opportunities to do good

…whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all and especially for those of the family of faith.

Galatians 6:10

Opportunities come and go. Doing good or working for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith should be a prime consideration in how we direct our lives. There is plenty of need and plenty of opportunities. And yet there’s often only a limited window to fulfill it.

When the opportunity is present we need to be in prayer and ready to help. I think it’s not only good to pray about everything, but to be in an attitude and in the practice of prayer all the time. But sometimes I wonder why we think we have to pray about certain things. Jesus already tells us that if someone asks for something, we’re to give it to them (Matthew 5:42).

That said it can be a step of faith, giving up something that has value to us, is even helpful to us, but giving that to someone who is often in much greater need than ourselves, who actually does need it, whereas we can get by without it.

As Paul puts it, it’s a part of our sowing to the Spirit, and hopefully helping others experience something of the same blessing we’re receiving in doing so. In and through Jesus.

you can’t separate Christ from his teachings and commands

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you who behave lawlessly.’

“Everyone, then, who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”

Matthew 7:21-27

If you consider what is actually taught and practiced, there seems to be centuries and centuries of mainstream Christian teaching focusing on Christ and Christ’s self-sacrificial death on the cross as being the basis for salvation and what it means to be a Christian and in the faith. Many will go to the book of Hebrews to underscore that. What Christ did accomplish on the cross is unique, redemptive, and universal as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. No one or nothing else can replicate that. It’s done, completely accomplished.

But what follows from that is a faith which receives and gives. If we are not active in our faith, as James tells us, whatever faith we think we have in Christ and Christ’s death for sins is null and void for us. It is dead. Faith that doesn’t make a difference in our lives is not the faith Jesus talks about in Scripture. Even though there’s truth in it, it’s not good enough to say, “I’m not perfect, just forgiven” (bumper sticker). There has to be cleansing of sin in a regenerative process symbolized as a marker and witness in water baptism with the baptism of the Spirit which effects the change.

What that brings is nothing less than a following of Christ which takes seriously all of Christ’s teachings and commands. Unless Jesus in “the great commission” at the end of Matthew’s gospel is mistaken when he told his disciples to teach new disciples of every nation to obey all he had commanded them, and that he would be with them in this, to the very end of the age, meaning up to the time of his return.

A good place to start in this is Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). This will become a life-long project for us, and we’ll never get it perfectly. But unless we’re dead set and fully committed to both listen, listen and listen some more and keep listening, as well as put into practice everything, every day, then we’re not really followers of Christ. And we’re not really “in Christ.” No matter what we say about resting in Christ’s once for all sacrifice on the cross. Unless Jesus didn’t really mean what he said at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, as quoted above.

the power and goodness of prohibitions

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not murder; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

Romans 13:8-10

The above passage is apt, but there are plenty of other passages from Scripture which help us see that prohibitions are part and parcel of it. There are a good number of them in Leviticus and elsewhere that were for another space and time. But we’ll find plenty enough to keep us occupied.

It has been well pointed out that the faith that is in and from Christ tells us not only what we can’t do, but what we can, as well. It is very much an enabling grace from God.

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

Matthew 7:12

But let’s not lose sight of the goodness, power, efficacy and importance of prohibitions, being told what not to do. We often do what is not helpful, but indeed unhelpful and unedifying to ourselves and others. And we may not consider much of it wrong at all, but that’s where wisdom from Scripture can help us see differently.

Simply holding ourselves back from doing a whole host of things save us a ton of trouble and heartache. And it doesn’t matter how we feel. Yes, we want to feel like doing the right thing and avoiding the wrong. We want our lives to naturally flow from our hearts. But there is a sense I think in which it works both ways, that is the faith that we have. By responding in faith to the Lord’s word to us, we begin to enter the experience of God’s ever-present grace into the needed change of heart. But when we resist that word, we remain in bondage to ourselves and our vices. Instead, God wants to bring about virtue, not only in our actions, but in our heart.

What is needed is the response of faith. Sometimes we have to act in faith before our actions become a part of who we are. How this all works out is quite a bit of a mystery, God’s working. But change of heart is always accompanied with action. And a good portion of that action is to refuse to do what we would ordinarily do. That refusal becoming more and more a part of who we are over time in our love for our neighbor as for ourselves.

An important, helpful word for me, for us all. In and through Jesus.

making disciples

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him, but they doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20

It is true that many hold onto a faith which does involve working at change of life, but seems mostly about the hope of eternal life, sins forgiven, and an emphasis on how undeserving we are. Of course, we’re unworthy in and of ourselves, but there are passages that indicate that somehow God’s grace is at work to make us worthy, to help us live lives worthy of the calling we’ve received.

