the moral fabric of society and the Christian witness

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 2:14-16a; 4:8-9

Philippians is a great (short) book to read and meditate on. Interestingly, Philippi was a Roman military outpost, so at least in that respect, it was quite what we would call today, nationalistic. It surely had the normalcy of cities with city life and its own culture. Paul’s letter is written in that backdrop.

Fast-forward to today, and while we see stark differences, I think we can find more similarities than not. For Christians to live in a kind of exile on earth as ultimately citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20-21) had its precedent in Jeremiah 29 where the people of God were to settle down and live as witnesses of God, hopeful for the true good of the nation where they lived.

Paul’s words on what we’re to think on involve terms that were quite embedded in the culture of his day. What is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, yes- excellent or praiseworthy. Our thoughts are to be on such things. If we embrace politicians and systems that violate these ideals, are we really adhering to what Paul is getting at here? I would argue that we’re not.

Christians can advocate for the unborn, for the protection of minorities, etc., while not lining up with what is untruthful and ugly. We should never have any part in that, or at least hold it at arm’s length. Someone once told me something we all more or less take for granted: “Politics is dirty.” Okay. But that doesn’t mean Christians should get in that dirt, nor look the other way, thus unwittingly participating in it.

And that gets to Paul’s words quoted above, that we’re to conduct ourselves in keeping with being God’s children: in a manner, first with our tongues, in which we’re blameless and pure, without fault in a warped and crooked generation, as we hold on to the word of life: the gospel or good news of Christ, and Scripture in that context. That we’re to be witnesses of the light of the world, Jesus, and not dim the light we are in him is central to what Paul is getting at.

If we care about society, then we can’t accept something less than that. Our main concern by far is our witness, and being faithful to Christ. We hope and pray for the best in this world, and acknowledge its limitations, while pressing for better. And we realize that the one true life is found only in the church through the one good news in and through Jesus.

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why we don’t shut up (about our faith)

…we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.

Acts 4:20b

First off I want to say I’m thankful to live in a nation in which I am not persecuted for my faith, and I would say, for the faith. Unfortunately persecution of Christians worldwide today is on a scale perhaps worse than ever. I’m grateful to live in a nation, the United States, which maintains freedom of religion. Of course there may be subtle ways of persecution here, but not the kind in which one’s property or life is at risk. So I’m blessed to live in freedom in that regard. Our persecuted family in the faith are blessed, in the words of our Lord, to face persecution as they continue on in the faith (Matthew 5:10-11). And we need to support them with our love and prayers (see Open Doors, one of the ministries working to help such).

The words of Peter and John quoted above, before the religious authorities who were persecuting them, are instructive, and actually enlightening as to why we Christians persist and won’t let up in our witness. Maybe it’s especially true for those set apart for ministry, but actually all Christians are called by God to be a witness. We are witnesses first of all in the change of our lives and how we live in love for others, and in what we say about our faith and the faith.

The apostles saw the Lord, witnessed his life, his words, deeds, and just who he was. As well as witnesses to his resurrection from the dead, the point in the narrative above after a man over forty years of age and lame from birth was completely healed. The apostles found something that was not just life changing for them, but amounted to good news for the world no less, in God’s grace and kingdom come in him. And we follow in their train.

I am personally not only convinced intellectually, but by what I’ve seen. Changed lives yes; lives for the love of others, including enemies. Rational argument is good, and actually there’s a convincing rationale for Jesus’s resurrection, which has turned one skeptic after another into a believer. I don’t deny others have abandoned the faith. All I can say is there’s one thing that keeps me going on and wanting to be a witness: what I continue to see and hear. I see the difference it makes day after day, or at least over shorter and longer spans of time in my own life. And though I often don’t understand well enough what Scripture is saying, the words are compelling and point me to God’s Word himself: Jesus.

This is personal to me, but it’s more than that, it’s for the world. The gospel, which is the good news of God in Jesus is for the world. It will never be the center of any nation state in this present age, but is always manifest only in the church scattered amidst all the nations. Part of this good news in Jesus is the promise and “hope” of his return, when he will be King of kings and Lord of lords, and God’s kingdom in him will be set up when heaven and earth are made one in him.

So we carry on. Yes, in the midst of difficulty, our own darkness, our stumbling, and so on. But we continue to follow. To show and tell the difference this makes in our own lives, meant for all others as well. In and through Jesus.

 

 

a breathtaking, life-giving passage

Now Jesus learned that the Pharisees had heard that he was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John— although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. So he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee.

Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”

He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”

“I have no husband,” she replied.

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”

Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.

