Roman Road Less Traveled: Chapter 10

As we move into chapter 10 of Romans, I want to remind us once again that this is a portion of a complete letter. I think we’ve said something about that every week of this series so far. Our repetition is on purpose. We want you to know, and we ourselves have to remember as we write, that we are breaking Paul’s writings down into parts of a whole. Each section must be considered alongside the others, set firmly within the context it was written. Why do we keep saying things like this? Because Romans can be challenging. The manner in which Paul writes can be confusing. And too many parts of this complete letter have been taken out of context and weaponized to cause harm as well as stir conflict among followers of Jesus. We don’t want to contribute to the confusion, nor do we ever want to cause harm. So it is important to both of us that we consider the whole letter even as we break it down into smaller portions.

With that in mind, I want to remind us of a few points Luanne asked us to remember last week:

Paul knows that God has not written the Israelites off–God doesn’t write any of us off, so Paul continues to reach out to them and pray for them.

Will we ever understand all there is to know about God? No. He is God. But what he has revealed to us over and over is he comes to us. He doesn’t force himself upon us, but He has already turned toward us.

God is always right here, always loves us, and always has open arms waiting for our return.

. . . God does not reject anyone. We push God away. Paul agonized over his people choosing tradition–their theology, their system–over Him.

Chapter 10 begins much like chapter 9 ends. Paul continues to lament that the Israelites’ hearts have not yet been awakened to the good news of Jesus:

My beloved brothers and sisters, the passionate desire of my heart and constant prayer to God is for my fellow Israelites to experience salvation. For I know that although they are deeply devoted to God, they are unenlightened. And since they’ve ignored the righteousness God gives, wanting instead to be acceptable to God because of their own works, they’ve refused to submit to God’s faith-righteousness. For the Christ is the end of the law… (Romans 10:1-4a, TPT)

I won’t spend too long here, but I do want to highlight that “salvation” in this passage is the word that has its roots in sōzō, a word you’re familiar with if you’ve read this blog for a while. If you’re new here, we love this word! It means to keep safe, to rescue from danger; to preserve; to heal; to make whole. The cry of Paul’s heart is for his people, whom he deeply loves, to be made whole and complete in Jesus. He longs to see their zeal lead them into the fullest, most complete understanding of God–that God was made visible in Jesus, and that their wholeness and their healing is found in him alone. He is passionate that these people who are deeply devoted to God, come to see–as he had–that their own righteousness and devotion can’t save them. They don’t have the power to make themselves whole and complete. Their adherence and commitment to the law had made the law their God. This idolatry clouded their vision and they couldn’t see that the One their scriptures had been pointing to all along was Jesus–the fulfillment of the law–whose righteousness flows through all who trust and abide in him.

(A brief note: “Righteousness” in this passage is the Greek word dikaiosynē, another word we’re kind of obsessed with because, at its root, it is defined as the setting-all-things-right, shalom justice of God. It is connected to the wholeness, healing, completeness, and restoration–the sōzō–of all things.)

Pastor John reminded us on Sunday that this picture Paul paints of the Israelites’ devotion to the law–their religiosity–is not unfamiliar to us. They wanted to be religious enough to find favor with God. Do we do that? Do you? I know a lot about living this way. Gratefully, I don’t live in this space anymore, but for most of my life, this is the water I swam in nearly drowned in. I fully believed that I had to earn God’s love–and everyone else’s. I was taught how to do and keep doing. I had no idea I was allowed to be, to stop striving and hustling for the worth that was already mine simply by existing as one who is dearly loved by my creator.

It took a lot of years for me to understand that God’s love is complete, all-encompassing, unconditional, perfect. God does not withhold love from us. It is the air we breathe and the water we’re already swimming in, whether we’re aware of it or not. I had gotten caught in a pocket of stagnant water that looked “right” at first glance, but was toxic to my soul. Fortunately, my little toxic pool was never separated from the gaze of God and never fully isolated from the ocean of grace. Tidal waves of Jesus’ love crashed into my stagnant pool, bringing life to the dead theology that told me my salvation depended on my own efforts (which was great news, because I had all but given up on trying and had made quite the mess of things).

Romans 10:8, quoting Deuteronomy 30:14, tells us how very close God’s love is to us at all times:

“God’s living message is very close to you, as close as your own heart beating in your chest and as near as the tongue in your mouth.” (TPT)

Even when we resist it…

Even when we’re blind to it…

Even when we actively choose something else…

Even when we’re pretty good at being “good’…

Even when our own goodness usurps the role of God in our lives…

Even when we think our own righteousness is enough…

…we are not rejected by our God.

God’s ‘living message’–Jesus–keeps coming for us. He is with us as Emmanuel. He pursues us, and meets us on our own religious roads to offer us a better way. As the verse above states, he’s as close as our own heartbeat, and he’s not going anywhere. He is patient, kind, and his goodness is greater than we will ever, in our humanity, be able to comprehend. There is nothing we can do to receive more love–we are already fully loved by God. The love God has for us is not based on anything we do or don’t do. It’s based on the very character of the One who chose to become enfleshed in our humanity and walk this earth to show us the true nature of his heart toward his creation. We don’t have to do more or be more to try to get more. We can’t possible get more than we’ve already been given.

Pastor John asked us, “What’s the story that has a hold on you?” It’s a question worth sitting with for a while. There is one story–the best story–that changes everything. One that has the power to set things right and heal what’s broken. It’s the story of Jesus–the good news that Paul so desperately longed for all people to accept and understand. What story are you believing?

–Laura

Laura asks us a good question. What story are you believing? What do you believe about God? What do you believe about God’s love, God’s approval, God’s acceptance of you? What do you believe about salvation? Do you believe, that in addition to Jesus’ victory over death, salvation (sōzō) means to keep safe, to rescue from danger; to preserve; to heal; to make whole? Do you believe that God deeply desires that for you and for the entire world–that he truly wants to make all things new?

As we each continue to walk with Christ, it’s always a good idea think through what we’re believing and why. Paul’s lament for his fellow Israelites comes from the fact that they were believing their theology over the living God who had revealed himself fully in the person of Jesus. They are grounded and rooted in their tradition and their understanding of how to become acceptable to God. And here’s the deal–their understanding is biblical, but their understanding isn’t Jesus. A scripture passage that I refer to often is John 5:39-40, which relays Jesus’ words to the Pharisees and teachers of the law as he tries to help them see that he, himself is the source of life. Beginning with verse 37, Jesus says to them:

And my Father himself, who gave me this mission, has also testified that I am his Son. But you have never heard his voice nor seen his face, nor does his Word truly live inside of you, for you refuse to believe in me or to embrace me as God’s messenger. You are busy analyzing the Scriptures, frantically poring over them in hopes of gaining eternal life. Everything you read points to me,  yet you still refuse to come to me so I can give you the life you’re looking for—eternal life! (TPT)

I’ll write it again this week–Christianity is founded on Jesus. Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith. Jesus is the Word of God. Jesus is God. Jesus shows us what God is like. Jesus reconciles us to God. The scriptures we read point to Jesus; salvation is in Jesus. Many harmful things have been done throughout history (and are still being done) using Bible verses as justification to back up man-made theology. Unfortunately, that type of theology has a tendency to make us mean and judgmental instead of leading us to being saved, rescued, healed and made whole in Jesus. When our lives are founded on the living Jesus, the fruit of the Spirit is born in us. That fruit draws people to Christ. Theology in and of itself is not bad–it’s literally the study of God, but our lives and our faith mustn’t be based in our theology. They must be based in Jesus. Christianity should look like Jesus the Christ. Our lives are transformed as we lean into Jesus, and the world is transformed as we are transformed.

