Pharisee, whose heart and mind were exploded by the new wine of the kingdom. We know him as Paul. These are his own words:

 You have heard of my career and former manner of life in Judaism, how I used to hunt down and persecute the church of God extensively and [with fanatical zeal] tried [my best] to destroy it. And [you have heard how] I surpassed many of my contemporaries among my countrymen in [my advanced study of the laws of] Judaism, as I was extremely loyal to the traditions of my ancestors. (Galatians 1:13-14, AMP)

Paul cared about the traditions and rituals more than anyone. He was consumed with zeal for the law. But we know him now as an apostle, as the author of much of what we call our New Testament. So what happened? What changed his mind? Once again, here are Paul’s own words:

The Gospel I preach to you is no human invention. No man gave it to me, no man taught it to me; it came to me as a direct revelation from Jesus Christ(Galatians 1:11-12, J.B. Phillips)

Paul experienced the presence of Jesus Christ himself. And rather than cling to the rituals and laws that he had been so focused on, he let the new wine of Jesus and his kingdom explode his old ways of thinking and being in the world into something brand new. And later, he would pen these words, that we have referred to a few times throughout this series:

I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13, NIV)

Hope. Peace. JOY…

Paul, when his focus shifted from the rituals and laws themselves to the One they were designed to point to, found that these–hope, peace, and joy–among many other things, are found only in the Presence of Jesus. They are cultivated by the power of the Spirit within us, but we cannot encounter them outside of the presence of the One who defines them.

We sang these words on Sunday:

I have nothing more than all you offer me;
I have nothing else that’s of worth to me.
I love you Lord, you rescued me
You are all I want. You’re all I need.

The rituals, the structures, the traditions, the way we’ve always understood and done it before–these will never bring us into joy unless we allow them to carry us into the presence of Jesus. In his presence, there is fullness of joy. Joy is an experience of the presence of our King, and cannot be experienced apart from him. No ritual–regardless of how good and how holy it may be–can bring us real joy. Only Jesus can do that. Our joy has to be in him–not in anything we do for him. If we try to find him in what we do, we’ll end up detached and discouraged. He is here. Now. His kingdom lives and breathes among us. His disciples were experiencing the fullness of that truth as he lived and breathed among them. We can, too. If we realize that there is nothing else worth having apart from him, nothing more than what he offers to us. If he is all we want, we’ll find that he really is all we need. And our joy will be made complete in him.

What rituals are you clinging to, as though they can bring you joy? What old wineskins are you drinking from? Where do you need the new wine of Jesus’ kingdom to pour in and burst old ways of thinking and being in the world? I pray that we will all become more aware of what we’re focusing on; and if we find our focus is anywhere but on Jesus, I pray we’ll be brave enough to change.

–Laura

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Last Words: Pontius Pilate

So far in this series, we have looked at some “last words” from the stories of Peter and Judas. This week, Pontius Pilate was our focus. Pastor Beau took us into the story of Jesus being brought before Pilate, the Roman governor, to be questioned and, ultimately, sentenced. We find this account in Matthew 27:11-26.

Beau has asked us a question in each sermon in this series. The first was, “Who is Jesus to you?” Last week he asked us to consider, “Which Jesus are you pursuing?” This week’s question is “What are you going to do with Jesus?”

This week’s question comes from Matthew 27:22, where Pilate asks the crowd,

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”

What Beau pointed us to in this story is Pilate’s indifference, and the danger of becoming indifferent in our own lives. Pilate had his reasons. He was caught between the people he was governing and the authorities he answered to. We know from historical accounts of his life that he was not well thought of. He had made some mistakes professionally regarding how he ruled and was now governing in what the Romans considered a  turbulent area-it was not a desirable assignment. He was being watched by both Rome and the Jews (especially the Jewish leaders) that he governed. He knew he was under a microscope and he was consumed with self-preservation.

Has our own need for self-preservation clouded our decision-making ability at times, too?

Because Pilate was stuck in a place of self-preservation, he couldn’t hear the voices of wisdom around him–even his own. His wife implored him to judge rightly. Verse 19 in Matthew’s account reads like this:

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him”.  

Pilate didn’t only miss the wisdom of his wife; he also ignored his own voice. We read in verse 18 that “…he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him”. And in verse 23, in response to shouts of “Crucify him!” from the crowd, he tries one last time to get a clear answer when he asks them, “Why? What crime has he committed?”.

