Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

One of the things I love about scripture is there is always more than what we see at face value–there are layers and layers to discover, and new lenses through which to see. It never gets old.

Our passage this week is Matthew 7:1-12. The last verse is one that, even people who don’t follow Jesus know well: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV)

We’ll come back to the little word “so”, which is sometimes translated “therefore”–but I want to spend a moment on the last clause–this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Remember that Jesus is teaching on a hillside. His audience is Jewish–the Law and the Prophets are what their belief system is founded upon. In this entire sermon, Jesus has been teaching them that rather than the “dos” and “don’ts” they’ve subjected themselves to in their faith, there is a different way. It began with the beatitudes, and moved through being salt and light, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” statements and more–each one addressing the transformation of the heart and the valuing of others. There are 12 verses in this week’s portion of chapter 7. “The Golden Rule” is in verse 12 and we’re beginning there, because while Pastor John was preaching, the Law and Prophets phrase leapt out to me. Why? Because this isn’t the only time Jesus said these words.

In this very sermon, right after the salt and light portion, and right before the “you’ve heard it said” statements, Jesus told his audience: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (5:17).

And in Matthew 22, we learn …an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (36-40)

Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He teaches us that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the greatest commandments and the Golden Rule: “Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you. (TPT), Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you...or as J.B. Phillips wrote in his translation, treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like…this is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

With that as our foundation, and backing up to a verse from last week’s sermon, Matthew 6:33–seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and God will take care of the rest…, let’s look at Matthew 7:1-11.

I don’t think I’m going to write a lot of commentary…I’m just going to put the commandment to love and the Golden Rule next to the verses.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Okay, This one might need a little commentary because this dog and swine thing seems so bizarre in the middle of this beautiful sermon. Jesus has just taught us not to judge and nitpick another’s shortcomings–is he now telling us to decide who is a dog, who is a pig, and withhold sacred things from them? Would that make any sense in light of the rest of what he’s teaching? No. So…what could this mean that’s not that?

I read a number of thoughts around this, and some don’t take the context into account, but others say that Jesus is not teaching us to judge, but to be discerning. One said “Do not persist in offering what is sacred or of value to those who have no appreciation for it,…” (Expository Files, April 2000) Pastor John said be careful about how you convey the precious to others. He went on to remind us that if we see others as “dogs” and “pigs” we’ll treat them like “dogs” and “pigs”, they’ll reciprocate and the precious will get trampled. When I think of it that way, and think of it in light of not judging others, and in treating others the way I want to be treated, this makes sense to me.

I work in a secular environment with at risk teenagers. The best way for me to share my relationship with Jesus at work is to love people and treat them well. Then, because of the relationship we’ve established over time, some of them will trust me enough to share “the hard”. I can tell them that I believe in Jesus and I pray for them. Sometimes that leads to deeper conversations–sometimes not, but I’ve not yet had anyone ask me not to pray for them. Sometimes it even leads to tears. Those moments are sacred, but they’re not forced. People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. I’m a Jesus-follower and I cringe at pushy gospel presentations. Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated.

So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred.

The discernment insight leads right into the next verses: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

And then: Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

The IVP Bible Commentary explains that “Jesus adapts a standard Jewish argument here called qal vahomer: arguing from the lesser to the greater (if the lesser is true, how much more the greater). Fish and bread were basic staples, integral to the diet of most of Jesus’ hearers; they do not stand for the fineries of the wealthy.” Good parents give good, life sustaining things to their children, not things that will harm them; how much more is that true of God–who always loves us, and always treats us as he wants to be treated… SO (therefore), in EVERYTHING, do to others what you would have them do to you.

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

We love God by loving others. 18th century theologian John Wesley summed this passage up by saying, “The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

I thought I had an idea of what I would be adding to the blog this week… Until I read Luanne’s masterfully woven words. She captured so beautifully the main points of this passage and connected them to everything we’ve been learning over the last five months. What I find so interesting is how, as we dig into these words from Jesus week after week, we find that everything he taught circles back to what it means to be one who lives out the love of God according to the kingdom Jesus brought to earth.

We could dig into any one of the verses from this week’s passage and take it apart word by word; we could talk about what it means to judge and to be judged by God in the manner we judge… Or, we could do exactly what Pastor John and Luanne did: filter every bit of it through the main point, holding onto what Jesus really desired his listeners to understand. Luanne identified above what that main point is: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Love God with our whole heart. Love our neighbors (which, we remember, includes all others) as we love ourselves. Seek first the kingdom–find over and over again that when we seek, we find Jesus–and live according to the ways of that kingdom that Jesus modeled. As we seek the upside-down kingdom and are molded into the image of Jesus, our King, that kingdom comes alive in us and we carry it to the world around us.

These are the concepts we continue to land on as we study the sermon from Jesus. It matters that we understand the main points, and beyond simply understanding, that we allow ourselves to be changed by them as we embody the words and ways of the One we follow. It matters so much. Why? Luanne explained exactly why with these words:

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness.