I am being transformed. I am not who I used to be. For years I bargained with God and had a deep fear that God was disappointed in me. I tried to work out a system with him to gain approval and get guarantees from him. This was Luanne-made theology. Guess what? It didn’t work. It was exhausting, and like Laura, I would get frustrated with myself, I couldn’t maintain my own “goodness”, and then I’d give up. Pastor John reminded us that this type of “theology” is idolatry. We are worshiping self and living as if salvation comes through us and our actions rather than through Jesus. We think that receiving God’s love comes through doing more in order to earn it. If we think we need to do or be more for God to love us, we are missing out. I was missing out. Finally, in a battle with God that kept me up night after night, he showed me my barter system of theology. As soon as I saw it, I knew God was showing me truth. But here’s the crazy thing–I still wrestled with God over my own theology. I wanted God to do it my way. He didn’t submit to my will, so I was stuck. God had shown me that he loved me, and I could choose to stay right where I was–stuck in my dead-end theology, or I could surrender completely to him. I didn’t want to stay stuck, (and I wanted to sleep), so I said (a little begrudgingly), okay, we’ll do this Your way. In a millisecond I was flooded with peace, with light, with joy–even typing it out fills me with deep love and gratitude for God. That was the moment my walk with Jesus transferred from being about me and my actions to being about him. I fell in love with Jesus and I’ve not been the same since. My life is transformed and is transforming. Can I explain it? No. But is it real? Absolutely. And just in case you wonder, is the Bible part of it? Of course. I love scripture, but my faith is not founded in scripture. It has to be founded in Jesus.

Last week I ran into a friend who brings my heart incredible joy. Just a very few years ago, she showed up at church (another friend brought her). She’d been afraid to come because she feared rejection. Her life was in absolute tatters. She tried to be invisible; cried the entire time, and laughs (now) about how mortified she was that people saw her, welcomed her, talked to her, and acted like they wanted her there. She kept coming, even while doing her best to avoid human relationships. She had been deeply wounded in her life, and was scared of people and of God’s judgment. Fast-forward a few years. She is a joy-filled bright light. When we chatted last week, she shared that she is still blown away by how much her life has changed. She knows she is loved, and her love for Jesus oozes out of every pore. She has been, and is being transformed because she fell in love with Jesus and leans into him. She chose to receive the gift of God’s love. She can’t explain her transformation, yet many of us have had the beautiful gift of walking with her and seeing her transformation take place with our own eyes.

Romans 10:9-10 are verses that are really well known: If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

Those verses from this week’s chapter can still make it sound as if salvation is dependent upon us and our actions, so much so that some people use the above verses as a formula. My belief regarding those verses is the heart is the emphasis…it is from the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). The work of salvation is an inner work of receiving, taking in, and embracing the gift of God offered to us through Jesus, the gift of God’s love, God’s grace, God’s acceptance, God’s salvation. Our part is to receive. Once we believe and receive, the natural progression is speaking about Jesus. How can we help but do that–we’ve experienced his love and respond with love for him.

Using The Passion Translation I’ll wrap up my portion of this post up with some excerpts from the remainder of Chapter 10:

“God’s living message is very close to you, as close as your own heart beating in your chest and as near as the tongue in your mouth. (v. 8)

The heart that believes in him receives the gift of the righteousness of God—and then the mouth gives thanks…  (v.10)

Faith eliminates the distinction between Jew and non-Jew, for he is the same Lord Jehovah for all people. And he has enough treasures to lavish generously upon all who call on him. And it’s true: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord Yahweh will be rescued and experience new life. (v. 12,13)

All through the book of Romans up to this point, Paul has been weaving the message that God is here, God loves us, God has made himself known through creation and now through Jesus, we can’t be good on our own, in Jesus we are not condemned, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, we can embrace life in Jesus or reject life in Jesus, but life is only found in him.

Faith, then, is birthed in a heart that responds to God’s anointed utterance of the Anointed One. (Romans 10:17)

We are so loved–receive it!

Luanne

The Mystery of God's Love —

Roman Road Less Traveled: Outrageous Love

“Live as one who is outrageously loved.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

Marriage to the risen Christ changes everything!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me try to tie this all together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our part:

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

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

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

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

Our marriage to Jesus produces the offspring of spiritual fruit.

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

–Luanne

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

The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

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

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

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

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

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

So (finally!), let’s begin…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

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

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

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

When You Fast…

When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)

When you give to the needy…

When you pray

When you fast

Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.

This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.

As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.

In the Antioch church we learn that while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3). 

In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.

In the Old Testament:

The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)

Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)

Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)

Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.

In the New Testament:

The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)

Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).

The early church fasted.

And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.

So what happened? Where did fasting go?

According to the C. S. Lewis Institute:  In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented. 

Centuries after the reign of Constantine,  we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.

What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.

So what do we do? How do we recalibrate?  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)

First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?

If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?

In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

 You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)

Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.

As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.

Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’

“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…

Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.

 

Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.

–Luanne

Vision for leadership

Vision for ministry

Hearing the voice of God

Recognizing God

Connecting with God

Returning to God

Missionary vision

Church leadership vision

Intimacy with God,

Unity

God’s desires being fulfilled

These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,

“Do we want that?”

Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.

What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.

If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…

 If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value…

This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.

I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.

If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.

The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.

Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…

When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?

Oswald Chambers said,

“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)

From Henri Nouwen,

“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”

And Mother Teresa spoke these words:

“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”

Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.

What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.

I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…

Do we want that?

–Laura

Hungering For God (Matthew 6:16-18) — Saraland Christians

Sermon on the Mount: When You Pray

We are in the second week of a mini-series within our series–the three “When you…” statements Jesus made in the sermon he taught on the mount. Luanne introduced us to all three last week before she expanded on giving, the first topic Jesus addressed. Here is a snippet of what she wrote to refresh our memories:

“Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need… (Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting. So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.”

Pastor John spent a few minutes on Sunday articulating that while Jesus spoke first about giving, then praying, then fasting, the order doesn’t indicate priority. All three pillars are important. If we leave one out, we cannot fully understand the other two. I think in pictures a lot, so as he spoke to us, I pictured a triangular platform balanced on three pillars. If one pillar is removed, the whole structure tumbles. That’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw. But what if one is beefed up, reinforced, well taken care of, while one (or both) of the others is neglected? The corner supported by the maintained pillar may be strong and for a while the whole structure may appear to be in good shape. But, eventually, the weaker supports will begin to sag and give way, collapsing the whole thing–including the part that felt strong. An equal emphasis is necessary in our application of these three principles if we want to live a healthy, fruitful, kingdom-driven life. In order to apply them effectively, we have to first understand them.

Luanne explained beautifully Jesus’ instructions about giving last week. That post is linked in the first paragraph above if you missed it. This week, our focus is prayer. Our passage is Matthew 6:5-8:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need.” (The Message)

Pastor John shared with us about the prominence of prayer in ancient Judaism. There are prayers that were (and still are, for some devout Jews) prayed at specific times throughout the day, and many shorter prayers that were integrated into their daily lives. History tells us that, in ancient Judaism, followers were committed to prayer. When we think about religions that emphasize prayer today, we might think of Islam and the way that many Muslims integrate times of prayer into their daily lives.

But what will history say about prayer as it relates to Christianity? John asked us.

Hmm. Good question, right? Jesus modeled prayer many times during his earthly ministry. And as Luanne’s words from last week reminded us, the early church was committed to prayer. But what about now? What about us, today? What does our prayer life look like–individually as well as in our homes, our churches, our communities?

Pastor John identified that many of us pray three times each day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If we’re not too uncomfortable to do so… If we’re honest, how many of us can say that we have a prayer life that goes deeper than that?

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may recall that my history with the Church and with God is a bit complicated. My home life was also challenging in many ways. However, my Mom’s unwavering faith set an example for me that still impacts my walk with Jesus today. Her example, especially in the area of prayer, is a gift that I am deeply grateful for.

I was not always a fan of her prayer life, though. I found it a bit embarrassing and idealistic, even a little silly at times. She prayed about everything. Literally. Everything. A break in traffic to make a left turn… A parking spot at the mall on a rainy day… A good clearance find at the store when money was tight… A short line when the schedule was tight… She would pray short, conversational prayers–out loud, of course–about all of these things. And I would roll my eyes and hide a little–especially if my friends were with us. She simply talked to God. All throughout her day. It was as natural as breathing to her. I may have been annoyed in my adolescence… but I heard her. I heard other prayers, too, spoken in the same conversational way, every day that I spent with her. Prayers like:

I need a miracle to pay this bill this month, when she was working three jobs and raising my brother and I alone.

Please let me live long enough to see my kids graduate, when she was wrestling with the terminal illness she’d been diagnosed with.

Give me your grace to forgive…again, as she grieved the betrayal and rejection of her husband.

Will you give me the gift of a friend? And a husband who will love me? I’m so lonely…, as she dealt with feeling isolated and alone.

Draw my kids’ hearts to you, heal their hurts, be their Father, she prayed for us repeatedly, especially as we grew into adulthood.