Pilate seemed to know that Jesus was innocent from the very beginning of their exchange. And he never moves away from that belief as far as we can see in this account. So why, then, did he still hand Him over to be killed?

As it was last week when we looked at Judas’ story, the events of Jesus’ life and death were prophesied. We know that the prophecies had to be fulfilled. And God, in His sovereignty, knew who would choose to do the betraying, and who would ultimately hand Jesus over to be crucified. But we can’t forget that these men, these characters in the story had free will, just as we do. And there is value in taking a closer look at what motivated them–because, as we saw with Peter and Judas, sometimes the very same things that motivated them can be found within us. 

We talked earlier about Pilate’s indifference to Jesus. Jesus was nobody to Pilate. He didn’t know who He was. So it was easier for him to remain uninvolved, to bend to the will of the crowd. Because his indifference had a partner: fear. Fear is what drove him to be so concerned with self-preservation. And it is the perfect partner for indifference. Verse 24 reads,

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 

This combination of fear and indifference does to all of us exactly what it did to Pilate–it keeps us stuck. And it tells a lie that we readily believe. The lie is that remaining uninvolved absolves us of our guilt. Pilate bought this lie. He counted on it. But choosing not to get involved is always choosing complicity. Pilate, playing on the Jews’ own tradition from Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) tried to wash his hands of Jesus’ blood. But…

We cannot wash our hands of the consequences of our indifference.

And all the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matt. 27:25)

The people’s response here, I read it in an eerie tone… It is self-fulfilling prophesy and it is two-fold. Their hands would literally be covered in his blood. The responsibility was on them, the Pharisees, the Roman soldiers who would carry out the details of the crucifixion and also on Pilate, whether he liked it or not. It is also on each one of us, as it was the sin of all that His death paid for. What the crowd didn’t realize they were saying though, is what many of them would come to count on in the future, when the very ones responsible for His death would find life in His Resurrection…  “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” I believe that many of those who were in the crowd on crucifixion day later put their faith in Him as their Risen Savior. And the blood that indicted each one would become the blood that would cover them and set them free. Just as it does for each one of us that believe in Him as our Lord.

No matter how many times we wash our hands, we can’t get the guilt of shedding Jesus’ blood off of us. We can’t clean ourselves off. The stains are permanent… Unless we are washed by the very blood we shed. Only the blood of Jesus can absolve us of our guilt, our complicity in the literal shedding of His blood for our sins. But we have to choose to say yes to this Love that died for us. We have to choose. Indifference is a choice. We cannot stay indifferent without consequence. It doesn’t work that way. We have to answer the question Beau posed to us,

“What are you going to do with Jesus?”

We have choices to make. And Holy week, the time that we remember the road to Calvary, is the perfect time to consider our answers not only to this question, but to the others that Beau challenged us to dig into:

Will we betray Him? Or believe in Him?

Will we follow Him? Or fall away from Him?     

Will we leave Him? Or let Him be the Lord of our lives?

I hope that as we move throughout this Holy Week, we can all consider our own answers to these questions. That we will each ask the Holy Spirit to point out any areas in our lives where we’ve been indifferent or trapped by fear. I pray that our decisions won’t be driven by our self-preservation instincts, as Pilate’s were, but rather by our love for the One who loved us first. The One who surrendered Himself and allowed His blood to be shed by those who would be made clean by that same blood. What will you do with this Jesus?

–Laura

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Hold On: Habakkuk 1:12-2:20

Last week we looked at Habakkuk crying out to God about the violence and injustice taking place in his own nation—he wondered how long God was going to let it go on. God responded by saying Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. (1:5) And then God goes on to tell Habakkuk that the utterly amazing thing He is going to do is let their enemy, the Babylonians, wipe them out. I don’t know about you, but that’s a hard thing for me to wrestle with. I want God to just fix things and make it easy on us. However, even my own life experience demonstrates that hard things come—sometimes as a consequence of my own choices, sometimes as a result of the choices of others, and sometimes just because we live in a fallen world. It’s never pleasant. It’s never what we hope for. It’s never part of our plan. However, God allows hard things. How we respond to those things shows us a great deal about our relationship with God.

How does Habakkuk respond to this revelation that God is going to allow them to be totally destroyed by their enemy?

He acknowledges God’s sovereignty. In verse 12 he says LORD, are you not from everlasting? My God, my Holy One, you will never die. You, LORD, have appointed them to execute judgement; you, my Rock, have ordained them to punish. Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.

