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

 

provisional grace

I’m not sure if a term like “provisional grace” hits the nail on the head very well in regard to what I want to say, but I think there is a sense in which we can obey the commands of God, including the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Of course none of us does that day in and day out, though I might surmise that in moments of time, or in some act, prompted by the Spirit, we might indeed fulfill that. And I would also surmise that we don’t always have to have mixed motives in doing so, in fact in something prompted by the Spirit (and we live in the Spirit as those in Jesus) I’m not sure why there has to be mixed motives at all. Except for the doctrine that we are sinners through and through and that nothing at all that we do cannot be without the taint of sin. I would want to challenge that in regard to those in the new creation in Jesus.

A good prayer, regularly prayed is the acknowledgement of how we have not loved God with all our hearts or our neighbor as ourselves. We can then ask God to search our hearts to bring to light any sin, and then pronounce the good news that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Yes, we need to acknowledge that we do sin and therefore we are sinners. Both in what we do and fail to do.

We need also to remember that there is victory for us in Christ in how we live. Yes, we are set free from the law of sin and death, but what does that mean? Certainly to walk in newness of life or in the immediate context, to fulfill the requirement of the law by the Spirit.

Provisional grace might be something like the idea that God accepts our imperfect obedience even with mixed motives. As humans living with the baggage we carry from living in this world, and as those who will not arrive to complete likeness to Jesus in this life, we won’t keep the commands of God as Jesus kept them, strictly speaking. And yet the Spirit helps us obey and grow in that obedience, so that our love for God and for neighbor should be more and more like Jesus, as we grow in grace. Of course in community. And it is indeed the Spirit of Jesus who lives in us.

God helps us love him and our neighbor purely, even if that love needs to mature and expand, according to where we are at. And so a newborn in Christ could well be as delightful to God in a sense, as one who has developed a close walk with God and is near the end of their journey in this life.

Keeping God’s and Christ’s commands is something that seems to be expected of God’s people in scripture. Not simply as a means of helping them see they are sinners and therefore receiving God’s grace in their confession of sin. The commands are something we actually are to do, and to grow in, as those who by grace are among the pure heart, in and through Jesus.

the righteousness Jesus requires

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

I have recently been struck by the righteousness Jesus requires to enter the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, especially as expounded in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a righteousness in terms of a changed life, no less. And it is a righteousness lived out in community before the world, indeed as a witness to the world.

Of course it is not our own righteousness in the sense that it comes from ourselves. But it becomes our own righteousness as a gift from God, in following Christ. Not that we are ever righteous in ourselves, our righteousness is always and forever in Christ. But it is a righteousness in terms of life lived. And specifically from the passage quoted above, in obeying Jesus’ commands.

We need to spend time, considerable time in the Sermon on the Mount. Prayerfully meditating on it. It is an eye opener, but not in a comfortable way. And yet in the very way we need, in a way which can get us on track in God’s will in Jesus, perhaps better put: going and growing in that direction. It is in terms of obedience to Jesus’ commands. Of course we are not looking at sinless perfection here. But neither are we looking at excuses why we can’t keep Jesus’ commands. The Sermon on the Mount is not given  so that we find out how sinful we are (though on one level, it is), so that we simply come to Christ for forgiveness of sin with no intent to obey it. It is not something out of our league, in Christ. It is part and parcel of what it means to be a follower of Christ, how we as his followers are to live in this world, indeed, how we are to be the salt of the earth, and the light of the world.

And so let’s take a good, prolonged look at the sermon (not necessarily on this blog, I’m referring to us individually and together). As we seek to be Jesus’ followers together in and for the world.

obedience better than sacrifice

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

There are important, helpful spiritual disciplines for us, learned from tradition which is rooted in scripture. Solitude, silence, chanting scripture, praying the Jesus prayer as well as the Lord’s prayer, etc., etc. There are all kinds of things we do as Christians: attending church, giving regularly to the church and God’s work in the world, reading the Bible and praying, witnessing to others of our faith in Christ and the gospel. But what good are all these things if on something or other we’re holding out and not obeying the Lord?

Culture can help us sidestep obeying Jesus and his commands. It is not fashionable, for example, to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who despise us. Even Christians advocate carrying or owning guns, though they do so as only a last resort to stop an evildoer bent on violence. But Jesus’ way, counterituitive and countercultural as it is, is to take the way of the cross always, no matter what. That is the only way for the follower of Jesus.

Any expression of the Christian faith which does not make much of obedience and specifically of obeying the commands of Christ falls short of carrying out God’s will in Jesus. I’m afraid a cultural expression of the faith has made this not only possible, but easy, in fact hard not to do, the norm.

One other example: Christ commands us to be reconciled to our brother or sister before we worship in presenting an offering to God:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

It doesn’t matter if we like them or not. We are to be reconciled, period. We are so accustomed not to obeying all the commands of Jesus that I doubt that a majority of Christians are even aware of this command of our Lord.

And so let’s forget about any grandiose ideas we have in serving God. Rather let’s humbly give ourselves to obedience out of love in response to God’s love in Jesus, together for the world.

loving your enemies

Jesus tells us, indeed commands us to love our enemies. This is a hard saying, one of Jesus’ hard sayings. It is especially hard, when a friend, even a brother or sister in Jesus breaks relationship with you and refuses reconciliation, contrary again to the command of Christ.