I want to live for Your Glory, whether here or in heaven, as she wrestled with her failing health.

In addition to prayers like these, she prayed for other people constantly. Her name was Constance–everyone called her Connie–and she lived out the meaning of her name. She was constant, consistent, committed. I was recently reminiscing about her with Luanne, and remarking about how great she was at connecting with others, how she was the best at being a good friend. If she said she would pray for someone, she meant it. She’d usually do it right there, wherever “there” happened to be, and however uncomfortable it made my brother and I in our younger years. She would also write their names in her prayer journal. I don’t think she missed one day of prayers over those names until her last couple of days on this earth with us. On her most pain-filled days, when breath was most elusive, I’d often catch her praying more, spending hours with her journal, loving so many people through her conversations with her God.

I didn’t know it at the time, but her example was forming the woman I would become. Somewhere along the way, I started talking to Jesus about everything, too. Even the “silly” things that used to make me roll my eyes at my mom. We have a running conversation, he is part of my days, my hours, minutes–because I had an example to follow that was real. Not showy, not performative. Authentic, continuous, even quirky and quaint at times–but it wasn’t for anyone else. Mom’s ongoing conversation with God was both evidence of the deep relationship she had with him and the way that she remained connected to him. She was aware of her deep need for his presence in every area of her life, so she made talking with and listening to him a priority.

I didn’t know how formative her example would be. Here are some of the ways I pray throughout my days now…

Exclamations of gratitude when I’m in nature and the beauty fills me with wonder and delight.

In my car, imagining Jesus in the seat next me, conversing about whatever is going on that day.

Silent pleas for wisdom as I navigate hard conversations with my kids–or friends in crisis–and don’t know what to say.

In the middle of worship, between song lyrics, whispering prayers for the Spirit to bubble and flow all around.

Requests for patience and a facial expression that doesn’t betray my frustration when dealing with other imperfect and sometimes impossible humans like myself…

Prayers that I will have a tender, listening heart, and be present in the moments ahead while I’m on my way to meet a friend. 

Requests for wisdom around how to help in some way as I drive through town and see people in hard situations.

Do I also pray about breaks in traffic, good deals, and other “silly” things, like my mom did?

Yes. Yes I do.

Because when talking with Jesus is woven into every aspect of your life, there’s no area you don’t invite him into. It’s like finding that friend that becomes your person–the one you feel safe enough with to be silly, speak the truth, express deep emotion, share everything. My mom had that kind of friendship with God. And it was evident in her prayers.

It’s a beautiful thing to be able to talk with God in these ways. I referred to my Mom’s example as formational in my life. And it was, and is. But there is so much more to prayer than the friendly, conversational way we can engage in it. There is a depth that comes with more structured prayers, and I want to touch on that briefly before I wrap up…

I am still fairly new in my experience with using a liturgy for prayer. But, friends, it is transforming my prayer life. I virtually attended a prayer conference led by Pastor Brian Zahnd in May, and I’ve been using portions of the morning prayer liturgy he shared with us these last couple of months. It is powerful to pray some of those prayers day after day and see the ways God moves through them. The prayers prepare my heart to encounter my God in a deeper way. And I am being formed as I lean into prayers that have been around for a long, long time. There was a time I thought of these prayers as rigid, outdated, void of life. Not anymore.

Pastor Brian said, regarding this liturgical way of praying, “Liturgy is neither alive nor dead. It’s true or false. What’s alive or dead is the person praying.”

He shared with attendees that the word liturgy comes from the Greek liturgeo, which means “worship, the work of the people.” I love that. Liturgy is the work of the people, it’s worship. It was such a shift of perspective for me.

Zahnd also said, “Prayer is like a trellis for a vine to ascend–a structure so that which is alive can ascend. . . We must surrender ourselves to prayers that are wiser than we are.”

Prayer forms us. However shallow or deep our prayer life, it is forming us. What is our goal as we pray? Do we want to be seen, applauded, rewarded for our devout ways? Or are we content to be seen by God in the secret places, and to experience the reward of seeing–and being satisfied in–him? My mom’s prayer in the secret place spilled into her daily life. I was blessed that her conversations with God splashed into my consciousness. But she was never praying to be seen by me. She was unknowingly modeling a consistent relationship with God. I don’t walk around town proclaiming the liturgy I am adapting into my prayer life, but it is forming me as well, it is changing me. An honest, consistent prayer life will do that. Once again, as we’ve discussed throughout this whole series, Jesus’ focus is on what is happening within our hearts. What is happening in our hearts as we pray? What changes might we need to make in our prayer lives?

–Laura

I love Laura’s testimony of prayer–how her mother modeled a vibrant, ongoing prayer life, and how Laura (despite her adolescent embarrassment), has adopted a similar approach. I also like her move toward a more liturgical practice as part of her prayer life. I attended the same online prayer seminar, and am experiencing a deeper, richer more profound prayer experience than at any other time in my life through that practice.

We’ll revisit that in a bit, but for a moment, let’s return to this week’s scripture. Laura used The Message paraphrase above…I love it–especially this portion: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.

Peri Zahnd, during the prayer seminar, shared these words: “Our work is bringing more of ourselves, not more of our words.” Think about that. What would it look like to bring more of ourselves to our prayer time–to be in God’s presence as simply and honestly as we can be?

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus, in this portion of his sermon, was actually pushing back against what had become a fairly common practice. The NIV translation of Matthew 6:5 words it like this: And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others… 

As Laura pointed out, in the Jewish faith, praying three times a day was a normal practice. Three times a day they were called to prayer. Their lives revolved around prayer. However, some of the leaders in Jesus’ day had lost the heart of the matter and were more concerned about being “seen” as devout than about actually being devout. Jesus addressed this issue more directly in Matthew 15:8 when he said to the Pharisees,You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.'”

Or this parable from Luke 18:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

So Jesus was pushing back against this practice of self-righteous, look at how holy I am, praying.

Has anyone besides me done anything for show? True confession time: I went to a Christian college. For many students, going to church on Sunday was a given. I was still doing a fairly decent job of getting away with my double-life living, and rarely went to church on Sunday. However, I lived in the dorm and ate in the dining hall, so on Sundays I would sleep in, but would get up in time to dress in my Sunday best as though I had been to church before I heading to the dining hall. I didn’t want anyone to think I was a heathen. Good grief! That’s pretty much the definition of a hypocrite–a role player–an actor.

Back to The Message: Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage.

Such beautiful, simple, inviting instructions.

My own prayer journey has been complicated. Being the pastor’s daughter as I was growing up, meant that I was often called on to pray in Sunday School, or youth group. I hated it. When God didn’t heal my mother of cancer, I was pretty convinced prayer didn’t work, so I’d go through seasons where I didn’t pray at all until I wanted God to get me out of whatever crisis I was in–the messes I’d gotten myself into.  Or, I wanted him to change someone else.

As I got older, my prayer life still went through cycles. I wanted to be more consistent, to pray more deeply, to hear from God, but I just wasn’t getting there. I read numerous books about how to pray. I tried various formulas. But it seemed like my prayers always cycled back into being very “me” focused.

During the prayer seminar, Pastor Zahnd said that we typically pray out of our own pathology. To be pathological means (of a person) unreasonable, or unable to control part of his or her own behavior. (dictionary.cambridge.org) That has been true of my prayer life; but at the seminar we learned “The primary purpose of prayer is not to try to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed.”

When the idea of adding liturgy to my prayer time was brought up, I pushed back. It felt impersonal to me, until Zahnd pointed out that Jesus had a prayer book–the Psalms. Hmmmm. Good point. I’m sure that in addition to the Psalms, Jesus also prayed the Shema and the Eighteen Benedictions…the title given to the central prayer which is said three times a day by all observant Jews. It is also known as the Shemoneh Esreh (‘Eighteen‘), the Tephillah (‘Prayer‘), or the ‘Ami. dah (‘standing’) because one stands to say this prayer. (The Journal of Theological Studies)

Jesus prayed written prayers. Hmm. As Laura wrote above, liturgy is not dead (as I had assumed). It’s neutral. The life in the liturgy comes from the heart, mind, and soul attitude of the one praying the liturgy.