He acknowledges that God is eternal, that God is Holy, that God is judge, that God is his Rock, that God is pure, that God has a plan—and then he, Habakkuk, asks more questions. I love that about Habakkuk. He is not afraid to ask.  He is not asking out of faithlessness, he is asking the God that he trusts to help him understand—he is asking his “why” questions—but again, not out of faithlessness. This is is such an important point for us to think about.

I imagine that all of us have had seasons in our lives when we don’t understand, (or like) what God is allowing. I believe that scripture shows us that it’s absolutely okay to take our very honest questions to God. What’s true is that He knows our thoughts, He knows our hearts, so trying to pretend like we don’t have questions when we do, is an exercise in futility. The most alive, real relationships are honest and authentic. That includes our relationship with God. However, there is a huge difference between asking from a place of faith, and asking  from a place of faithlessness. Without faith it is impossible to please God. (Heb. 11:6)…even in our questions. How do we see God? Are we willing to let Him be God and trust that He is working out His plan, even in the devastating moments of life?

I had a long season when I didn’t do this well. My mother died when I was 11. I was raised in a very godly home, and had been taught that God is love (which is true); however, in my mind, a loving God would not have allowed my mother to die, so I spent the next 10 years of my life wrestling against God. I was going to show Him—make Him pay for doing that to me—but all I did was make self destructive and others destructive choices which led me absolutely nowhere good.

God continued to pursue me throughout those years, and at times I would move toward Him, but because I had an inaccurate view of Him, and still harbored resentment toward Him,  I returned over and over to distancing myself from Him. When I was in my early twenties I got held up at gunpoint. I’m going to rewrite that sentence—when I was in my early twenties, God allowed me to be held up at gunpoint. It was a strangely wrapped gift.

The young man who held me up was quickly apprehended. My friend who was with me and I went to night court, identified the young man, and then I headed home. I called my parents (my dad remarried when I was 12), and got into bed replaying the events of the night— remembering the gun against my belly and the fear. All of the “what could have beens” began going through my mind.

In that moment, God spoke to me very clearly.

He asked, “If you had died tonight, is this the legacy you would have wanted to leave?”

 What a question—and what an easy answer. No. Absolutely not. Self destructive party girl was not the legacy I would have wanted to leave. The following morning I began making different choices—new friends, new place to live, and new pursuit to get to know God.

An accurate view of God is crucial in hard seasons.  My choices, because of my inaccurate view of God, led me to some very dark places.

How do you see Him? When life gets hard do you lean into Him, or push Him away? Do you ask questions or give Him the silent treatment?

Habakkuk asked his questions, and then climbed up on a high place to look and to see what God would say to him. (2:1)

God responded. Not only did he respond, but he asked Habakkuk to write down what He said so that others could also see it. God told Habakkuk that the revelation has an appointed time, that it will happen, and that even though it lingers, Habakkuk is to wait for it because it will come and not delay. (2:2-3)

And then God talks about the enemy—that his desires are not upright, that he is arrogant and never at rest, that he is greedy and never satisfied, that he takes people captive—but the day will come when the enemy will reap the consequences of what he has sown—he will become the prey, he will be plundered, he will come to ruin because of his violence, injustice, bloodshed, exploitation of the vulnerable—the violence he has done will overwhelm him because he has shed human blood and destroyed lands, cities and everyone in them. (2:6-14)

Then God seems to shift gears and asks Habakkuk, Of what value is an idol carved by a craftsman? Or an image that teaches lies? For the one who makes it trusts in his own creation; he makes idols that cannot speak. Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’ Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’ Can it give guidance? It is covered with gold and silver; there is no breath in it. (18-19)

And Habakkuk responds: The LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.

Pastor John took us to 2nd Thessalonians 1:6 which says, God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you. In this instance, the English word “trouble” doesn’t quite capture the Greek word which means to be totally overwhelmed, under a situation that is so hard to bear that you can’t breathe and aren’t sure that you will survive. So Paul, who lives in a time when Christ’s followers are being burned alive, killed by lions in arenas for sport, imprisoned, beaten, tells the Thessalonians to persevere in Christ—that the day will come when God will trouble the persecutors. Our human response to this is “Yes!” And oftentimes we want to help God trouble those who have troubled us, so much so that those thoughts consume our minds and become destructive idols that we give our hearts and attention to. However, God never gives us permission to hold a grudge, to withhold forgiveness, or to get our own revenge. He wants us free. He wants us to trust Him to be just. He wants us see things His way.