As I read through her portion, that line caused me to pause. The words came off the page and everything in my heart responded, Yes and amenThis is the whole point, friends. We can know the scriptures, be able to define the Greek roots of words, hold our own in theological debates, stun people with our head knowledge of Jewish culture and the customs of that time. But nobody is going to come to Jesus because of our well-designed arguments. It is his kindness that leads to repentance–to the willingness to see things a different way, change our minds, and begin a journey with Jesus–not pushy, clumsy appeals to say yes to the gospel, not defending our faith against the ways of the world, not mean, ugly judgments of how hell-bent “they” are if they don’t listen to “us.” It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his life growing roots in us that produces good fruit for us to offer the world around us. That’s how people meet Jesus and fall in love with him–the same way we did.

Love your neighbor as yourself, and do… The only other thing I want to highlight is the way Jesus presented the “Golden Rule.” As Pastor John emphasized in his sermon, Jesus did not focus on the negative, on what not to do. He didn’t say “Whatever you hate, whatever makes you angry, whatever you don’t like–don’t do that to others.” No. He said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This directive does not allow us to be apathetic rule-followers. We don’t get to say, “I didn’t treat them badly,” and think we’re living in obedience, because Jesus didn’t tell us what not to do. He told us to do. To go do good. That’s what love does.

And… as we do good to others, as we love, we find that we move forward, we grow. Moving toward others according to Jesus’ ways of love grows our capacity to love more, which makes us more like him. It’s how the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Simply choosing to not do bad, to not be unloving, will not birth the kingdom within us or around us. What speaks a better word to the world around us is our embodiment of the heart of Jesus. “For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.” (John 13:35) And what does love look like? Let’s refresh our memories…

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, TPT, emphasis mine)

Love never stops loving… Love keeps moving, keeps doing good to others.

As I paused a moment ago, the prayer of St. Francis came to mind…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is dispair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
 

As I ponder this prayer in light of what we are discussing this week, I can’t help but consider the word instrument. Its roots go back to a Latin verb that means “equip.” I love that, because this prayer then reads in my mind: Lord, equip me to do your peace; equip me to sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy. And when I think of an instrument–whether in the musical sense, or as a specialized tool used for an intricate, delicate process–it strikes me how useless an instrument is if it’s not set into motion. It may be beautiful sitting stagnant in place, and certainly does no harm by simply staying put. But it only puts good into the world when it is played, when it is utilized. The kingdom cannot come by us simply choosing not to do bad to one another. We must actively do good and choose love, which is always active and moving.

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

“The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

She thinks that’s Jesus’ point in this passage. I agree with her. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit

Sermon on the Mount: Do Not Worry

Do not worry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once again, we find ourselves in a familiar place…

What do we find when we seek first the kingdom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in other words,

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

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

–Laura

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

Ian Barnard | Words, Cool words, Lettering

Sermon on the Mount: A Call to Forgive

Before we look at this week’s verses, it is imperative we remember that throughout the entire Sermon on the Mount up to this point, Jesus has been teaching us how to “be”–how to “be” in the world, how to “be” in relationship with God, how to “be” in relationship with others. “Being” this way comes from the deep inner work of the Holy Spirit in our inner being–it’s a heart matter–and that deep inner work happens as we spend time with Jesus, as we learn from him, as we allow his way of thinking to become our way of thinking, and his way of being to become our way of being.

Pastor Beau, in last week’s sermon, reminded us that Jesus teaches:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30 NLT)

I was blown away by what Pastor Beau taught us regarding the word “yoke”. Laura wrote in last week’s blog: In ancient Judaism, the teachings of a rabbi were considered his “yoke.” Each rabbi’s yoke was different, as it contained his own subset of rules and interpretations. Jesus says here that his yoke is different from all the others. His teachings, he said, are easy, light, not burdensome or hard to bear. He asks his followers to take his teaching upon them and learn from him, to watch how he does it. And he says that in doing so, we’ll find rest for our souls.

Keeping all of that in mind, let’s look at this week’s verses–verses that many commentaries don’t even attempt to tackle.  Keep in mind that Jesus has just taught his followers to pray the Lord’s Prayer and he follows up that powerful, beautiful prayer with these words:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Mt. 6:14-15)

Where does your mind go when you read those verses? Does it make God seem cruel? Does it make you think that you don’t have a chance? Does it seem out of character? If you answer yes to any of those questions, this is the perfect time to remember that the scriptures weren’t written in English and our English translations don’t always get us to the heart of the matter… so we dig deeper. 

Digging deeper is actually a practice that was considered noble. In Acts 17:11, Luke wrote: The Jews of Berea were of more noble character and much more open minded than those of Thessalonica. They were hungry to learn and eagerly received the word. Every day they opened the scrolls of Scripture to search and examine them, to verify that what Paul taught them was true. (TPT)

Back to this week’s verses–what is Jesus teaching? Does God withhold forgiveness? 