They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

John 4:1-42

This passage is fascinating on many levels. On the surface, it also seems strange. After all, Jesus ends up talking to a Samaritan woman, which in itself is outside the norm. And while she knew and seemed to respect her religious tradition, her life certainly didn’t line up with that, having had five husbands, and the man she was then living with, not being her husband.

It’s interesting how in their conversation which turned into so much more than Jesus’s genuine request for a drink of water from the well, as one should expect when entering into a conversation with Jesus, she really had no clue at what Jesus was getting at. Thinking somehow that the “living water” he was telling her about might make it unnecessary for her to quench any physical thirst. He presses on, their conversation moving into religious matters, where the Samaritans worshiped (Mount Gerizim) as opposed to where the Jews worshiped (the temple in Jerusalem). Jesus said the Jews unlike the Samaritans knew who they worshiped, because salvation was from the Jews. Jesus then said that in the future, and even in the present then, that would be neither here nor there. That the Father seeks worshipers who worship him in the Spirit and in truth. And then she mentions that when Messiah comes, he would explain to them everything. Jesus tells us that he, the one she is speaking to, is the Messiah.

She runs off, even leaving her water jar behind as a witness to her townsfolk. That he had told her that she has had five husbands, the man living with her now, not being her husband. That he had even acknowledged that he is the Messiah. And she exclaims, “Could this be the Messiah?”

Many Samaritans end up believing her both because of her word, and also because of Jesus’s own words after they sought him out.

Such a rich passage. Jesus’s passion, as told to his disciples, that his food was to do the will of him who sent him, and to finish his work. And that the harvest was right in front of them, and ready for the picking.

This passage picked me up when I needed it. Such events told, along with the words accompanying it, lift one up into a different plane, so to speak. Certainly encouraging us, but more than that, helping us to hear or sense from God the direction we’re to take. Even as we aspire to be the worshipers the Father seeks. In and through Jesus.

our politics is hurting our witness (mine included)

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

John 18:36-38a

I’m not sure what to make of the posts I see from Christian friends on both sides of the political spectrum. Often at best there’s a mix of morality and politics. At worst it seems like there’s more adherence to the political party line than there is to truth. Of course that’s my judgment. But when I see Christians line up either on the religious right as conservatives, or the religious left as progressives, I don’t see just an unblinking, uncompromising commitment to unmitigated truth. Maybe they’ve weighed everything and decided on one side or position, or another, something we may often have to do when we vote. And too often then they’ll try to line up with their party’s agenda or platform completely, on every issue. I suppose thinking that the underlying philosophy mirrors their own.

I was raised Republican in an area with an understanding that voting that way was being faithful to Scripture, voting any other way, especially Democrat is not. What I think anyone is going to find is that the politics of this world just can’t be endorsed without compromising something of morality and truth. I find over and over again on every side that when one political party takes a stand against something that’s wrong, while the other party seems to either endorse that wrong, or be blind to it, the party doing well in that is invariably not doing so well on other matters which are of equal importance, or at least matters of justice and mercy. Even if you think your party is doing basically well on everything, that doesn’t mean you should march in lockstep with them. As a follower of Christ, you’re going to have to be willing to take unpopular stands if you’re going to be faithful and a true witness to the Truth and the gospel.

The decisions made in such places are often not black and white to be sure; they’ll have complexity and accompanying uncertainty. In those positions, Christian officials will have to pray and seek God’s counsel and wisdom, listen well, and make the best decision possible. And of course all of us need to pray for everyone in positions of government authority (1 Timothy 2).

Jesus before Pilate makes it clear that his politics are above this world, his kingdom not being of this world since it’s not from it, but directly from God, no less than God’s kingdom come to earth. But as such it’s not of this world which I think is a good rendering since Jesus makes the point that that is why his servants wouldn’t fight to prevent or end his arrest. Instead Jesus said that he was present to testify to the truth and that everyone on the side of truth would listen to him. Pilate in what one can see as up to date right to the present time, lifts his eyebrows, shakes his head- so to speak, and almost protests: “What is truth?”

If we Christians don’t wake up then our witness is going to be entirely lost, or at least significantly diminished. We must speak out with the truth in regard to abortion, racism, helping the poor and dispossessed, violence, caring for earth, and a whole host of other issues. We must be known as followers of Christ, not of any political party or ideology of this world. Bearing witness to the good news in him, not to anything less. And humbly participating as we’re led, in the affairs of this world.