Why it is that so many are vibrant in an evangelical faith, maybe even a gospel faith, but back to more of the common evangelical faith of today. Evangelical is from the Greek word from the New Testament meaning gospel. But in present evangelical understanding there’s a marked emphasis on assurance of eternal life. Yesterday in a sermon at First Mennonite Church in Bluffton, Ohio, Lynn Miller said this:

Nothing is more disturbing to the secular culture around us than the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m convinced that the evidence of your salvation in Christ is not your belief that you will go to heaven when you die, but the evidence that you are living according to his teachings while you are still alive. And living according to the teachings of Jesus is disturbing. Jesus says he loves the stranger, the widow and the orphan. In this self-centered culture that surrounds us, that is disturbing.

The problem is that the church is not really fully committed if committed at all to the work of making disciples. A disciple is a follower of Christ, committed to following him come what may. Today that is done through faith and baptism through which there is a commitment together as church to hold each other accountable as all together seek to follow Christ in all of life.

Sadly, even in many of the best of churches, there’s mostly an emphasis on the blessed assurance that is ours in Christ which is good, along with practical application of Scripture to help us in our lives. And some are much better in holding people to what Scripture is saying, the challenge there. But it needs to be made clear, no bones about it that if we’re not in to follow Christ, and such following has to be total, complete, than we’re not in the faith taught by Christ and found in the New Testament. Period.

This will be messy and not easy, and we can well understand that if we look at our own lives. But there has to be both the individual committed to Christ within the church, and the church committed to the individual. All of us committed to each other since we are after all a part of each other as one body in Christ. We seek to follow Christ in everything and to do so together. I need other’s help and in God’s economy and will, they need mine as well. In love and prayers, in listening and helping. Through everything. Finding God’s good will for us which includes mission to the world since by our lives we’re light in the Lord. In the way of Jesus, in and through him.

what John “the elder” and beloved apostle of our Lord might say to us now from 1 John 2:3-11

We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.

Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.

1 John 2:3-11

Here’s how we can be sure that we know God in the right way: Keep his commandments.

If someone claims, “I know him well!” but doesn’t keep his commandments, he’s obviously a liar. His life doesn’t match his words. But the one who keeps God’s word is the person in whom we see God’s mature love. This is the only way to be sure we’re in God. Anyone who claims to be intimate with God ought to live the same kind of life Jesus lived.

My dear friends, I’m not writing anything new here. This is the oldest commandment in the book, and you’ve known it from day one. It’s always been implicit in the Message you’ve heard. On the other hand, perhaps it is new, freshly minted as it is in both Christ and you—the darkness fading away and the True Light already blazing!

Anyone who claims to live in God’s light and hates a brother or sister is still in the dark. It’s the person who loves brother and sister who dwells in God’s light and doesn’t block the light from others. But whoever hates is still in the dark, stumbles around in the dark, doesn’t know which end is up, blinded by the darkness.

1 John 2:3-11; MSG

John today might tell us that we need to get back to basics and live there. What is most basic about us and others around us in Jesus is not our political stance, as important as that is in terms of God’s kingdom and grace present in Christ. What’s most basic for us is our fellowship of love together in God the Father and in Jesus Christ. Nothing else matters in comparison.

When we make something else so basic and important that it divides us from other believers, and even alienates us from other people, that’s a sure sign that we’re off track. And when we actually descend into hatred of others, even those we consider enemies, we’re not obeying the clear commandment of our Lord to love them.

And if our lives don’t have the mark of Jesus on them, if we’re not living like Jesus did, then we need to ask ourselves and above all ask God what’s wrong. To live like Jesus is to be concerned about living in the light of God’s kingdom and grace present in Jesus. We measure our lives by King Jesus and his kingdom, and nothing else.

If anything gets in the way of any of this, we can be sure it’s darkness.

Something of what John might say to us today from this passage.

Jesus is with us. are we with him?

“I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

“Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

“I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.

“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

“You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

“But remember the root command: Love one another.”

John 15:1-17; MSG

Christ’s words to his disciples echo to us today. We often want to do much for our Lord, even out of love, so we give it our best effort and inevitably fall short. It seems here that Jesus is telling us that a first priority is to be at home in organic, intimate relationship with him. I really like how Eugene Peterson puts it. And this is both an individual and communal endeavor. Jesus talks about individual branches which bear no fruit, but is talking to his disciples as branches on the same plant, who are to love each other.