Jesus taught us, just a few verses before, to pray forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. We tackled those verses a couple of weeks ago in the blog, and learned that, based on the Greek word for forgiveness, this phrase could be read: let go of what we owe you as we let go of what others owe us. 

The same Greek word, aphiēmi, is used in this week’s passage, so could this week’s verse be read like this: For if you let go of what other people owe you,  your heavenly Father will also let go of what you owe him. But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will not let go of what you owe him… ?

Pastor John reminded us that our attitude toward others reflects our attitude toward God, and our attitude toward God reflects our attitude toward others. We can go all the way back to the Ten Commandments and see that God’s heart is that we live in right relationship with him, and right relationship with others. The Ten Commandments are all about relationships. So is the Sermon on the Mount. In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. To do so doesn’t minimize what we’ve been through, but we don’t carry the burden of another’s actions when we choose to release them into God’s hands.

Unforgiveness creates a barrier between us and others, and us and God. Disconnection is not God’s way. We can’t offer an openness to God and refuse to offer grace to others. We can’t bless God and curse others. Jesus’ brother James wrote, We use our tongue to praise God our Father and then turn around and curse a person who was made in his very image!  Out of the same mouth we pour out words of praise one minute and curses the next. My brothers and sister, this should never be! (James 3:9-10 TPT)

And later in that same passage he wrote: Wisdom from above is always pure, filled with peace, considerate and teachable. It is filled with love and never displays prejudice or hypocrisy in any form and it always bears the beautiful harvest of righteousness! Good seeds of wisdom’s fruit will be planted with peaceful acts by those who cherish making peace. (3:17-18)

These verses remind me of what Jesus taught in the beatitudes at the beginning of the sermon on the mount: 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.. 

Blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God…

It’s all connected. 

When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do. If we look at the story of the prodigal son, the youngest son created a barrier between himself and his father by leaving the father’s care and squandering what he’d been given. The oldest son created a barrier between himself and his father by refusing to celebrate the younger son’s return and by holding onto his anger at his father’s grace toward his younger brother’s actions. The father went to both with an invitation to come home–a desire to restore relationship with both

Could this week’s verses be read…For if you let go of what other people owe you,  there is no barrier between you and your heavenly Father, But if you do not let go of what others owe you, your Father will allow the barrier between you and him to remain?

When I write it that way, it makes sense to me. God has not created the barrier, I have. God will come to me, he will invite me home to his heart, but I can’t bring the barrier with me. If I choose to harbor unforgiveness, if I choose the opposite of the beatitudes, if I choose not to be salt and light, I choose the barrier–I choose a heavy yoke. I choose separation. 

You all, I’ve lived in that space–I’ve created barriers as I’ve tried to self-protect by harboring resentment, unforgiveness, and a “you owe me” attitude. It doesn’t lead anywhere good. No doubt, forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus. Corrie Ten Boom wrote,  “Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart”  

She forgave Nazis who killed her family and locked her up in a concentration camp during World War 2. She knew something about being owed a debt that can never be repaid. And she knew the heavy weight of carrying unforgiveness. She wrestled, she battled, she returned to God again and again asking for help, and she let it go as an act of the will–then, over time, the temperature of her heart changed. 

My own hard forgiveness journeys have been a battle of the will. I asked God to help me let offenses go and surrender them to him. I didn’t “feel” it, but I desired it. I would have to remind myself over and over that I had made the choice to forgive and push away thoughts that would lead me back into the spiral of bitterness. Over time, and with intentionality, true forgiveness happened. In some of those journeys, relationship was restored, in some, it wasn’t; however, at this moment I can say that I have sought to heed Paul’s words: If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)  

Do I have to check my heart many times a day? Yep. Do I have to confess that I have not loved God with my whole heart and have not loved my neighbor as myself many times a day? Yep. 

But when I think of Jesus on the cross saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and when I think that he offered us forgiveness while we were still his enemies, when I remember that he wants us to love others as he has loved us, and when I remember his goodness, his kindness, his grace–how could I not offer it to others? And in offering it to others, the walls come down.

–Luanne

I am finally starting to write after much prayer, after reading dozens of articles and the few commentaries I could find, after looking up Greek words, and scouring the scriptures. This week’s passage is HARD, as both Pastor John and Luanne identified. I don’t know if these verses used to be as difficult for me, because I used to understand God and salvation in a transactional way, rather than in the relational and transformational way in which I’ve come to understand my faith as I continue to journey with Jesus. But these verses sound pretty transactional, right? If we don’t… God won’t. Or something like that.

Gratefully, Pastor John, in his sermon, gave us some things to consider as we seek to understand Jesus’ words. Luanne expanded on his points as she reminded us to connect these verses to what we read just prior (what we know as The Lord’s Prayer), and also about what we learned last week about Jesus’ yoke not being hard to bear. She explained what it looks like when our refusal to forgive creates a barrier between us and our experience of God’s forgiveness, which I want to come back to in just a bit. She also wrote, …forgiveness, when we’ve been deeply wounded is hard. We cannot do it without choosing to align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus...”