Habakkuk, he climbed up on a wall to get a new perspective. He knew that even in the hard stuff, God was at work. He chose to look for Him, to look to Him, to trust Him. He recognized the violence and injustice of his own people, he knew that an enemy that was violent and unjust was coming their way to wipe them out, and he chose to trust God. Wow!

In my own story, I am now able to see that a wiping out is what led to new life. I’ve had more than one wiping out season. I don’t like them, but in retrospect, I can see how God has used them for my good and His glory.

I think part of life on this planet is knowing that hard, sometimes devastating seasons will come. What is our mindset about those seasons? Are we willing to wrestle with, not against, God. Are we willing to represent Christ during those times? Are we willing to handle conflict God’s way? Are we willing to recognize that ultimately our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Eph 6:12)   Are we willing to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us? (Mt. 5:44) 

This is hard stuff…nothing about our human nature will lead us to respond to those who’ve hurt us, or who will hurt us in these ways. It’s a Spirit thing. Are we willing to wrestle honestly with God, climb to a high place to see what He will say to us, and acknowledge that the LORD is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him.

He knows what He’s doing and it’s ultimately all about His glory.

For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Hab. 2:14)

Do we trust Him?

Be still and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth. (Ps. 46:10)

—Luanne

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Why Is It…?

Why is it so hard to love others?

Ron opened this week’s message with this question. Scripture is full of the Jesus’ mandate to love each other. In Mark 12:31, He tells us that after loving God, there is only one other commandment: Love your neighbor as yourself”. In John 13:34-35, He tells us, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another“. And in Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven”. And in John 15:12, Jesus says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you”. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but we get the idea. Jesus was pretty clear. We are to love one another.

So, why is it so hard? Ron gave us four reasons why it is challenging to love others:

We have to become vulnerable. 

We risk being rejected

It requires removing conditional barriers.

Some have never experienced authentic love.

When we choose vulnerability, we put our well-being in someone else’s hands. Becoming vulnerable not only requires lowering our defenses–it requires us to completely lay them aside, to open ourselves up to the possibility of being wounded. One way we can be wounded in our vulnerability comes in the form of rejection. I don’t know about you, but there is little else that has wounded me as deeply as being rejected for who I am. The pain is deep, and when we’ve experienced it once, we become wary of putting ourselves in any position where it could happen again.

But this is what love requires of us…

Choosing to love the way that Jesus calls us to love requires a willing vulnerability. A vulnerability that is keenly aware of the potential for rejection–but chooses to love anyway.

What does this Jesus way look like? Ron gave us some examples. Jesus love looks like…

…reaching out to touch the leper that society-and the law-had deemed “unclean”. (Matthew 8)

…choosing mercy over judgement when the law of the land required stoning the woman caught in adultery. (John 8:2-11)

Jesus stood in the gap for these two–and so many others that we meet on the pages of Scripture. He put Himself in vulnerable positions over and over and over again to align Himself with those who were even more vulnerable in society. He willingly stepped into situations where He would find Himself accused, mocked, rejected, hated. And He tells us to love others in the very same way. He asks us to lay down our defenses and stand in the gap in the name of loving one another,  loving our neighbor. And our neighbor is everyone. Everyone that bears the image of God.

As I listened to the message, I remembered a story from scripture that we don’t talk about all that often. But it is quite possibly the key moment in our even having most of the New Testament available to us today…

Not long after Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9), he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem. Here is the account from Acts 9:26-29, out of the Message:

Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn’t trust him one bit. Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus’ name. After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master’s name.

Saul had arrested, persecuted and sanctioned the murder of countless Jesus followers. He had a past. People were afraid of him-so much so, that many were unwilling to give him a chance. This is what he faced when he came to Jerusalem. His reputation preceded him.

But someone stood in the gap… 

What would have happened if Barnabas had been unwilling to be vulnerable, unwilling to risk his own reputation to vouch for Saul? Thankfully, we’ll never know. Because after Barnabas spoke up and stood in the gap for Saul (who would become Paul), Saul was “accepted as one of them” and he went on to plant churches and preach the Kingdom of Heaven and write a massive portion of our New Testament. All because someone was willing to oppose popular opinion.