So, for the last couple of months I’ve been praying liturgically. The structure I am praying includes prayers that have been around for a long time, scripture including The Lord’s Prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and the Beatitudes, a short gospel passage and a Psalm.  There are moments of intercession, prayer for family, a prayer of confession, and sitting quietly with Jesus. The famous prayer of St. Francis (Lord make me an instrument of Thy peace…) is part of it. Many of the written prayers address each person of the Trinity. Most of them are communal and global in nature. In truth, it felt clunky at first, but as I returned morning after morning; as I began memorizing; I found the prayers being planted deeper and deeper within–their content becoming part of me.

I’m finding that when I wake up in the morning, I’m hungry for this time with God. I’m bringing more of myself, not more of my words, and I am coming as simply and honestly as I can. I’m no longer praying out of my own life cycles–or my own selfish desires. I can bring my requests to God, and I do…but somehow, it’s different now. It’s been a beautiful experience–one that I will continue.

It’s common in Christian circles to tell people–just pray, talk to God. However, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he gave them words to pray. We’ll study that prayer in a couple of weeks, but it’s important to note that he didn’t send them off to figure it out on their own.

If you’re curious about liturgy–there are many liturgical prayers that can be found online. The Shema and “Eighteen” can also be found online. It might feel weird at first, but dedicate a set amount of time to stick with it. We were encouraged to stick with it for 40 days. I’m glad we did. It’s changed our prayer lives, and is deepening our relationships with God.

I’ll close this post with two of my daily prayers: “Come Holy Spirit and fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth.” 

“Save me from the slavery of my own reasonings.” 

–Luanne

Prayer Life | Prince of Peace Church

This I Know: Love the Story

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story, because I know ’tis true;
it satisfies my longings as nothing else could do.

I love to tell the story; ’twill be my theme in glory
                                         to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love.                                              Author Kate Hankey

Pastor Diane, our children’s pastor, began her sermon on Sunday with the words of this old hymn. The message she brought reminded us to fall in love with God’s story and teach it to our children. She used the same scripture from Deuteronomy 6:4-9 that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, so I will not expound on them again, but as a reminder those verses say:

“Listen, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength.  And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (NLT)

Pastor Diane reminded us that the Israelites didn’t do this right all the time, and by the time we get to the book of Judges, chapter 2, an entire generation of Israelites were born who did not know the Lord and the mighty things he had done on behalf of Israel.  Somehow, the story didn’t get passed to the next generation.

We have written before about the importance of loving God and living out His love in front of others. So let’s talk story. God is writing a story–the theme is his love for all of us. Each of us are written into the story. Whether we accept him or reject him, his love for us remains constant. He is the author of the story. His love never fails.

When God put on flesh and came to earth as Jesus, the method he used to teach us about God’s kingdom and God’s ways were through story. Those stories were included in the stories written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Story is a powerful method of communication. A good story is hard to forget. A good parable, or a good analogy that connects one thing to another is hard to forget.

The old hymn above says I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? Is it personal? Is it dynamic? Do we bring our full, vulnerable, broken, forgiven, loved selves to the story? Is our story bathed in love?

The “old, old story of Jesus and his love” is not stale. Nothing about the living God ever grows stagnant. The old, old story is flowing fresh today–new stories, new encounters, all of which remind us of Jesus and his love, and they are happening in and around us all the time.

In the summer of 2011, my life was in crisis. At that time, I was unaware of how deep the crisis was–I only knew that something felt off in my being. I couldn’t put my finger on it–I just knew that something was horribly wrong. I was sitting in my backyard praying when a swallowtail butterfly flew straight to me–it could have landed on my nose–and as the butterfly came-so did these words “I see you. You are not alone.”  For the rest of that summer, every swallowtail sighting-and there were some significant ones–came with the message, “I see you. You are not alone.”  

When my life as I knew it exploded in November of that same year, the message of the butterfly kept me going. Because I had shared my butterfly story beforehand with my sister, she reminded me in my storm of Hagar who was in a desperate situation, and God showed up. Genesis 16:13 tells us, She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”  

The Message version of the Bible writes that verse like this:

She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, “You’re the God who sees me!  “Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!”

I have shared that butterfly encounter with many people. It is part of my story. Last Friday I was sitting in the backyard with my daughter and her little ones. A swallowtail flew into the backyard (the second one I’ve seen this season), and landed on a lilac blossom right in front of us. As I always do with swallowtail sightings, I got excited. My three year old granddaughter studied the butterfly, but also studied me. My daughter explained to her that sometimes God speaks to us through his creation, and that God had spoken to me through a swallowtail, so they always remind me of God.  My granddaughter is too young to need to know the details of that story and the circumstances surrounding it–but what she knows today is that God spoke to her “Lulu” through that butterfly. She knows that God reminds Lulu of his presence and promise every time a swallowtail appears, and that’s enough for today.  As she grows older, the story can become more complete, and my hope is that as long as she lives, when she sees a swallowtail she will remember that God speaks, and that he reminds us that he sees us, he loves us, and he is with us.

My current God story is not even all settled in my heart and mind yet–I’m still very much in it–but what I know is that God has been teaching me a great deal these last few months through a marginalized people group. Because of a life event, I ended up immersed in this culture by accident and prayed often about what God’s purpose in that was. His answer was–love people. Love them sincerely. Be present and love What I didn’t expect was the incredible love that was offered to me. I also didn’t expect the beautiful, caring, loving, genuine community that I got to be part of–a community that looks a lot like church, but in whom many have been rejected by church. I had deep conversations about faith, life, heartache, love, rejection, belonging, and yes, God.  And you know what? He is fully there in a marginalized people who the mainstream church wants to reject. God has not rejected them. Just a few days ago I had the opportunity to again be immersed in that culture, but this time in my hometown. The experience was beautiful. I’m still processing this new story, which is the old story of Jesus and his love–I’m not sure where God is taking me, but my heart is open. My moments in this culture feel very holy. That was unexpected.

Story.

People can dispute Bible verses all day long. They can’t dispute our personal encounters with a living, loving God who is writing us into his story so that our stories can write into the lives of those around us.

I know stories about both of my grandmothers and their Jesus love lived out in action. I know the stories of my parents and their Jesus love lived out in action. I share those stories–shared one about my dad last week.  A new generation is hearing those stories.

What is your current story? If your story, your testimony is about a one time event that happened years ago, it is time to pay attention. The God who sees us also speaks to us. My butterfly encounter is about Jesus and his love. My time with marginalized people is about Jesus and his love. My heritage of faithful Christ followers is about Jesus and his love. There are countless ways that Jesus tells his story through our lives, so that we will, in turn, tell those stories through our lives. How has he showed you he loves you today? What current journey are you on with him? Are we paying attention? Are we sharing with others? Do we love to tell the stories, of Jesus and his love?

–Luanne

“The “old, old story of Jesus and his love” is not stale. Nothing about the living God ever grows stagnant. The old, old story is flowing fresh today…” 

The old, old story of Jesus cannot be contained within the story of his death and resurrection–and yet, it can…because every God story, every encounter with the risen Christ is, at its core, one of death and resurrection. That old story is the story of God’s self-emptying love that most clearly shows us his heart toward all of humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And he keeps showing up with that same love, infusing all of our stories with that one story. But if we don’t let it come to life within our personal stories, if we don’t have eyes to see the cycle of death and resurrection in our own lives, it can become–to us–stale and stagnant words on a page that we say we believe, but that stop short of affecting our actual lives. But, if we pay attention, we’ll see that what Luanne said is true: “The old, old story is flowing fresh today…’

Luanne also wrote, “The old hymn above says I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? And later, she asked us, “What is your current story?” 

Her questions seemed easy enough to answer at first glance. But as I let those questions sink deeper, past the surface of things, I got a little squirmy. The kind of squirmy that let me know what direction my writing would take today… (ugh.)

I wrote above that every encounter with the risen Christ is one of death and resurrection. I really do believe that. It’s the way of the upside-down kingdom we’ve written so much about. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to talk about the resurrection parts. The thing is, though, you don’t have resurrection without death. And death can make us uncomfortable and afraid. Even though it’s a part of life… As Jesus followers, we are seed people, resurrection people–people who embrace death as part of the cycle of life. The late Rachel Held Evans, in her beautiful book Searching for Sunday, wrote:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something gardeners worry about. It’s certainly not something resurrection people worry about.”