This is where I want to begin, because I don’t believe forgiveness is possible in our humanness. I believe it is possible only as we “align our minds and our wills with the heart of Jesus,” like Luanne said. Forgiveness is born in–and then can flow out of–us as we are formed more and more into the likeness of Christ. Philippians 2:13 comes to mind as I think about becoming more like Jesus:

For it is [not your strength, but it is] God who is effectively at work in you, both to will and to work [that is, strengthening, energizing, and creating in you the longing and the ability to fulfill your purpose] for His good pleasure.(Amplified Bible)

The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God.

I am reminded of another hard verse that we explored six weeks ago:

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48, NLT)

I wrote these words that week regarding this call to be perfect, and I think they fit well here, as we wrestle with another difficult call from Jesus:

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

I would say the same about forgiveness… On our own, our forgiveness–like our love–has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way. He gave us a new yoke–one we never carry alone. Just as we are not called to find a way to love perfectly outside of the perfect love of God, I don’t believe we’re being told to forgive without accessing the divine forgiveness of God. There is no other way for us to truly forgive.

And here is where our own will, which Luanne wrote about above, comes into play. She explained that, “When we refuse to forgive, we choose to hold on to sin; when we hold on to sin, we create a barrier in our relationship with God. God does not create the barrier… we do.” When we choose not to access the divine forgiveness that is readily available to us–which we carry as recipients of that forgiveness–we choose to replace the yoke of Jesus with the yoke–the burdens, regulations and rules–of the offense and the offender we are refusing to forgive. Yikes.

While there are teachings that hold to the belief that God’s forgiveness of us is dependent on our forgiving others first, this is not what I believe Jesus is saying here, not what I hear Luanne saying above, and not what I heard Pastor John teaching us on Sunday.

My understanding is that God’s forgiveness is whole, complete, finished and stands outside of and above all human actions. The God of the universe is not dependent on my ability to forgive others before I am forgiven. However, my ability to experience that forgiveness and to live in the freedom I have been offered can absolutely be hindered by my unwillingness to forgive.

Unforgiveness creates barriers, replaces the yoke of Jesus with an oppressive yoke of offenses and offenders, and can make it difficult to live in step with the unforced rhythms of grace. This yoke cloaks and overshadows us–it attempts to hide us from the light of God’s love. Now, God’s love is too bright, too powerful, too warm and ever-present to be denied, so it still breaks through as he constantly pursues our hearts. But our experience of his love is limited by the barriers we have erected. And if we’re not allowing much of his love to come in… there won’t be much of his love pouring out of us, either.

As John 13:35 reminds us, we are known as disciples of Jesus by our love for others. It really is all connected. Jesus has expressed in so many different ways during the sermon on the mount how vital it is that we love God, love others, and live according to the ways of the kingdom. This week’s passage once again emphasizes the same thing in a different way.

I will admit, this passage is still a struggle for me to wrap my mind around. Digging in has helped, but I expect these to be words that I wrestle with a bit every time I read them. I also trust that the Spirit of grace will continue to reveal truth and speak to my heart as I continue to journey with Jesus. That said, I’d like to leave us with beautiful words from someone far more learned than myself, a brilliant pastor and theologian whose insights are rivaled only by his kindness and commitment to cruciform love. I hope that these thoughts from Brad Jersak stir your heart to dig deeper, to linger longer, to be enraptured by the beauty of the One we follow as we all continue to grow and be formed into the image of Christ…

“The Gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness… Even when we turn away from God, he is always there, confronting us with his love. God is always toward us. Always for us. He comes, not as a condemning judge, but as a great physician… And if God is quiet at all, it’s because I’ve jammed my fingers into the ears of my heart. Yet somehow, I still can’t shake the feeling that God is there, watching, waiting, perhaps grieved, but if he ever seems ‘mad’ or ‘absent,’ again and again I find the real blockage is my own filters or projections–my pride or shame–distorting the presence of Love. The truth is, God is always there. And here. And now. The pure fire of divine Love is longing for you, my friend, his beloved–not merely waiting, watching or even following, but in vigorous, stalking pursuit…

I hear the voice of Grace say, “Oh, Brad, you aren’t merciful yet–certainly not to your haters. It’s not yet engrained in your character–mercy is not yet who you are. But I’ve given you the Grace to participate in Abba’s transforming mercy. You could begin by becoming an agent of Abba’s Grace, one act of mercy at a time. Freely you’ve received it, now freely give it away. Abba in his mercy pardons and forgives, so pay it forward. Receive Abba’s kindness and give it away. You might not feel merciful yet; but as you share Abba’s little mercies one day at a time, lo and behold, one day you find that you have become a mercy-bearer. It is who you are. You didn’t generate it… you received it; you obtained that mercy-trait of Christ as a Beatitude from Christ.” To summarize, we receiver by Grace what we could never muster on our own: Abba’s mercy for our debtors. And we become mercy in our nature as we freely distribute the mercies we receive from Abba. The reality of our Grace-transformation is revealed most thoroughly by the mercies we show our enemies.