Are we willing to do the same? Are we willing to vouch for the humanity of another when it means we may be criticized, rejected, even hated? To push back against the labels society has given–the way that Jesus did over and over again? So that someone who is even more vulnerable than we are might be given a chance, a fresh start? Will we choose to love by looking beyond the dirty exterior into the Image of God that all of humanity bears–the way that God looks beyond our own dirtiness to see His own image in each of us? I hope that we can say yes. Yes, we will choose to love the way that Jesus loved us-by laying our lives down for one another. By choosing vulnerability and risking rejection because we know that God’s love is the only thing that ever changes anyone. May we be vessels that His life-changing love can flow through to change the world…

–Laura

Ron’s question–Why is it so hard to love?  My answer–Because it’s stinking hard!

Loving God’s way is impossible apart from the Spirit of God. God’s very essence is love, so in order to be able to have godly love, His essence, His character must dwell in me, and in order for His character to dwell in me, I must be filled with Him. How I would love to say that I  live this way consistently–but I can’t.

I love that Laura brought up Barnabas and his vulnerability in being obedient to God by befriending Saul of Tarsus.   Acts 4:36 tells us that his given name was Joseph, but the apostles gave him the nickname Barnabas which means ‘son of encouragement’. In Acts 11:24 we learn that Barnabas was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith

I sometimes ponder, if my life was summed up in a couple of phrases–would full of the Holy Spirit be one of them?  Full of the Holy Spirit indicates full of love.

None of the verses Ron used in his sermon were unfamiliar, none of the verses Laura references above are unfamiliar, “God is love” is not unfamiliar. We know this in our heads, but living it out in our lives becomes intrinsically more difficult. When Ron talked about the way Jesus loved Judas, even knowing that Judas was going to betray him, it pierced my heart.  I pray for God’s love to reach members of ISIS, of world leaders, of human traffickers, but Jesus shared life with Judas, shared bread with Judas, didn’t talk negatively about him to the other disciples. He loved him. And I feel sure, if Judas hadn’t taken his own life, that Jesus would have gone to him after his resurrection and loved him then too–just like He did with Peter. It’s the close proximity people who challenge my loving well. If I think someone might hurt me, my self-protective barrier goes up, my wall goes up–and that’s not loving the Jesus way.

I think there’s an important nugget for us in the story of Judas.  Luke 22:3 makes it clear that “Satan entered Judas”, but what made Judas susceptible to that attack?  Was it a love of money? Was it frustration that Jesus was not setting up an earthly kingdom? Was he mad about not being part of the inner circle of Peter, James, and John? We don’t know. What we do know is that he separated himself from the rest of the disciples for a time. What were the disciples doing that day? Preparing for the Passover. What was Judas doing? Visiting with the Chief Priest and coming up with a betrayal plan, which ultimately destroyed his own life.

Here’s the nugget. We have got to guard our hearts fiercely! We have to stay connected to the body of Christ. We must be willing to ask the Holy Spirit to search us daily, and confess those areas that don’t line up with God’s desire, and we have to choose to love.  We have an enemy who is seeking people to devour (1 Peter 5:8), and the moment we let our guard down, we are susceptible to all kinds of destructive things.  Unfortunately, I know this from personal experience.

So, how do we choose love? How do we truly love God and love others–even our enemies?

I once sat across the table from a man who was going to lead a student conference for us in Brazil. While we were discussing things, he said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said that we are not capable of loving God the way God wants to be loved, so we must ask the Holy Spirit to help us love God well–to love Himself through us. Think about that for a second. Have you ever asked God to love Himself through you? I never had, but I think this man is right. God makes it clear that He loves us. Responding to that love with love is where it all begins–and it’s a Spirit thing…the fruit of the Spirit is love….(Gal 5:22) . 

So how does it happen? No doubt, there is mystery involved, but God tells us that we receive the Spirit of Christ when we receive Christ (Romans 8:9). We learn that the Spirit can be quenched (1st Th. 5;19) that He can be grieved (Eph 4:30),  that we can ask for Him (Luke 11:13), and that being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) is what we are to be about.   And the evidence that we are filled goes back to Galatians 5:22–His fruit will be evident in our lives, it will be the natural outflow–and Jesus tells his followers in Luke 6:43-45 and Matthew 7:15-19 that we will be recognized as His followers, or not,  by our fruit.

Paul tells us, in the famous “love” chapter (1st Corinthians 13) that it is possible for us to do all kinds of things, like speak in tongues, prophesy, fathom mysteries and knowledge, have faith that moves mountains, give everything we have to the poor, allow ourselves to go through hardship  but if we have not love…we are nothing. 