And yet, we hate the death parts, don’t we? It’s what makes Luanne’s questions complicated for me to answer…

Do I love to tell the story? That depends on which parts I’m telling… I’ve made peace with a lot of the chapters in my past, seen them through new eyes, and–by God’s good grace– I have found a way to love even the hardest parts of my God story. If this were her only question, I might have been able to say, yes, I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love in my life. On occasion. When I feel safe enough to go there…

But then she asked, “What is your current story?”

I don’t really want to answer that…because I don’t love my current story very much yet. The chapter that is in process is difficult to embrace most days. This chapter, so far, includes questions about the faith I’ve always known and loved, finding irreconcilable differences in the God I grew up with and the God I’m learning he actually is, and a growing awareness of the barriers the Church has built that have contributed to–and even caused–systemic and societal issues that are keeping people from seeing Jesus. I’ve never been lonelier, despite the many dear companions God has gifted me with. I’ve never felt more conflicted over speaking up versus staying quiet, never questioned so deeply who I can actually trust. The pages of this chapter are full of unknowns and an instability that often leaves me breathless. The stress level is unprecedented. Fear–especially of the future–visits often, an uninvited companion on this shadowy journey. The tears flow daily. It is a chapter wrought with betrayals and cutting words from unlikely places, but also from familiar places where it has become the norm. If I had to title this chapter in progress, I might call it “The Cloak of Invisibility”, because I’ve never felt less seen and less known.

Do I love my current story? Um…no. Are there days I want to run away from all the things that feel like pressure and conflict and chaos all around me? Almost every day. There are moments that I have to remind myself to breathe, moments when I literally feel paralyzed and unable to move forward. This is the first time I’m telling this much of this chapter’s story, and believe me, I don’t love telling one bit of it. I’m currently pondering deleting every word and starting from scratch in an entirely different direction.

Do you know what’s stopping me from doing just that? Jesus, and his love…

This isn’t the first chapter of my story that has felt unlovable. It won’t be the last. And if I’m honest, my God-story contains more chapters that are hard than are easy, more ugly than beautiful. But do you know what every single chapter contains? The thread of Jesus and his love woven into the tapestry of me. In every chapter, you’ll find death and resurrection, in equal amounts. Every part of my story is overlaid with the story of Jesus and his self-emptying, always pursuing love. Including this one. I may not see it yet, but I can trust that as long as my story is being written, it is inseparably woven together with the thread of Jesus and his love. His love redeems the ugly parts and renames them beautiful. He takes the unlovable chapters and renames them Beloved. Every season, no matter how devastating, contains death and resurrection.

Luanne wrote about a season that left her world in shambles. It was a season during which some things died–a long winter of sorts. The deaths that occurred, though, cleared the way for resurrection, renewal. And throughout that season of dying, God gave her Swallowtails. A butterfly. A symbol of spring. Possibly the best illustration we have of death and resurrection in our created world. 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. For Luanne, loving her whole God story means embracing every part of it, as each chapter led her to today. Swallowtail sightings, while still breathtaking and beautiful, wouldn’t carry the same weight in her story had it not been an icon of God’s love for her that carried her through a season of death and into resurrection.

The same is true for all of us. To love our stories means to embrace every chapter, and to learn to hold death and resurrection as equally necessary parts of the narrative. Once we can do that, we can learn to love telling our stories as well.

Diane spoke about sharing our stories with our kids as an act of worship to God. I agree that anytime we share our stories with anyone, it is an act of worship. 1 Peter 3:15 exhorts us,

But have reverence for Christ in your hearts, and honor him as Lord. Be ready at all times to answer anyone who asks you to explain the hope you have in you (GNT)

I believe that our answer for our hope goes beyond quoting verses that we have memorized. Of course sharing scripture is good, and sometimes appropriate, but if that’s all we do, we run the risk of handing people a stale, stagnant story… Our answer for our hope has to include our one, unique, vulnerable story of our personal experience encountering the love of Jesus. When we share in this way, we pull up a chair to the ever-expanding communion table of Christ and enter into authentic community with one another.

Sometimes it takes sharing the chapters we love the least to move toward embracing our whole stories.

It takes courage, but when we share, we might be surprised at the results…

When I wrote above that I might title my current chapter “The Cloak of Invisibility”, I had no idea I would be writing about the cloak of the cocoon in relation to Luanne’s story. As I wrote about it though, I started to experience my own cloak differently, as I wondered,

Could this cloak be a cocoon that is enshrouding me while the necessary deaths take place for new life to grow once again? Is the invisibility I feel maybe a protection while God rearranges me piece by piece, guarding me from the intrusion of predators that would attempt to thwart the process? 

In the pondering, I can feel myself already beginning to embrace my current story. Hope is sprouting from seeds of discouragement that fell into the soil of Jesus’ love. Why? Because Luanne shared her story. And even though it’s a story I know well, it fell fresh on my heart today and impacted my own. Perhaps my current story will impact one of yours and maybe then you’ll share with someone else. And as we continue in this way, we’ll keep making space at the table for all of our stories.

So, to wrap things up, I’ll ask Luanne’s questions again–will you answer them?

“The old hymn above says: I love to tell the story…of Jesus and his love. Do we? And if so, what story are we telling? What is your current story?” 

–Laura

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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Selah

“Let Me teach you something about what you think you know.”

There were many lines from Pastor Beau’s message on Sunday that stood out to me, but this one most of all. He was recapping the story of Jesus calling the first disciples in Mark 1 and commenting on the words Jesus said to these men. When he saw Simon (Peter) and Andrew fishing, Jesus called out to them, “Come, follow me, and I will show you how to fish for people!” (Mark 1:17, NLT) In other words, “I know you fish for a living, but there’s more to learn about fishing. You know a lot about it—it’s your livelihood—but what you think you know only scratches the surface of what I can teach you.”

As Beau talked to us about this, I couldn’t help but think about another verse. In 1 Corinthians 13:12, Paul writes these words:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (NLT)

Paul understood that in everything, we are only seeing a partial picture. I think it’s pertinent to mention that this particular verse falls within the famous “love chapter” that is so often quoted at weddings. This verse, in which Paul admits his own incomplete understanding is directly followed by one thing that he is absolutely certain of—the enduring greatness of love above all other things. I believe that what we’ve been learning from Jesus in the book of Mark as we study what he said and did during his ministry absolutely confirms Paul’s assertion about the greatness of love. It also confirms how imperfect our vision is, and how much we need to be transformed by Jesus so that we can see the way he sees.

For the last six weeks, we’ve been traveling what, to many of us, is a very familiar road. These are the gospel “stories” that more than a few of us grew up hearing. Yet… we are seeing things we’ve never seen before. Pastor John has taken a small section of verses each of the last six weeks and taken us deeper into the familiar stories, stories we thought we knew. As we’ve listened to these messages, Jesus has shown up to teach us something new about what we thought we had figured out.

On Sunday, Pastor Beau brought us a “Selah” moment. A pause, if you will. His intention was to slow down and recap what we’ve been learning, to combine the individual images that have been painted for us over the last six weeks into one big picture that connects them all. He reminded us of what we’ve been learning, reiterated the main points, and offered us a bit of his own thoughts and perspective.

You know what happened during this “Selah” message?

Jesus showed up to teach me something more about things I thought I knew.

Through Beau’s teaching and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, my heart was filled with new insight, and I learned new things even as we recapped the new things we’ve learned these last weeks. There were still things we had missed, more to learn from Jesus in depths we thought we’d fully plumbed. How was there still more?

Because Jesus is brilliant, as Beau said on Sunday. In fact, Beau commented that the word “brilliant” doesn’t come close to defining Jesus—he said the only word that really describes Jesus is, well, “Jesus”. Brilliant only scratches the surface. Which is why, friends, it’s so important that we slow down and let him teach us. When have I last checked what’s in my suitcase as I walk out my journey of faith? Do I even know what I’m carrying? Do you know what you’re carrying? Have we packed in our bags rules we learned in Sunday School? Maybe our parents’ faith is in there. Are our bags full of “righteous anger” and judgement? Did love of neighbor ever make it in? How about love? Compassion? Forgiveness? Are we carrying fear and shame in our bags because we were taught that we would only ever be “unclean”, like the leper in our story from a couple of weeks ago? What have we packed? I think somewhere in each of our bags is some form of the belief that we know the “truth” and that our way of believing is “right”. We walk through life believing that there are some things we pretty much have figured out.