(excerpts from: A More Christlike God, A More Beautiful Gospel, p. 294-295; A More Christlike Way, A More Beautiful Faith, p. 170-171)

–Laura

Chapter 9 |

The Lord’s Prayer-Part 2

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

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

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

 This, then, is how you should pray:

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

(Matthew 6:9-13)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Luanne

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

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

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

Hmm. Okay…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Message paraphrases it this way:

Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sweat blood”

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

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

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

The kingdom comes through Jesus…

Your will be done…

God’s will looks like Jesus…

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

Jesus is our bread of life…

Forgive us as we, through you, forgive…

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

Lead us in your way…

Jesus is our way, our truth, our life…

Draw us like a current to yourself…

Jesus is the way to the Father…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura

The Lord’s Prayer #1

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy Name, 
thy kingdom come, 
thy will be done, 
on earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our trespasses, 
as we forgive those
who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, 
but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, 
and the power, and the glory, 
for ever and ever. Amen.
I assume that most of us, regardless of our various upbringings, are familiar with some version of the prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” The above rendition is probably the most common. What is your experience with this famous prayer? Is it part of your prayer life? Did you memorize it as a child? What does it mean to you? We will spend three weeks diving deeply into this prayer that Jesus gave his followers as he taught them how to pray–it will form and teach us, if we let it.
On Sunday, Pastor John shared that this prayer defines and explains what Jesus has been saying throughout his sermon on the mount. We find it in Matthew 6:9-13, right after Jesus talks about what not to do when we pray. Here is that section again, to refresh our memories:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:5-8)
After talking through prayer practices that he does not endorse, Jesus says,

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-10)

These twenty-two words are the focus of this week’s message. The rest of the prayer will be covered over the next two weeks. I am grateful we’re taking it slowly through this section of the sermon on the mount. There is so much to explore, to discuss, to thoughtfully consider within these words. We have an opportunity to look more deeply into what might be very familiar to us, an opportunity to hear the words in a new way. If we lean in with open hearts and minds, seeking to learn and be transformed, we will not be disappointed with what we discover. It is my favorite thing about scripture, the way the Spirit comes into the words and brings them to life in fresh, new ways, revealing more than we had seen before.

On a personal note, this prayer has been a key part of my own prayer life for several years. Ever since the concept of “the kingdom” became a focal point of my journey with Jesus, praying “Your kingdom come…” has become an important part of my life. I don’t know that I thought much about it or what it meant when I was younger. It was actually Luanne who brought it to my attention. As she was captivated by this kingdom Jesus brought to earth, and began to share what she was learning, I was captivated also. If you read this blog often, it’s not news to you that both of us are still quite captivated by the kingdom and what kingdom living looks like for Jesus’ followers today–we write about it probably more than any other topic we cover.

Here’s the thing about what I just shared… Though this prayer has become a key daily component of my own prayer life, there is still more for me to discover in these five verses. There is more treasure to mine in these twenty-two words that Pastor John walked us through on Sunday. I love that. I never want any part of scripture to become stale or commonplace to me. I want to keep digging in, to continue to learn and ask for Holy Spirit revelation to breathe fresh, new life into ancient words. There is always more. As evidence to my point, I have wrestled with what to focus on in my portion of this week’s post. There are so many directions to go! One thing Pastor John highlighted stood out to me above the rest, though, so that’s where I’ll spend my time here.

Something I’ve been learning a lot about for the last couple of years is dualistic versus non-dualistic thinking. It’s especially intriguing to me when I look at the ways that dualism has slithered into western, evangelical Christianity, specifically here in the United States. I understand dualism to be either/or, black and white, this or that ways of thinking. It can lead to an us versus them mindset and often divides rather than unites.

Non-dualism, on the other hand, embraces the both/and, and that way of thinking and relating allows us to be comfortable living in the tension of the and. It allows us to think more broadly, more collectively. It connects rather than divides. But non-dualism leaves things a little undefined. To embrace non-dualistic ways of thinking, we have to learn to embrace mystery, to get comfortable with not having all the answers, to allow ourselves to be led beyond our comfort zones. Non-dualism asks us to consider ways of thinking that challenge our previous understanding. I believe breaking free of dualistic thinking is an essential part of growing in our walks with Jesus.

Pastor John introduced two concepts in this week’s passage where, in his words, “Jesus breaks the dualism.” 

The first is in our understanding of how prayer is meant to be handled. Jesus has just finished talking about prayer being something that ought to be done in private, between us and God, not for show… But this prayer focuses on “us”, right? So it’s not an individual prayer? But it’s meant to prayed as a private, individual prayer?

For those of us who have been raised in some version of westernized Christianity, it’s likely we have a very individualized approach to our faith and our prayers. Much of the teaching we grew up with probably focused on our personal relationships with God and our prayer lives probably reflect that.