I’ve heard over and over again that to love one’s enemies is supernatural. It certainly is beyond us sinners. But in Jesus and as followers of Jesus we have an entirely new life, and are to have a new orientation. But we have imbibed the culture and attitude of the world on this, I’m afraid. It is tit for tat, a power play to take care of evil, just as the world does it.

No, in our following of Jesus, loving our enemies should become more and more a natural part of who we are. We do it, and more and more we do it in the same love in which we live, the love of God in Jesus by the Spirit.

There is no need to say, “I am not at that place. I can’t obey this or that command of Christ. I need to pray and ask God for grace to do so.” One may need to say that at a certain point, and particularly the last part is good, praying for grace. But forgiving and loving even our enemies should become a natural part of who we are in Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that we will arrive on this point (or any other) in this life, because we may indeed stumble or struggle in our attitude toward others. But living out the gospel should be part and parcel of who we are in Jesus, and living out that gospel involves forgiving those who have wronged us. It is the way of the cross, the way of forgiveness and reconciliation, the way of Jesus. Together with others in Jesus, for the world.

we in Jesus can obey

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

I hear from some that we who are followers of Jesus can’t obey God’s commands. If that’s the case, I wonder about a whole host of passages and scripture. James seems mistaken, and even Jesus himself, if such is the case.

Part of what I think they are getting at is how we are in need of grace, sometimes it will be stated that we need to wait on the Lord, etc. Good things, all part of scripture. And yet at the same time over and over again we read that we as God’s people in and through Jesus are to do this or do that. Those things (example: waiting on the Lord, obeying an explicit command such as not to show favoritism) are not mutually exclusive. But the immediate context for much of this supposes that we in Jesus can and therefore are obligated to obedience. 

Another factor is heart motive. What if I do something I’ve been commanded to do, but do so just because I have to, in some sort of legalistic way, to simply obey a law. Of course we’re to obey out of love in response to God’s love in Jesus. And if we’re one of God’s children through faith in Jesus, then we are family in him. Some of us may have a hard time with our feelings and may feel plenty of fear. Call to mind the passage in 1 John which reminds us that perfect love drives out fear. Nevertheless we are family and we are in this together, imperfect though we are. None of us will ever measure up to God’s love, and yet Paul prays that we might know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that we through that might be filled with all the fullness of God.

Part of what goes on in this error is a theology which makes much of the teaching that we can’t obey the law. But in Jesus by the Spirit we are told plainly that we fulfill the requirement of the law. Yes, in and through Jesus and in my following of Jesus I can love my enemies, forgive those who have sinned against me, etc. Of course it may not be a perfect obedience. We will not arrive to perfection in this life, so if obedience is measured by whether or not we have a perfect heart, then certainly we cannot obey. But I take it that by grace God does give us something of his love in obeying. And by grace God accepts our imperfection, even as he continues to work on us to conform us to be like Jesus. Even though trembling in all our weakness, by faith stepping out in obedience is our calling. At the very least God can then expose our hearts to help us confess our sins and find his forgiveness and cleansing.

Of course any and all good from us is and forever always will be completely by God’s grace. That includes our faltering steps in the right direction, even as we may stumble along the way, and we will. But we can obey God, obey the words of Jesus in and through Jesus. An obedience we are committed to together in Jesus for the world.

learning to live well in grace

An ongoing venture with me in which I hopefully am growing is the rejection of a spirituality based on something less than the grace of God in Jesus. The spirituality I am rejecting over time, and with more than a little help from my friends is one in which I think this or that ought to be done to maintain the highest ethical standards. The problem with that “this and that” can be that people are trampled on in the process, or hurt in a way which does not facilitate the mission we in Jesus are on- of living out and sharing the good news in Jesus.

I am not referring to compromise in sin with others. Of course what is sinful to one may not be sinful at all to another; check the passages in Paul’s writings on the weak and the strong in faith. I am referring to getting used to a different orientation altogether. I think a significant part of the problem is that we can be concerned and even bent out of shape over something which is already taken care of. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” period. Those in Christ Jesus, the passage goes on to say, follow the way of the Spirit and are enabled by the Spirit in and through Jesus and his death to fulfill the requirement of the law which is essentially love, love for God and for our neighbor. But we humans tend to want to operate in ways in which we are in charge and can understand.

Yes, discernment is important and the church together, and particularly the elders ought to be involved in that. But enter now an error, I think in many Anabaptist circles, of having an orientation which has the idea that somehow what we think as to right and wrong reaches the status of God’s will. I’m thinking of an emphasis on externalities with the worthy goal of pursuing and living out holiness. And with the idea that life should revolve around that.

Enter Jesus. He broke the rules set by men over and over again. His was a different orientation altogether, set on loving God and neighbor, on proclaiming and teaching the good news of the kingdom of God having come in him. As well as doing the works of that kingdom in the world. We need to get beyond a focus which is taken up primarily with our own eternal welfare, since that is taken care of in and through Jesus. Or beyond even the false idea that somehow our communion with God is maintained by rules we keep, as if those who do not keep them could not be in the same fellowship or communion with us in Jesus. Instead we need to become intent on an orientation of learning to follow Jesus in the way of the cross, the way of love.

This doesn’t mean we can always flaunt human rules and conventionalities, that we should never have any regard for such. There may be times and places where we need to keep such in order to live in love for God and our neighbor. What this does mean is that we ourselves are not tied down to such in our own lives. We are on mission in Jesus seeking to live fully in him and in obedience to his commands. Living out the new in Jesus in the old of this world. Together in Jesus for the world.