Jesus is speaking to each of us, just like he spoke to his first disciples, “Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Paul understood that until the day his finite human body crossed into the eternal, he would only ever see imperfectly. He knew a whole lot about a whole of things. But he remained teachable—fully dependent on the only One whose teaching had ever transformed his soul. We have the same opportunity. But it requires from us a willingness to admit that maybe we’ve packed some things in our bag that don’t belong there and omitted some necessities along the way. And it means acknowledging that we can not possibly expect to get it all right and have it all figured out while we walk the earth in our finite bodies. Not because we are defective or lacking some essential part of our make-up. But because we are disciples of One whose brilliance we cannot contain within any man-made boxes, One whose thoughts and ways are beyond what our limited humanity can fathom. This should not make us feel sad, frustrated, or disappointed. On the contrary, this knowledge can lead us into freedom, delight, and childlike expectation as we continue to be enlightened and enchanted by this Teacher whom we follow.

Sometimes our pride, our desire to be right and respected as wise gets in the way… Sometimes, we’re not content to introduce others to our brilliant Teacher so that they can follow Him alongside us… because what we actually want is for them to follow us. The more followers we have, the bigger our platform becomes. The bigger our platform gets, the more sure we become about what we know. And we get more and more addicted to our own greatness. So we run after the next big thing, then the bigger thing, and so on…

This brings me to one of the things Jesus showed me on Sunday, one of the things I hadn’t paused to see before…

Jesus began his ministry in front of large crowds, traveling from town to town and teaching to packed out synagogues. As his ministry grew, however, his platform got smaller. As he got more proximate to individuals and more personal with his connections, he lived a more isolated and lonely life. As his name got bigger, his opportunities in public became fewer.

Seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

We often resent small beginnings but see them as a means to an end—an end that is bigger and more visible than wherever we had to start. We long for our platforms—and our number of followers—to grow, because somehow that will show that we’ve “made it”, that we are important.

Not so with Jesus. He started at the pinnacle—as the Word that spoke Creation, who had only ever known the communion of the Trinity and the full-faced love and intimacy that they shared. The Beloved of the Almighty, shrouded in glory and love and light.

Then he chose to get smaller.

He was born a helpless baby in a dirty manger to a poor, unmarried couple. The limitless King of Heaven willingly stepped into the confines of newborn flesh, willingly breathed in the air and dust His very mouth created. Coming to us was a huge step down from where He started.

At least when he was born, a star appeared and angels sang—Magi traveled to him bearing fine gifts fit for a King. But then he lived thirty years in absolute obscurity in nowhere Nazareth. If you could get lower than being born in a manger in Bethlehem, this was it. Another step down.

Finally, his ministry began. His cousin, John, prepared the way and proclaimed his greatness. The voice of God thundered from the heavens at his baptism. He was beginning to teach, to gain followers, to fill the synagogues with people eager to hear his voice and to be healed by his touch. People were beginning to wonder if he might be the one they’d been waiting for. They began to get excited about the Kingdom he might establish among them. Things were looking up—

Until he got proximate to one leper. He knew what it would cost him to touch this man, to enter in to his suffering. It would change the trajectory of his whole ministry—no longer would he be welcome in the synagogues. His platform would get smaller, even while his renown would grow.

And he chose to touch him anyway. Because the kingdom he carried, the one he proclaimed as “here and now” is an upside-down kingdom. He would never satisfy the peoples’ expectations for a political superpower kind of kingdom that would rule with violence and vengeance over their enemies. No. His kingdom, his way of “ruling” would continue to cost him—not only his platform, but his very life.

He knew the cost. And he chose it anyway. And because he didn’t perform to earn the next big platform, because he chose the lonely places, the hurting people, the way of compassion and sacrificial love, His name and renown remain unmatched to this day. And we grasp for words to try to describe his greatness…

We long for reach, for influence, for followers. We long to grow our platforms and make a name for ourselves. Maybe Jesus wants to teach us something about the way we define success—in ministry and otherwise. His platform got smaller and smaller the more he loved and went against what those of his day thought they “knew” to be right. What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

There are a few more things I learned on Sunday that I hadn’t seen before, adjustments that needed to be made in the way I think and understand. I was going to write about more of them, but it’s about time I wrap this up. I’ll finish with this… When Jesus spoke forgiveness and healing over the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of the house where he was teaching; when he allowed the disruption to redirect his teaching to all who were present, Mark tells us, They were all amazed and praised God, exclaiming, “We’ve never seen anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12b) Everyone in that home learned something new that day—about things they already thought they knew. From the man on the mat to the disciples, to the religious leaders occupying the front-row seats, they all left that house changed. Because brilliant Jesus got personal and proximate to each of them and invited them to learn.

Our brilliant Jesus gets personal and proximate to each of us as well. He is inviting us to set aside our “wisdom” and to examine what we’ve put in our bags. He calls out to us the same way he called to his first followers…

“Let me teach you something about what you think you know.”

Will we let him?

–Laura

I love the question that Laura asked us:

What do you think you know? Is it possible that there’s more to learn?

Is it possible that there’s more to learn? My answer to that question is a huge, resounding yes!!! It renews my desire to give the Holy Spirit full access to every part of me.

When I was a child and gave my life to Jesus, my dad said the following when he was presenting me before the church– he said, “Luanne is giving as much of herself as she can to as much of Jesus as she understands.”  That phrase has stuck with with me, and this morning as I write, it came back in full force. Isn’t this the daily journey? My understanding of Jesus is deeper than it was when I was nine years old, and because He is who He is, I will never fully understand Him, which is the beauty of it all. It’s a relationship that will never grow stale, as long as I continue to knock, to ask, to seek, and grow. And when He reveals new things to me, will I give as much of myself as I am able to give (I want that to be all of me!) to the new revelation, the new understanding of Jesus? Yes. There is always more to learn.

When Peter, Andrew, James, and John left their fishing boats behind, they were following what they knew of Jesus in that moment. Scripture is kind to us and shows us some of their blunders along the way, but in the book of Acts we see men who are very different from who they were at the first part of the book of Mark–and they continued to give as much of themselves as they could to as much of Jesus as they understood, which eventually cost three of the four of them their lives.

Before they walked personally with Jesus, they thought they knew what God was about. They “knew” that women and Gentiles were inferior, that lepers and paralytics were being punished and had no place in the religious system, that there were rules to follow in order to stay in God’s good graces, and that religious power was not to be questioned. Then, God in flesh took them under His wing for three years in the form of Jesus and every bit of what they thought they knew was changed. Every bit of it was “like never before”. And they were teachable. Are we?

Pastor Beau used the analogy of foundations. In Jesus day, the foundation of a building was not under the ground, the cornerstone upon which everything else would be built was visible. In our day, foundations are dug below the dirt, they remain hidden. Sometimes they don’t stand the test of time, they get cracks in them, or begin to “settle” in ways that make the entire structure built upon them unstable. Do our spiritual foundations have cracks in them? Do they need to be inspected? Do we need to do some wrestling with our foundations? Are we built upon Jesus, our cornerstone, or something else?

The Apostle Peter, the one who began as a fisherman, quoting the prophet Isaiah wrote in his first letter:

“’See, I lay a stone in Zion,  a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.’ Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’” .           (1st Peter 2:6-7)

Do we trust our chosen, precious,  like never before Savior–or do we reject Him? Do we trust that his Kingdom is here right now? Do we trust His spiritual, intellectual, and physical authority? Do we trust Him enough to be teachable, intentional, available? Do we trust Him enough to  remember that compassion means to connect ourselves to those who are suffering as if we ourselves are suffering? Do we trust Him enough to touch the untouchable? Do we trust Him enough for forgiveness to be as natural to us as breathing? Do we trust Him enough to lovingly challenge the religious culture of the day? Do we trust Him enough to let our attitude toward all people be one of love? Do we trust Him enough to let Him live through us? Do we trust Him enough to be misunderstood?  Is He our precious cornerstone? Do we believe that His ways are right? Do we trust Him enough to live like Him and to be like never before people? What foundation are we building on?

