true religion today

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Amos 5:21-24

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:26-27

It is a sad time, and a difficult one indeed, worldwide. With the pandemic, and all that has swirled around that, and now with the murder of another black person at the hands of a white person, even one who is supposed to enforce the laws of the land. There’s little wonder over the reaction that has taken place, terribly mistaken as it is, from years and years of pent up frustration and anger and loss of hope.

The anger on all sides is nearly overwhelming. You have Christians on the religious right holding the line steady on abortion being the evil of the day, and too often minimizing other evils, in my opinion, though not always. Then you have Christians on the religious left who too often it seems to me think that a political change can solve the problem. I don’t deny at all that political process and change can’t make a difference.

But what both Amos and James are getting at demands more than religious services with lots of words on how to fix the problem. What seems needed is an underlying passion for justice, and a heart set on making a difference. This goes well beyond politics, how one thinks in terms for example of American politics: left, right, moderate, whatever. It doesn’t leave those behind, and I think there can be good points in them all. But what is at the heart for Christians and for the church is nothing more or less than what Amos and James were getting at.

What is needed is a change of heart that can lead to the other changes needed. And this should be seen in the church, in its care for each other, and for its community and beyond. And it must touch the troubles of the day with the healing hand of Jesus. Our politics of this world should not even enter into the picture. There should be the kingdom of God influence which permeates all we say and do. “The politics of Jesus.” When people look at the church, they should not be able to figure out what American or other national political persuasion we’re of. They should instead think something like, “Wow, these people really love each other and everyone. They care about the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, pregnant women, the unborn, the born, everyone.

I am confident that’s already true across the board. But that’s not seen when we make a big deal out of our American political stance. All that does is alienate others. We should not care ourselves one bit as to where we do stand politically. That’s all beside the point. The wise words of Abraham Lincoln can help us here:

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

None of us at all are on God’s side. But yes we can be and are, and we need to live accordingly, only in and through Jesus.

 

character versus giftedness

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3

The fruit of the Spirit (“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”) are not in competition against the gifts of the Spirit. But this passage from Paul makes it clear that without love, the operation of the gifts means nothing, at least not in God’s estimation of the person who practices them.

What I would like to tell any young, budding preacher would be something like what Paul is saying here. I would say, the gift part will come. That is important. But major on character. Make sure your life is in line with God’s call to love which includes living in and according to the truth.

Give me any day and every day someone who is faithfully plodding along with what might be considered a nothing out of the ordinary gift, but consistently and faithfully loves others, and loves God, their lives marked by obedience to God’s will. I’ll take that any day over a person who has an amazing gift, but is a bit fast and loose when it comes to character. The fruit of the Spirit is the goal in our lives toward Christ-likeness. The gifts of the Spirit are meant to help us move that direction. In and through Jesus.

no truth apart from love

The wise in heart are called discerning,
and gracious words promote instruction.

Gracious words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.

Proverbs 16:21,24

Some people seem to think that truth is telling it like it is, no holds barred. But truth in God’s world is always joined with love; you can’t separate them. Love is not love apart from truth; truth is not truth apart from love.

This should be an important baseline on how I judge my own speech and the speech of others. How well I receive a sermon, message or as it’s often called nowadays a conversation around and in God’s word. Is it imbued with grace and truth? If not, it will be lacking.

None of us has it altogether. And we might tend more either toward grace, or truth. People who are known to be blunt are often admired as “telling it like it is,” or “being real.” And others who can never say anything that might be displeasing to others will likely not be taken seriously, or will be seen as flatterers.

What we need is a combination of grace and truth. We speak truth, but we do so gently, with love. In fact we would want to consider and ponder how to make truth as attractive as possible, rather than quite the opposite. What will help us a long way in that direction is humility, the realization of how much we ourselves are in need of grace. That should help us put a curb on our harshness, and hopefully find in time that it no longer characterizes us.

When we understand our own great need for God’s mercy and grace, we won’t look down on others. But instead will want to help them with the help God gives us. In and through Jesus.

doing what is right and loving others

Anyone who does not do what is right is not God’s child, nor is anyone who does not love their brother and sister.

1 John 3:10b

1 John is a powerful letter from the start, both in its simplicity and profundity. And one of the things John pounds home again and again in the brief letter is the importance of living by the truth of God found in Jesus which means obeying God’s commands, the most fundamental of all, to love each other.

1 John has much to say about this, so we need to read further. Love is made known in Christ laying down his life for us, and our love is made known in laying down our lives for the brothers and sisters (3:16). And this is about day to day acts of faithfulness, especially to meet a need.

So John stresses that God’s children do what is right, and love God and the family of God.