What Jesus is teaching us in this passage is how to pray individually and collectively simultaneously. We can pray privately, but our focus is not on ourselves. We’ve written a lot about how early Christianity was communal in nature. We have moved so far away from that in our individualism that even praying the way Jesus teaches may not naturally make sense to us. Other cultures who embrace a more community-focused way of life probably aren’t challenged the same way some of us are when reading Jesus’ instructions. It’s so important that we notice and pay attention to the ways our either/or thinking invades even our study of scripture.

Jesus invites us–by beginning this “personal” prayer with the word “our”–to move away from dualism. He does so again in the way he presents God in his opening words. He says, “Our Father,” including all of us in his own father/son relationship with the God of the heavens,”the universe, the world, the vaulted expanse of the sky with all things visible in it” (Strong’s Greek Lexicon). He continues, “…hallowed is your name.” Hallowed means set apart, most holy, above all. 

So in the opening line of the prayer, Jesus identifies God as our collective, personal father, that we–along with Jesus–are in intimate relationship with, and identifies him also as entirely set apart, above all, distinctly holy. So, in which way do we relate to our God? The answer is: both. Right away, Jesus invites his listeners to enter into a new understanding of how to relate with God. Is he our father that we are intimately connected to, or is he altogether set apart, holy, different from all others? Yes. The answer is not an or, but an and.

It matters that Jesus addresses these things right away. It will serve us well to pay attention to what he is revealing. Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The entire sermon on the mount up to this point has been teaching us what it looks like to be kingdom-people, beginning with our hearts. In this prayer, Jesus moves our understanding further–beyond heart change and into a community-focused space, where our prayers are transformed as our hearts come into alignment with the kingdom he is introducing.

Where do the opening lines of this famous prayer find us? Where do Jesus’ words land in our minds and hearts? Have we prayed individually with a collective focus? What might Jesus be wanting to transform in the ways we’ve grown accustomed to praying? I look forward to following where Jesus is leading us together, as we continue to explore his words.

–Laura

As Laura wrote above,  I have been captivated by the kingdom of heaven coming to earth for years now. She and I were trying to remember how many years ago my obsession with The Kingdom here and now began–at least eight or nine. I can’t remember what sparked that flame, but even as I write about it now, my heart burns within me and my fingers tingle as I type. I believe that understanding God’s desire to establish his kingdom on earth, right here and right now, is the key to understanding what Christianity is all about.

Laura set us up beautifully for the Kingdom words Jesus taught us when she wrote: Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into.

A both/and understanding is imperative. Pastor John pointed out that we waffle back and forth between God as our Abba–our daddy, our father and God as the Holy One, the Almighty who is powerful and therefore, (in our minds) sometimes scary. Jesus combines the two…God is close– intimacy with God is possible, and God is Almighty and Holy and completely “other”.
Once we have this understanding, the rest of the prayer makes more sense to us. So here we go. The next fourteen words say: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Full stop. Read it again. Pray it again. This is God’s desire for earth. 
I don’t know how we miss this, and I missed it for a lot of years; however, a close reading of the gospels shows us that Jesus talked about the Kingdom of God on earth more than any other subject. It was his priority, and he embodied what it looked like in the flesh. In the Sermon on the Mount he is teaching those willing to hear, what Kingdom people look like.
Quick recap: He saw the crowds, went up the mountain, sat down and began to teach.
He started with the beatitudes–this is what my people will look like: Compare the beatitudes to Philippians chapter 2…have this mind (attitude) in you which was also in Christ Jesus…) 
Next: My followers will be salt and light in the world.
Then a reinterpretation of the law that focuses on our hearts and our treatment of others: You’ve heard it said…but I say…  
And then the three when you statements: When you give… when you pray… when you fast…
Right in the middle of those statements, this private prayer, prayed from the position that “I” am part of the “we”, that focuses on God’s will for the entire earth, is taught.
What are we praying when we pray Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
I was introduced to an expanded version of The Lord’s Prayer through Word of Life church in St. Joseph, Missouri, that clears it up. In that expanded version, this portion of The Lord’s Prayer says:
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy government come, thy politics be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Thy reign and rule come, thy plans and purposes be done on earth as it is in heaven. 
May we be an anticipation of the age to come.
May we embody the reign of Christ here and now.
This is the deep cry of my heart. God’s kingdom, not ours. God’s will, not ours. God’s government, not ours. God’s politics, not ours. God’s reign and rule, not ours. God’s plans and purposes, not ours. God is the only One who can establish God’s kingdom, yet it has everything to do with us and our understanding of God’s sovereignty and desire for intimacy with us.
God’s kingdom comes through us–through our relationship with God. God is here. Your will be done is what God’s kingdom coming looks like–it comes as we do God’s will.
This is where we struggle. We have to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts as we ask ourselves am I aligning my life with God’s will?  In our individualistic thinking we ask God, what is your will for my life? That’s the wrong question. The right question is God, what is your will?  Period. And then we align ourselves with God’s will.
Jesus is the best example of this. How does Jesus relate to God? He models constant intimacy. Jesus never goes rogue…he does only what he sees the Father doing. (John 5:19). And he tells us to stay connected to him: I am the vine, you (all) are the branches, if you (all) remain in me and I in you (all); you (all) will bear much fruit. (John 15:5). All of those pronouns in the Greek are plural.
What fruit will we bear? The fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Gal. 5:22)
We are a people who are to be known for those characteristics.
you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy nation (a kingdom), God’s very own possession. As a result, you can show others the goodness of God, for he called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light.
 Where is the kingdom? (Jesus) was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he gave them this reply: “The kingdom of God never comes by watching for it. Men cannot say, ‘Look, here it is’, or ‘there it is’, for the kingdom of God is inside you. (Luke 17:20-21 J.B. Phillips)
And to quote Jesus from this very sermon:  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”  (Mt. 5:14-15)
The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. 
To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected to the vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. In the New Testament we see that the Romans prioritized Rome, the Jews prioritized Israel, the Samaritans prioritized Samaria, etc. I’m a citizen of the USA, and I lived in Brazil for a decade. Should I prioritize those countries? If so, which one? No to all of this. When we follow Jesus, we become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. Earthly kingdoms have to take a back seat to this.
The Apostle Paul understood this and he wrote:
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28)

Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.  In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us...Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. (Col. 3: 10,11-13 NLT)

What categories do you suppose Paul might highlight if he were writing today? Think about it and repent where you need to. (I’m doing the same.)

Citizens of the kingdom of heaven, during the reign and rule of Rome, were beaten, imprisoned, persecuted, falsely accused, killed. They sang in prison, counted it joy to be persecuted for following Jesus, were scattered to other countries as a result of persecution and took the love of Jesus with them, they died in such a way (sometimes in arenas in front of crowds) that they created a holy curiosity about who Jesus was. Their priority was God’s kingdom, and sometimes they paid a high (earthly) price for living that way. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

N. T. Wright in his book “God and the Pandemic” writes: ...the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’…it’s about mission….God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort….When people look out on the world and its disasters…they ask…why doesn’t he send a thunderbolt…and put things right?…God does send thunderbolts–human ones.  He sends in the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people…They will use their initiative; they will see where the real needs are, and go to meet them. They will weep at the tombs of their friends. At the tombs of their enemies. Some of them will get hurt. Some may be killed. That is the story of Acts, all through. There will be problems…but God’s purpose will come through. These people, prayerful, humble, faithful, will be the answer…

Where, you may be asking, does personal salvation fit into all of this? Rich Villoda’s, in his soon to be published book The Deeply-Formed Life writes:

Eldon Ladd, in his short but seminal book on the gospel of the kingdom, wrote, “The gospel must not only offer a personal salvation in the future life to those who believe; it must also transform all of the relationship of life here and now and thus cause the Kingdom of God to prevail in all the world.” At the core of the gospel, then, is the “making right” of all things through Jesus. In Jesus’s death and resurrection, the world is set on a trajectory of renewal, but God graciously invites us to work toward this future. However, this work is not an individual enterprise; it is one orchestrated by the collected efforts of a new family…” (Emphasis mine)

A new family.

Our Father…Abba’s Kingdom…Abba’s will…on Earth…through us.

–Luanne

3730232-Mother-Teresa-Quote-God-loves-the-world-through-us

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

Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

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.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

Thy Kingdom Come on Twitter: ""You can give without loving, but ...

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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What Did He Say?

Right & wrong. Black & white. Open & closed. Good & bad. 

We have all been conditioned to think in such dualisms. Some of us are more prone to investigate the gray while others of us hold more tightly to these either/or narratives, but all of us are affected by this way of thinking more than we realize. It is dangerous when all of life is filtered through these dualisms because this kind of thinking inevitably leads to a superior/inferior, “us versus them” kind of mindset. Dualisms limit growth, keep us stuck, and are not compatible with kingdom living.

Pastor Beau began his sermon on Sunday by acknowledging his own tendency to see life in a black and white, dualistic way. He admitted he struggles to see all the gray, all the nuance that lives between the two fixed points, and shared with us that his journey to see beyond those dualities is a difficult one. His message was not part of Pastor John’s Sermon on the Mount series, but it was connected. He took us back to Matthew 5:17 and reminded us that Jesus said he did not come to abolish but to fulfill the law and the prophets. He explained more about what that meant culturally and historically–it was fascinating! I’m going to move into some of his other points, but if you want to hear more about that part, you can watch the full sermon here.

Beau shared that the “You have heard it said… but I say…” statements from Jesus that Pastor John has highlighted these past few weeks have really stuck with him. He told us that he sees these statements as an invitation to repentance. Before expanding on that, he reminded us what it actually means to repent. The three words in the Bible that are translated “repent” in English mean a strong desire to change; a change of mind, purpose, and action. He went on to emphasize the importance of changing our minds, the way we think, over defaulting to the behavior modification that our westernized understanding of repentance often implies. He told us that if we change how we think, our actions will follow–it doesn’t work the other way around.