I’m going to throw out some current events, not to be controversial but to give us opportunity to let the Holy Spirit examine our hearts. Transformation requires intentionality. Let’s be intentional in knowing where we land, and why we land there. If something makes us squirm or feel defensive, let’s sit with and ask the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth.  Let’s wrestle with which foundation we land on in each of these situations–is it Jesus our cornerstone, or something man made that is vulnerable to cracks?  The situation at our border, people seeking asylum, children living in cages, refugees and immigrants as a whole–which foundation? Women who have had abortions–which foundation? Our politicians and the way they model how to treat people–which foundation? The LGBTQ community-which foundation? Muslims–which foundation? The injustices that our fellow citizens who represent our nation’s ethnic minorities try to raise awareness of–which foundation?  Families who’ve lost children to gun violence–which foundation?  Hurting, angry disenfranchised white males who become mass shooters–which foundation? Religious leaders who’ve used their power to sexually abuse others and the cover ups that have followed–which foundation? If Jesus were standing right here in the flesh, where would he be? Let’s wrestle. Let’s let Him teach us. He is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Tea Party –He is Jesus. He is not American–He is Jesus. He is not Baptist or Catholic, or Methodist, or Episcopalian, or non-denominational–He is Jesus. The only way He can be described, as Laura highlighted above, is by Himself. Jesus is Jesus.

Pastor Beau reminded us that Jesus will never ever, ever use His authority and power to be abusive–ever. His authority and power teach us how to fight battles in the spiritual realm. His way of relating to people teaches us how to relate to people–and that even as he pushed back against the thoughts of the religious leaders, he wasn’t taking jabs at them; he was giving them opportunities to change their way of thinking (repenting) about who God is and what His mission is. He loved them all. He loves us all. He. Is. Love.

Beau reminded us that the ministry of Jesus was a monumental shift between the Old Testament and New Testament which can also be called Old Covenant and New Covenant. Jesus came to establish a New Covenant–a covenant in His blood. A new wine skin into which the old wine could not be poured.  New. Different. Like never before.

In John 18:36 Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world.

In Luke 17:21 Jesus tells his followers that the Kingdom is within us.

We can’t miss this if we are going to live as like never before people. The Kingdom that is not of this world is within usthis very Kingdom that Jesus taught us to pray would come to earth, the very Kingdom that takes over the world and becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah (Rev. 11:15)-this Kingdom is our mission. This is what we are to be about. His Kingdom coming on earth, His will being done on earth.

Every current event that I listed above would not exist if His Kingdom was reigning here. There would be no need to seek asylum, there would be no need to escape violence, there would be no “us and them”, there would be no abortion because women and children would be cared for by all of us, there would be no violence at all, there would be no injustice, no disenfranchised, no hate, no abuse of power, no pre-judging (also known as prejudice), no hateful rhetoric–there would be love. His kind of love. 

The Apostle Peter told us:  “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual houseto be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1st. Peter 2:5). 

We are living stones being built on the foundation of Jesus, our cornerstone. Jesus told the religious leaders of His day “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” (Mt. 9:13 NLT)

Knowing that we are all in this together, that none of us is righteous in our own strength–the spiritual sacrifice which we are to offer to God is mercy. Mercy is a noun which means kindness, compassion, especially toward those undeserving of it,  and whose synonyms include grace, favor, goodness, gentleness, tenderness, love. (www.merriam-webster.com/thesaurus/mercy). We are all undeserving of His mercy, yet we have received it and continue to receive it in overflowing abundance from our like never before Jesus. Do we, in turn,  offer mercy as a spiritual sacrifice to the people of the world?

As we pause in our series for this Selah moment, may we reflect on what we’ve heard so far, may we be committed to presenting our like never before Savior to the world around us by being like never before followers of the one who lives in us.

Let’s enter in like never before.

–Luanne

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Like Never Before-Week 1

The first Sunday after Christmas marked a turning point, a launching-type moment. You could sense it in the air at church, feel it as we worshiped together, and hear it in the words Pastor John spoke to us. I’ve felt the stirring of the Spirit within me and I know I’m not the only one. God is shaking things up–so it’s fitting that our new series will take us down an old path… but through new eyes and with a new vision.

Our new series will take us through a good portion of the book of Mark. Pastor John has titled it “Like Never Before”, and those words carry a dual meaning. We will look at the ministry of Jesus–how He came and lived like no one ever had before. And we will be invited into becoming like this One we follow–letting His life indwell and transform us–in ways that we never have before, as we follow His lead to become the Church that He has always desired that we be.

This is what the Eternal One says, the One who does the impossible, the One who makes a path through the sea, a smooth road through tumultuous waters, Eternal One: Don’t revel only in the past, or spend all your time recounting the victories of days gone by. Watch closely: I am preparing something new; it’s happening now, even as I speak, and you’re about to see it. I am preparing a way through the desert; Waters will flow where there had been none. (Isaiah 43:16, 18-19 VOICE)

I came across this paraphrase of these verses this morning, and it felt so appropriate to include it here. When Jesus came to us with skin on–Emmanuel, God with us–He ushered in the new. He came as the answer, the fulfillment to the old covenant and the King of this new way that we’ll hear Him speak of over and over and over again–the way of the kingdom. His kingdom.

This week’s passage took us into the middle of the first chapter of Mark:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

Before we launch into these two rich verses, I want to touch on the first thirteen verses of this book. The very first words of the book of Mark, according to the NIV, read like this: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” I want to note here–because we’ll come back to it later–that “good news” in this verse as well as in verse 14 above is translated from the Greek word “euaggelion”. This is the same word that is translated “gospel” at least 67 throughout what we call our new testament. Hang onto that and we’ll come back…

Mark 1: 2-8 chronicles the work of John the baptizer, the one who some thought was the Messiah, but who was actually the forerunner–the one who prepared the way for Jesus. Verses 9-11 record Jesus’ baptism by John, and verses 12 & 13 tell us of Jesus’ 40 days in the desert. Our series begins after that, as Jesus launches His ministry with bold, authoritative words. I included the NIV translation of these verses above; here is how J.B. Phillips says it:

It was after John’s arrest that Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, saying, “The time has come at last—the kingdom of God has arrived. You must change your hearts and minds and believe the good news.” (J.B. Phillips)

Jesus came proclaiming the “gospel”, the “good news”. The good news of what? Himself. Look back at Mark 1:1. Mark wrote “…the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah…” The good news was about Jesus.  What was it? Simply, He is here. Now. Messiah, God with us. The answer. The prophecy fulfilled. The King who had finally come to change everything and bring His kingdom to bear here, among us.

The “Gospel” was never meant to be a “sinner’s prayer”, a ticket to heaven or even, solely, our salvation. The Gospel, the good news, is: Jesus, the image of invisible God, God in the flesh came to us. He so loved us, valued us, desired relationship with us, that He came down into our grimy, broken existence to change everything. He, himself, IS salvation. To know Him is to experience salvation. But it doesn’t stop there–and that is what Pastor John brought to us on Sunday. Jesus absolutely saves us–no question about that. My life has been saved because I encountered this One who pursued me in my brokenness and won my heart with His extravagant love. But He does more than save us. He transforms us–from the inside out.

Mark 1:7-8 out of the Message paraphrase translates John the baptizer’s words like this:

As he [John] preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will change your life. I’m baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.” (emphasis mine)

When Jesus says in verse 15, “Repent and believe the good news!”, He is not saying, as we’ve so often been told, “Stop sinning and say the sinner’s prayer so you don’t go to hell!” No. He is inviting us into the process of transformation. As we study and search the record of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we’ll find many things, many different ways of doing things, and much that challenges us to do the seemingly impossible. What we won’t find anywhere in the story of His life on earth is Him offering a one-time salvation experience that stops with that moment. He wasn’t satisfied with a statement of belief that went nowhere. He wasn’t looking for the masses to declare that they’d accepted Him as Lord on the temple steps and then go home to return to life as usual. There are many mentions of the word “salvation” in various forms in our new testament, but most of those occurrences were post-resurrection, and not said by Jesus. In fact, if you read the words of Jesus, you’ll find that He speaks of “salvation” very few times. What He can’t stop talking about is the kingdom.

What is the kingdom? We could try to define it many different ways, and they would all probably be part of the whole picture. But the original Greek word is defined like this:

royal power, kingship, dominion, rule; not to be confused with an actual kingdom but rather the right or authority to rule over a kingdom–the royal power of Jesus as the triumphant Messiah

This is the kingdom Jesus speaks of in Mark chapter 1… His authority as God, His right to rule, and the power to do so. And He will spend the rest of His time on earth showing us what that kingdom looks like, and how it operates. And it’s like nothing anyone had seen before. His is an altogether different kingdom, unlike any that came before or any that would come after.