I am grieved when I see what seems to me to be less than that. Yes, we can’t see into other people’s hearts like God can, so that we need to indeed be careful. Sometimes it’s in overt acts such as harsh words. Other times it may be subtle, yet even worse, like when one is continually ignored. It may involve a slow burn. We need to watch ourselves, even check to see whether or not we might be misunderstood by someone to be doing that. And we need to pray for any who might be doing that to us. As we seek to do what is right and love. In and through Jesus.

overcoming evil with good

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:21

There seems to be nothing more natural to us than responding to that which is not loving, or maybe even hateful with that which is less than love. We want to hold our ground, or at least protect ourselves. And besides, what right does anyone have to act the way they did? How in the world are we supposed to “overcome evil with good”? And just what does that mean? To understand, we have to look at the fuller context.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:17-21

We’re to do good to others, even when it may seem to make no sense. What makes sense to us unfortunately is tit for tat, if you do me wrong, than I need to at the very least hold you at arm’s length, and likely I need in some way to retaliate. But what does Scripture say? Something quite different.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Romans 13:1-7 follows, the passage on God’s command to us to be subject to the state, governing authorities, who are obviously accountable to God to carry out their duty for our good, and for the good of society or people in general. So those who do evil are accountable to God in part by being accountable to the governing authorities, which in turn are themselves accountable to God.

But back to the main point: We don’t have to become best friends to those who are mistreating us. And this is not at all referring to abusive relationships where even our lives might be at stake, and certainly our well being. We need to get out of them, and look to the governing authorities when that’s needed. We can love from a distance through prayers, but keep our distance at the same time.

But in many cases our enemies will be those we have to put up with day after day, whether at work or someplace else.  We may not win them to Christ, but maybe we can win them to ourselves, and help them become open to the gospel message. Their incredulity might turn into something of a friendship during which they will see our lives, and the fact that our love for them is genuine. So that instead of God’s judgment, they might eventually receive his salvation. In and through Jesus.

 

 

 

 

 

love in this life is in part, too

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

This passage from Paul makes clear the primacy and permanence of love, that when the gifts are no longer needed, that’s what will remain. I think both from Scripture and clearly seen in experience, love in this life is in part as well.

Not that we don’t experience something of the fullness of God’s love shed in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). We do experience something of the fullness of God’s love in Jesus by the Spirit, no doubt. But it is intermittent. Like our knowledge we receive by faith, it seems in part. Maybe there are notable exceptions among those with a special disposition, or some are more given to this experience than others. I’ve been in that ocean of love a few times, but most of the time I have lived only in trickles or dew drops of it most every day, though there have been dry spells. Though I think that dryness is often due to our hearts being hard, and not soft enough to receive God’s love. Somehow we are off on our own schemes, whatever, essentially in idolatry, and don’t need God. There is also “the dark night of the soul,” which might be entirely something else.

I also think that even as we sincerely seek to keep close accounts with God, and walk humbly with him in this life, love is still partial, in part. We have that grace in our hearts to want to love, to actually love, and to receive that same love of God from others. So through Christ we definitely have the capacity to sincerely love. It’s just that in this life it seems that it’s something we fail at again and again, and something we have to cultivate and work on.

That seems clear in Paul’s description of love, or at least is suggestive that way to me:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Then Paul adds:

Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13:8

That’s in contrast to prophecy, tongues, and knowledge as in the gift of knowledge by the Spirit, that to end when it’s no longer needed. So love is what’s needed in everything, all else having its place in this life, but nothing without that love.

But back to the list quoted above in verses 4 through 7: I think this is to evaluate ourselves, our lives, to understand how we’re to live especially in our relationships with each other as Christians, but also with others. God will make all of this real to us, but it’s not like we’re going to do any of it perfectly in this life. I think it’s in part a reminder of what this love in essence is as to how we’re to live it out.

Quite real, but not fully realized in this life. As we look forward to its full realization when “we shall see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). In and through Jesus.

 

 

the primacy of love

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13

The story goes that late in Aquina’s life he had an experience and said that his writings were worthless. Of course that wasn’t the case. But evidently he picked up something of what Paul was referring to here. He had something of a seeing or new sense of the God who is love.

We have revelation from God in Scripture, Christ and the gospel. We shouldn’t discount what God has given us in terms of truth. These words from Paul are in the midst of a letter. Paul certainly had plenty of knowledge from God and he had to make that clear to this very church. But here we read that it’s worthless if not motivated by love, specifically God’s love in Christ given by the Spirit.

To know that our knowledge is limited is an important, essential part of knowing. Whatever knowledge we have is completely a gift from God. And it’s in terms of love. The love of God in Christ is what’s behind the gift of knowledge along with all the other gifts. And the gifts are given primarily for the good of others.

What edifies others is love, but it’s a love that is joined to truth. Knowledge by itself puffs one up with pride. It’s always and forever to be motivated by love. And you can’t separate love from truth and still actually love. Love doesn’t delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.

Perhaps what this is saying to me right now more than anything is that I need to humbly hold to whatever gift I might have, as well as receive from the gift of others, doing that in love. Love it the point of all. Too often, I’m afraid we think of what we know as absolute and complete, an end in itself. Love is needed to inform and form what knowledge we have. And love helps us to hold to what gift and knowledge we have with the utmost humility. Knowing it is in part; we never have it all in this life. The gifts are given to us all by God out of his love and meant to be helpful to ourselves and to each other in that same love. In and through Jesus.