Beau reminded us that Jesus had strong words for those who were all about behavior modification but not advocates for deep, real change. In Matthew 23:25-26, Jesus says to the teachers of the law,

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

Cleaning up what people see on the outside is not enough. Jesus cares about what’s inside. And, as Pastor Beau shared, that begins by changing how we think. Are we willing to see things differently? To take a hard look at ourselves and say to God,

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

(Psalm 139:23-24, TPT)

Beau told us that he doesn’t see repentance as a one-time prerequisite to salvation. He sees it as a lifelong journey, a part of our daily walk with Jesus. I agree. Luanne and I have written many times about regularly praying the words above out of Psalm 139 and about the importance of asking Jesus to search our hearts because there are things within all of us that we can’t always see on our own.

What does repentance actually require? Beau highlighted a few things:

Honesty. 

Humility.

Critical evaluation of our beliefs and behaviors.

If we are willing to be honest with others and with ourselves about what we know and what we don’t, we will realize how much we still have to learn. Honestly admitting that we don’t know everything is the first step to changing how we think. Humility flows from this place. When we acknowledge that there is much we don’t know and that we have areas where we need to grow, it puts us into a posture to learn. It also allows us to lower our defenses as we engage in honest critiques about ourselves, which we must do with Jesus as our guide. This part is not about burning everything down. It is simply being willing to empty our knapsack, lay everything we’ve packed in there out on the table, and ask why we’re carrying those things. Why do we see things a certain way? Why do we believe what we do? Why do we engage in the behaviors we engage in, and what habits do we have that are shaping how we live and interact with God and others?

Pastor Beau identified that critically evaluating these things is different than criticism. We all tend to push back when we feel criticized. Sometimes, we are so critical of ourselves that no one else has to say anything at all–we beat ourselves down and put up our defenses all on our own. Deconstructing parts of our lives that need to be taken apart and rebuilt can feel this way. That’s why it is so important that we do so with Jesus as our filter and our companion. We ask him as we investigate what we’ve been carrying, “Does this serve you, me, the kingdom well? Does this belief line up with your ways? Do these behaviors line up with your way of love or do they further separate and divide us as brothers and sisters in the kingdom?” 

And then?

We listen.

We learn.

We remember that Jesus is our teacher and we are his disciples. Which means that we place ourselves under his authority and learn from him. Then we share with others–by how we live, not what we say--what we have learned. We disciple others by loving them the way that we experience being loved by Jesus.

What God desires most from his children is our hearts. He longs that we be his from the inside out. He couldn’t care less about “good” behavior or “right” living that isn’t rooted in  love and knowledge of him. He cares plenty about us bearing good fruit, but he sees right through the fake fruit that we try to pass off as authentic. Here’s some of what the Bible tells us he has to say about this…

“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices.
I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings.”

(Hosea 6:6 NLT)

“I can’t stand your religious meetings.
    I’m fed up with your conferences and conventions.
I want nothing to do with your religion projects,
    your pretentious slogans and goals.
I’m sick of your fund-raising schemes,
    your public relations and image making.
I’ve had all I can take of your noisy ego-music.
    When was the last time you sang to me?
Do you know what I want?
    I want justice—oceans of it.
I want fairness—rivers of it.
    That’s what I want. That’s all I want.”

(Amos 5:21-24, MSG)

“Quit your worship charades.
    I can’t stand your trivial religious games:
Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings—
    meetings, meetings, meetings—I can’t stand one more!
Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them!
    You’ve worn me out!
I’m sick of your religion, religion, religion,
    while you go right on sinning.
When you put on your next prayer-performance,
    I’ll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
    I’ll not be listening.
And do you know why? Because you’ve been tearing
    people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
    Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings
    so I don’t have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
    Learn to do good.
Work for justice.
    Help the down-and-out.
Stand up for the homeless.
    Go to bat for the defenseless.”

(Isaiah 1:13-17)

The prophets wrote down God’s words to his people in these Hebrew Scriptures. Beau emphasized that God was saying to his people, as he says to us today,

It’s not about doing all the things! Don’t simply do things! Bring me your heart, your love. Come. To. Me.

Jesus says in Matthew 12:33,

“A tree is identified by its fruit. If a tree is good, its fruit will be good. If a tree is bad, its fruit will be bad.” (NLT)

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. As Pastor Beau identified, this is a reorientation of our whole person. We have to get more comfortable with saying things like,

“I don’t know.”

“I’m still learning.”

“I was wrong.”

“We were wrong.”

One of the prayers I pray nearly every morning contains these words:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent... (emphasis mine)

We humbly repent. Change how we think. Daily. Moment by moment. As we listen to and learn from and become more committed disciples of Jesus, our Teacher. This is not a one-time action, or a project to perfect. It is a lifelong journey of becoming more and more like Jesus.

May we have the courage to be honest, to humbly evaluate our inmost being with the Holy Spirit as our guide, and to reorient our whole being toward our God. Jesus is calling us to radical repentance, especially in these days of deadly dualism. How, Church, will we respond?

–Laura

Richard Rohr Quote: “I think most human beings are dualistic ...