Then Paul describes what love in action looks like–patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not proud, not dishonoring, not self-seeking, not easily angered,  keeps no record of wrongs, doesn’t delight in evil, rejoices with truth, always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres,  – love never fails.  

Do we believe this to be true? Are we willing to step out of the self-righteous, hate spewing, grudge bearing culture that we live in–humble ourselves, choose the Jesus way, and let Him love through us, even if it costs us dearly?

Holy Spirit, we need your help! In this day of division, labels, hate, vitriolic  comments, may we, Your people, choose a different way by choosing to allow you to fill us and choosing to allow You to love others through us–all others. Your love is the only thing that will change this world. May we allow you to change us, and use us to love others well.

–Luanne

Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here?

Who Are You Church? Why Are You Here? What powerful questions these are! Shane made so many excellent points in his sermon, one of which was when things get confusing, muddled, lost in details that don’t really matter–asking ourselves these two questions will cut through all the fluff and get us back on track.

The beautiful verse mash-up that he read makes it all so very clear:

You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light, all who received him those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, members together of one body and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus, you are the body of Christ and each one of you is part of it.” (1 Peter 2:9, John 1:12, Eph 3:6b, 1st Corinthians 12:27)

Who are you church? Why are you here?

Church. No matter who you are, the word conjures up some sort of image, some sort of thought. To many, church is a building, a place to go. “I go to church at such and such a place.” To others it is a place to be avoided–”I could never go to church, I would never be accepted there.” To some church is the place that dictates the do’s and don’ts of life, and makes one feel guilty or self-righteous depending on the current behavioral score card. To some church is boring, irrelevant, not necessary. To others church is a habit, a social experience, an expectation. To some, church is the place to get the personal spiritual tank filled on a weekly basis. To others, church is an exercise in trying to pretend that life is perfect. But to those who seek, to those who pay attention to what Jesus teaches about this thing called church that the gates of hell will not prevail against (Mt. 16:18), church is a God-breathed, life transforming living organism, built on the foundation of Jesus,  infused with the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit to carry out the greatest mission of all—-taking the love of and the Kingdom of God to every person, tribe, tongue and nation across the globe, and every new believer becomes part of this living, growing organism. Peter tells us in 1st Peter 2:5 that we are living stones, being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood. Do you see yourself in that way?

I grew up in church, a great church, but it became routine and I was nominal in my relationship with God and His church, so I became dissatisfied and bored. In my young adulthood I took a few years off, which led me nowhere good. I had no idea how vital being part of a living church was to my emotional and spiritual health until I decided to step away for a few years. Once I made a total mess of things, and truly had nowhere else to turn, I timidly re-entered the community of Christ-followers, and was welcomed with grace and joy. I began to realize that the church is me. I am the church. So, if the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him, the question becomes am I doing those things? Once I figured out that the more I immersed myself in the true mission of Jesus and His church, the more fulfilling my life became. I was hooked.

Shane made the point that the strength of the church is defined by the connections we have– not by our programs, our budget, our building, but by our connections.
Connection number one is do we have a strong connection with the triune God–Father, Son, and Spirit? Connection number two, do we have strong connections with other people in the body? Are we making intentional time for one another, fellowshipping together, doing life together, encouraging one another, sharpening one another? And connection number three, are we bringing others in so that they can connect with God, connect with fellow believers, find freedom, discover their purpose and become part of bringing others in.  All three of these connections are vital to being a Kingdom church.

It is not possible to fulfill the mission of the church without going all in. That’s just what’s true. Jesus was very clear, and modeled very clearly that his Kingdom is all about relationships, and it requires denying ourselves, taking up our crosses and following him daily. (Luke 9:23). And you know what I’ve learned? It is not a heavy weight– it is a great joy. My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church. And there is nothing, nothing, nothing greater than getting to be part of God’s saving and transforming work in someone else’s life. There is nothing more fulfilling than being part of God’s global work of bringing His Kingdom of justice and love to the world. There is nothing greater than watching God break strongholds, chains, do the impossible, and blow minds with how truly great He is.