We’ll see the picture of this kingdom develop as our series continues. For now, in this week’s passage, Jesus tells us that this kingdom is “at hand”. I could jump up and down over what these words mean in the Greek!!! The word translated “at hand” is “eggizo“. It means, “to bring near, to join one thing to another“. It comes from the root word “eggys”, which means, “near: of place, position, and time”. And the root word of this word means, “to squeeze”.

So, if you’ll allow me to take a little bit of creative liberty, we could put it together like this:

“The kingdom, the triumphant rule of Jesus our Messiah, has been brought near. So near, in fact, that it has squeezed into our place, position and time to join together what had been previously separated–that is, the heavens and the earth.”

Jesus came as fully God and fully man, as one born of both heaven and earth, that the two realms might be joined together under His Lordship. “To join one thing to another” is used elsewhere in scripture to describe the union between husband and wife. It is an intimate oneness. This is the language Jesus used to talk about this kingdom that is now available to us through Him.

But He said something else right before he spoke this declaration about the Kingdom. He said, “Repent.” Earlier, I included the J.B. Phillips translation of our key verses. The word “repent” shows up differently in this translation. These are the words used in place of “repent”: “change your hearts and minds”. This is actually a far more accurate translation of what Jesus was saying than what we have come to understand the word repent to mean. To repent is to change the way we think. This is what Jesus was offering to His listeners in these verses. An invitation to change the way they thought about Him, about the prophecies of old and their expectations of how they would be fulfilled, and about what this new kingdom would look like.

Jesus is offering us the same invitation today…

Many of us have gotten stuck somewhere on our journey. Maybe we said the sinner’s prayer and stopped there. Maybe we learned a little and grew to a point, but life got in the way. Whatever our individual stories may be, we are all invited to change the way we think, to let Jesus transform our minds and grow us like never before. Transformation is always a product of the renewal of our minds. And it is essential to our becoming kingdom people who actually are growing into the image of the Jesus we follow…

William Paul Young writes in the Foreword to the book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God,

“If transformation is by the renewal of the mind and I have never changed my mind, then be assured I am actively resisting the work of the Holy Spirit in my life. Everyone who grows, changes. But it is hard work to change, to be open, to take the risk of trust. Change always involves death and resurrection, and both are uncomfortable. Death because it involves letting go of old ways of seeing, of abandoning sometimes precious prejudices. It means having to ask for forgiveness and humble ourselves. And resurrection is no easy process either; having to take risks of trust that were not required when everything seemed certain, agreeing with the new ways of seeing while not obliterating the people around you, some who told you what they thought was true but isn’t after all. Transformation is not easy; ask any butterfly.”

Transformation is not easy, that much is certainly true. But it is essential to our growth, to our learning to thrive, and to our becoming the people–and the Church–that actually look like the Jesus we say we follow. Transformation is at least as important as our initial salvation experience, if not more so–because transformation is the process in which we are joined so intimately with our King that his kingdom is conceived in and then born through us.

Church, are we willing to do things in a new way, in a way like never before, so that the world around us might see the Jesus that they’ve never been able to see before?

–Laura

I am very excited about this series, and I’m also very aware that those of us who know the stories of Christ can have a tendency to glaze over a bit and sit back comfortably thinking we’ve heard it before. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to be “wowed”, to let the Holy Spirit teach us something new, to be awestruck and further transformed into the likeness of Jesus.  I agree with Laura–we can all get a little stuck. Our Christianity becomes formulaic, it becomes about church attendance and Bible study, so, I too want to reiterate that  Christianity is about transformation (personal, corporate, societal etc.)–a beautiful process that will continue as long as we’re on planet earth, if we’ll let it.

I imagine most of you will agree with me, that these are difficult days in our nation. We are divided, polarized, angry, and hateful. Unfortunately, the church, primarily the white evangelical church is right in the middle of the “ugly”.  How did this happen? I think Brian McLaren is right when he says we reflect the image of the God we believe in. Who is God? What is He like? How does He treat you? How does He treat the people you don’t care for? Does He have favorites? Is He loving? Is He angry? Is He kind? Is He mean?

Your answers to these questions, and many others like them, will reveal what you believe about God. The question then becomes are you believing in the God who is fully revealed in Jesus. Does your view of God look like Jesus?  Because if you have seen the Son, you have seen the Father (John 14:9). Jesus is the image of the invisible God. (Col. 1:15) Does your God look like Jesus? Does your reflection of God look like Jesus? Is the image of God in you the image of Jesus? It’s key that we get this right.

As we head into this series “Like Never Before”,  let’s pay close attention to the God revealed in Jesus, beginning with Jesus’ words in Mark 1.

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,”he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:14-15, NIV)

The time has come...  God designed that planet earth would be governed by time. We all understand our lives in terms of seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, years. God, who knows what He’s doing,  has designated times and seasons with specific purposes in mind. In the scriptural accounts of Jesus, we see many references to the time had come, or the time had not yet come…etc.  In Luke 2, we read about the birth of Christ and the time came for Mary to give birth. In her case, it meant that the months of pregnancy– of waiting –were over. She was going to get to see the face of her sweet baby, the face of God.  Jesus was ready to be born–it was time. God’s ordained time.

When Jesus proclaims “The time has come”…He is saying your long season of waiting is over. This is the birth of a new thing. I am going to show you the very face of God. All of time has been pointing to this moment. You will see His face in me. You will get to know Him in me. You will experience His heart in me. He will be fully revealed in me. THE time where everything changes forever has come. This simple statement is huge. Jesus is announcing a world altering event. Huge.

The kingdom of God has come near...I like the translations that say, The kingdom of God is at hand…. I like that because “near” can still be distant. I live near my place of work, but I drive to get there. At hand signifies I can reach out and grasp it right now. I currently have notebooks, pens, a throw pillow, my phone, my computer, lots of books, a lamp, and some Kleenex “at hand”.  The kingdom of God is at hand. It is readily available. You can reach out right where you are and grasp it. The dominion of God is here, available to you.

Jesus taught us to pray may your Kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt. 6:10), giving us the key as to what it looks like for His “at hand” Kingdom to be present here. When God’s will is being done, His Kingdom is here. I’m almost afraid to write that because His will has been interpreted so many different ways and many atrocities have happened/are happening in His name.  That’s why it is imperative that we know Jesus, the full revelation of God, who makes the ways and will of God very clear. Pastor John broke it down into very simple terms in our first service when he told us that  to pray “your Kingdom come” means that we want God’s love, grace, and mercy here, on planet earth--and I’ll add that it’s for everyone. We want God’s love, grace and mercy here, for everyone.

Repent. Laura wrote above that “repent” means to change your mind. It is the Greek word metanoia– which literally means to change one’s mind, a transformative change of heart, a conversion. Think about the process of the butterfly that Laura wrote about above…it goes through meta-morphasis. Total change. The Oxford dictionary says that the word conversion is “The process of changing or causing something to change from one form to another. ‘the conversion of food into body tissues'”.    

The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.  The NLT version translates the phrase “renewing of your mind” to “by changing the way you think”.   And the result of not following the world’s ways by thinking a new way is that we’ll know God’s will–the ways of His Kingdom, His dominion, His reign–and we will be transformed and transforming into something new.

Believe the good news: What good news? Everything that Jesus has just said. Believe that the time is here, God’s Kingdom is here, you can be part of it–

You can be part of it. This is good news. In that day, the religious elite kept everyone else out. According to them, unless you looked like them, acted like them, had their education, were their gender (male), were part of their ethnic group, you were out. And they put all kind of demands on the “commoners” who wanted to be close to God, making it impossible, in their system, to be close. Jesus said—those days are over. God has come to you–the commoners. God loves you…you who think you’re not worthy of God’s love. He loves you. You who have been told you’re unclean–He loves you. You who have nothing to offer–He loves you. You who have made horrible choices and have tremendous regrets–He loves you. You who don’t really want anything to do with Him–He loves you.

Believe the good news–the gospel—the kingdom of God is here and Jesus is what God looks like. The time has come. Believe Him and then join Him in bringing His love, His grace, His mercy here…everywhere to everyone.

–Luanne

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