I think oftentimes God lets us have success, but then the well dries up because we have something more to learn, at least better. This is a lesson from our Lord he gave his disciples in the Upper Room Discourse the night before his crucifixion. It was and we can say is something close to our Lord’s heart, something he practiced in relation with the Father, and wants us to practice in relation with him.

Too often we tend to downplay relationships in our emphasis for doing, getting the job done. I know that all too well in my many years it turned out to be, in factory work. At this late time for me, I’m learning more the importance of relationships, working with people whose ethnic practice is much more relational and communal, even though they work quite hard as well.

It’s not like what we do doesn’t matter, and won’t help in God’s good grace. But it’s more like a little bit from our communion with Christ will go much farther, and be much more potent than all our efforts all day.

So it seems like first things first, we need to focus on our union and communion, indeed on our relationship with Christ. Of course it’s only in and through him that we have that relationship at all, through his life, death and resurrection, and by the Spirit through his ascension.

If we’re at an impasse, maybe we just need to stop dead in our tracks. And seek to draw near to God. Jesus already makes his home in us. We’re to make our home in him. So maybe for us for a time it won’t be a matter of doing, but just trying to settle into our friendship with him, loving each other, as he taught us. Knowing that the fruit, good things will inevitably come out of that. But learning to settle in and be settled in that.

reaching out to the Lord’s commands

I reach out for your commands, which I love,
that I may meditate on your decrees.

Psalm 119:48

I love the idea here of reaching out to God’s commands out of love for them. When you read Psalm 119 as a whole, it’s a mix between a commitment to full obedience and the realization that the psalmist falls short. And you can find dependence on God and God’s mercy and grace in it.

How do we reach out to God’s commands? I think we as followers of Jesus should start with Jesus’s commands and go from there. We have to go to the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and a good place to start is Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. We have to be committed to meditation on them, to get them into our heart and bones, to aspire to them, and to begin to live them out.

There has to be the passion present that this indeed is what we want to do. We have to be wannabes before those things can take root and become a part of who we truly are. The above line suggests that we reach out so that we might meditate. We have to be aware of God’s will for us before we can begin to live in that will.

For us now in and through Jesus.

 

paying attention to God’s commands

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119:1-8

It seems hard and almost old fashioned, at least open to question nowadays, the necessity or even importance of keeping God’s commands. For one thing we live in a relatively Bible illiterate day, when it seems like year after year, people who attend Bible teaching churches know the Bible’s content less and less. At least that has been the case. And we live during a day when there’s a major cultural shift arguably accompanied with a hermeneutical shift, how Christians interpret the Bible. With the obvious changes from the Old (or First) Testament to the New (or Second, we could say Final) Testament such as found in Leviticus, for example the prohibition of sowing two different fabrics together to make clothes no longer being in effect comes the protests that sexual mores have now been changed as well. The idea that sexual relations are confined to a woman and man who are married is considered odd and a thing of the past, almost taboo at least among many in their practice.

Among Christians who fall prey to none of that, there can be such an emphasis on grace, that keeping God’s commands is nearly beside the point. Impossible since that is considered falling under the law, which is only meant to indicate that we’re sinners, incapable of keeping the law. With others it might be a decided shift in emphasis due to priorities which determine more what we’re to do and not do than Scripture itself. It’s almost like Scripture is present to help achieve what is considered most important, often referring to priorities in one’s personal life, or from the political sphere.

May I just suggest that I think all of us Christians and churches ought to stop, back up, and go to square one. We need to return to the plain words of Scripture, of course read faithfully and in light of God’s revelation given to us in Scripture of Christ. We might be surprised at just how traditional it might come across. Not the air of today’s “brave new world” but the fulfillment of the old creation in the new creation in Jesus as spelled out in the Final “New” Testament itself. Something to which we should aspire, even as with the psalmist we lament in not arriving to perfection in this life. In and through Jesus.

on the eleventh day of Christmas: God’s love our joy

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

John 15:9-17

God’s love has been poured out on the world in the life of a little baby boy. The light of God’s love is thus made known, and the joy that comes with that. We who live in this love in and through Jesus, also live in God’s joy. To have that joy remain in us and be complete, we need to live in God’s love, in and through Jesus. We do so by keeping our Lord’s commands. And the command we’re to keep is to love each other, even as he loved us, laying down his life for us. Then we will live in his love and know his joy.

Almighty God,
in the birth of your Son
you have poured on us the new light of your incarnate Word,
and shown us the fullness of your love:
help us to walk in his light and dwell in his love
that we may know the fullness of his joy;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
Amen.

Book of Common Prayer