So–who are you church? Why are you here? Do you see yourself as a “living stone” a vital piece in His church? We’d love to hear your answers…

–Luanne

Luanne reiterated in her beautiful writing the three reasons Shane laid out for why the church is here:

“…the global church has the tasks of glorifying God and connecting with Him, of encouraging fellow believers, and of sharing Christ with those who don’t yet know him…” 

Shane spent a lot of time on the second point, encouraging one another. He reminded us of the definition of the word encourage–and I’m so glad he did, because I think we sometimes forget its full implications and end up operating out of a watered down understanding of what it means. The initial meaning is “to take heart”. But when it is broken down further, it means “to strengthen, foster or advance something or someone”.

If you presented me with the three points Shane made about why the church is here before I heard the message and asked me which one I thought was the most important, encouraging one another would have been last on my list. Because, obviously, connecting with God and glorifying Him and sharing Christ are the more important pieces of this puzzle… right? Encouraging one another can feel too inward-focused, maybe a little selfish… right?

I wrestled these thoughts through as I listened. And have prayed through them ever since.  And this is where I’ve landed–

We cannot successfully connect with God or share Jesus with those who don’t know Him if we haven’t first been encouraged by other believers.

I know that is a fairly bold statement to make, but stay with me for a minute…

As I prayed and wrestled with my own thoughts, I was reminded of my own journey with God, with faith, with church. How did I get to where I am today?

By the encouragement of other believers.

I am not talking about flattery, praise, “atta girls”. I am referring to the kind of encouragement Shane defined for us. The kind of encouragement that builds off of the love Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

How did Jesus love his disciples? That list is too large to cover comprehensively here. But it absolutely included strengthening what was weak in them, fostering an environment of growth and advancing them into roles and positions they could never have imagined for themselves. Through Jesus’s encouragement and example, they learned how to connect with God and glorify Him and they also learned what they would need to know to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth. The book of Acts records how essential encouragement, in it’s full definition, was to the early church:

 Acts 9:31: Paul was preaching and when he left, the church “was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit.”                                                                                                        

Acts 11:23: Barnabas (whose real name was Joseph, but he was so known for being an encourager that he was nicknamed “Barnabas”, meaning “son of encouragement”. How cool is that?? I love Barnabas!) encouraged early Christians in Antioch “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts”                                                                                                            

Acts 13:15: “Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak”                                                                                                                                               

Acts 14:22: Paul “strengthened the disciples and encouraged them to remain true to the faith”                                                                                                                                                

 Acts 15:31: People read the epistle and “were glad for its encouraging message. Judas and Silas said much to encourage and strengthen the brothers.”                                                    

Acts 15:41: Paul “went through Syria and Cilicia strengthening the churches”                  

Acts 16:5: Paul and Timothy visit “so the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.”                                                                                                                        

Acts 16:40: Paul and Silas out of prison…”they met with the brothers and encouraged them.”                                                                                                                                                

Acts 18:23: Paul went throughout the region of Galatia “strengthening all the disciples”

 Acts 18:27:  the “brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him.”  

 Acts 20:1: Paul in Ephesus, “after encouraging them, said good-by and went to Macedonia, “speaking many words of encouragement to the people”

These are a few verses from one book of the New Testament, but from this small glimpse, it is glaringly apparent how important encouragement was to the furtherance of the gospel in the early days of the Church. Jesus Himself had encouraged His disciples and Paul, and they were building His Church the very same way.

Earlier, I wrote that I have gotten to where I am today because of the encouragement of other believers. No matter what age we are when we meet Jesus, we all start out as babies in our faith. I won’t speak for anyone else here, but my personal experience was that I did not intuitively know how to connect with God or how to share Jesus with the world. I had to learn. And I am so grateful for those in my life who have been encouragers to me. Those who have strenthened, fostered and advanced me. Luanne wrote:

“My dearest friends, my closest relationships, are all people who I do Kingdom life with–the world can’t offer relationships like these. My spiritual growth, the woman I’ve become and am becoming are because of my relationship with God and with others in the church.”

“…the world can’t offer relationships like these.”

She’s right. It can’t. And it isn’t supposed to. We are to love one another and to encourage one another the same way Jesus loves us. And when we do that, we equip one another to reach the world around us and we learn how to better connect with God. All of which glorifies Him and shows the world around us what can happen when we encourage one another well.

So, which point is the most important? I have to say encouraging one another. Because it facilitates the other two points. Are the other two points more vital to Kingdom living? Probably. Definitely. But we cannot get there without first learning how. And that is taught the same way it was in the early church–through the encouragement we give one another.

How did you get to where you are? How has encouragement from other believers impacted your life and faith? We would love to continue this conversation with you!

–Laura

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