God’s kingdom come in Jesus is not of or from this world, but it is definitely for this world. People need to see the difference in us for one reason only: we are followers of Christ. We inevitably will have different understandings of issues, and how to address them. But that should be secondary to our commitment together of Christ and the gospel. Alas, all too often it’s not. That needs to change. Again we as Christians should not be known as Progressives, Democrats, Conservatives, Republicans, or whatever else, regardless of how we’re registered, or how we vote. Rather we must be known as Christians, true followers of Christ, witnesses to the one and only good news for the world in him.

remembering the persecuted church

Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Hebrews 13:3

Open Doors is one of the best organizations in calling attention to and helping persecuted Christians. The recent report for 2018 makes it clear that there are pockets of what actually turns out to be a growing persecution of Christians worldwide.

Here in the United States and in the western world there is none of the persecution experienced elsewhere. We may have laws we disagree with, but one can still be an open witness of their faith without fear of suffering and loss. Not so in many places worldwide including a recent crackdown in China where both leaders and members of churches are being put in prison and tortured.

We need to become more aware of the plight of Christians and we need to be in regular prayer for them. To be a Christian here ordinarily costs us nothing, although we might miss out on a promotion or somehow be marginalized, or we might have to take some ethical stands that cost us. To be baptized as a Christian in many places elsewhere is practically to accept a death sentence, or at least be relegated to a status that is lower and subject not only to scorn, but to a more difficult existence.

There is no question that we here in the United States and elsewhere are shielded and even in danger of becoming complacent in our faith. America like Europe is becoming increasingly secularized to the point where faith is seen more and more as a relic of the past, and even an impediment to civilization. Although that can be exaggerated and misunderstood among Christians here, nevertheless there’s a real element of truth in it. Yet at the same time we don’t suffer the persecution our brothers and sisters elsewhere are facing.

…God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

1 Corinthians 12:24b-26

Paul tells us that if one part of Christ’s body suffers, then the entire body suffers with it. Not unlike my foot which suffered injury some years back, and at times hurts probably due to arthritis that has set in. So that even though the rest of my body may be okay, yet I am not comfortable. Other parts sometimes compensate for missing or hurting parts of our physical existence, when they can.

We need to develop more and more an awareness which breaks the boundaries of ethnicity and denominations and traditions, not to mention nations, to see and begin to understand and enter into the world in which others of our faith live. That by God’s Spirit, we might be a help to them, even as by their faith they’re a help to us. And that together we might be a witness to the world in and through Jesus.

the one thing needed to be a fresh witness

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Colossians 3:16

I am actually thinking here primarily of teaching or preaching, but this applies in any aspect of witnessing, and I’m referring to the verbal aspect of it, just as Paul did in this passage. Why is it that in some circles and churches the word is fresh and new and powerful every week. We can well say, “Let the word be the word, and it will be powerful because that’s what it is.” It surely can fall on deaf ears due to hardened or unprepared hearts. But that’s another subject.

There is nothing more important than seeking to be interactive with God’s word, which today we might well say is the word or message of Christ, both in terms of fulfillment, as well as from and through Christ by the Spirit.

In the struggle of life, in all that makes up our existence, it’s important that we seek to live as those who are not only accountable to God, but also in a living relationship with Christ by the Spirit. So that our lives are an expression of Christ, both from us and from him (see this post).

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

The important point here is that we’re sharing what’s a part of us. It’s not contrived, or something we have to put on, or act out. Not that there isn’t a struggle at times. But we share what God gives us to share with others, and receive the same from others, as well.

Yes, this is from Christ by the Spirit. But it’s necessarily tied to the word as well, which comes from the triune God. It’s the word, but one might truly say it’s Christ expression of it, certainly a Christo-centric, Christ-centered reading and telling of it, even as Jesus opened the scriptures to his disciples to help them see that he is the fulfillment of what is written. It’s a faithfulness to the word, to scripture, which is only possible now, in and through him. Fresh, and as new and life-giving as ever, in and through Jesus.

 

not having easy ready answers

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience…

1 Peter 3:15-16a

The older I get, the more I question even my own questions or answers, for that matter. My typical response to things is “I don’t know,” or “It’s complicated.” That’s not to say that I don’t have some opinions on a whole range of issues. And even convictions. Although given the nature of things, much of it can be on matters that are rather open ended. The answer may be good insofar as it goes, but it’s open to refinement, and even some correction.

But when it comes to life itself, and what’s at the heart of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to think, and hopefully say, It is God in Jesus, and the good news in him in his incarnation and life, death and resurrection, ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit, with the promise of his return. That is something I believe without so much as a thought that it might need some correction here or there. Of course only God fully understands even the most simple gospel truth, such as John 3:16. We understand by faith as much as God helps us to, of these simple, yet profound truths, which are brought home to our hearts and minds by the Spirit of God.

And we’re to tell them to others. Not having all the answers, or being a know-it-all. But simply being able to point to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. In whom we have put our faith and hope, our all. And through whom we know God’s love, which we share with all others. Jesus.