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.

yes, this is directed to “Christians,” followers of Christ (“Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”)

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it, so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it, so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you suppose that the scripture speaks to no purpose? Does the spirit that God caused to dwell in us desire envy? But God gives all the more grace; therefore it says,

“God opposes the proud
but gives grace to the humble.”

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Lament and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy into dejection. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.

James 4:1-10

When you read this relatively short book or letter of James, at least I get the sense that this is from one, a James who is a pastor at heart, but at the same time minces no words. And you also get it plainly that he’s writing to believers in Christ. 

What James is getting at is about real life. And what people do and fail to do, including true believers of Christ. We might believe, but do we always follow Christ in our attitudes and actions, our behavior and words? We all know the answer to that. We know it firsthand, and by what we witness. And James saw through what was happening in his time, with a pastoral concern coming from both the wisdom and prophetic tradition of Israel, along with the fulfillment present in Christ. 

James makes no two ways about it. When we’re caught up in sin, specifically here sins of division due to sinful attitudes on our part, he gets right after them (and by extension, us), calling them sinners, and telling us and them among other important things that we’re to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. It’s up to us, period. We’re to get it together, humbling ourselves in submission to God, resisting the devil and drawing near to God. And then in no uncertain terms, the ultimatum to take care of what’s wrong in ourselves.

Yes, we can only do this because of God’s unmerited grace to us in Christ. But we must do it. Or else what James says here means nothing. Or at least means nothing to us. It’s a poor theology that can’t figure out how to include and somehow apply all for us, especially that which is written in Christian Scripture (“the New Testament”). Position in Christ is one thing, practice is something entirely different. Because of our position or place “in Christ” we have the responsibility to deal with what’s wrong in our own lives. And within community, as James is getting at, to live well together in the harmony of Christ in the unity of the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

prayer for a clean heart

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10; NRSVue

There are those who say that this prayer is not for today since God has given us a new heart and spirit in the new covenant. I can more than understand that thought, and I don’t really care to argue about it. It may well be true on a certain level. We indeed have a new heart and are partakers of the divine nature as believers in Christ. But that doesn’t mean that our hearts might not be carried away with something contrary to the goodness and righteousness that’s in Christ.

In John’s first epistle (as it’s called, or letter) we’re told that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). If that’s addressed to believers, and contrary to a few I think it plainly is, then it’s not a stretch to pray the prayer above from Psalm 51, and to benefit directly from that entire penitent psalm.

What we’re talking about here is real life. Yes, we’re forgiven in Christ through his once for all sacrifice for sins. But in God’s love and grace, God holds all of God’s children accountable. God expects more from us.

We may not be able to make sense of everything in Scripture, and that for a good number of reasons. It’s better to ponder than simply dismiss something as irrelevant to us. All of Scripture is written for us if not to us. It will benefit us if we give it the time and space.

In this case I pray that God will indeed give me a clean heart and a new and right spirit. God is always at work to bring us into a new experience of God’s love and what that means for every part of our lives and out from our lives to others. In and through Jesus.

God’s beloved

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Mark 1:9-11; NRSVue

Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax-collection station, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.

And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

Mark 2:13-17; NRSVue

I think I would put The Cure somewhere on the top ten of the books which have most influenced me, or at least most intrigued me. It is a most interesting read, whether or not you agree with it entirely. It’s really not meant to be a book to convince you of this and that doctrine, in spite of somewhat copious although often helpful endnotes. It is a story of the difference between living in grace and religion*, the latter involving unrelenting standards to measure up to with necessary masking to hide the fact that inevitably no one does. The place of grace is entirely different, not only no mask wearing, but hair let down with many tears. People are real, themselves, and completely accepted. Unlike the place of religion where you are accepted on many conditions.

The difference is what the above passages are getting at: the love of God from the God who is love. God has God’s heart set on all humanity, really intent in restoring all of creation, and especially fallen and broken humanity. That is more than evidenced in God becoming flesh meaning human in the Son Jesus through the Incarnation. Completely identifying with us, right where we live with all of its challenges along with our (not his) failure, but with the laughter and joy as well. But it seems especially identifying with those who are mourning, the poor, the oppressed, the downcast, the marginalized. Bringing the healing that can only come from God, healing being synonymous with salvation in New Testament terminology.

If there’s one place I especially feel uncomfortable, it’s with religious folks. Unfortunately you have to add to that nowadays those who are caught up in the tribalism of this or that political persuasion. But lots of those folks are religious, which just becomes either a new rule added on, or understanding among them that it’s simply that way no questions asked.

In contrast to that, God accepts everyone warts and all, just the way we are with all of our blindness, failure and sin. And unlike religion, people are fully accepted in the beloved one, Christ. Christ came that we might through him find our true identity and ultimately our true selves in the reality we are included in with him through faith and baptism, so that we may come to realize that we too are indeed God’s beloved, God’s much-loved ones.

In the end we’re told that God will be “all in all” (1 Corinthians 15) accomplished in and through Christ in his life and reconciling death, so that everyone will be included. It will be a most happy ending, even if it takes some time to get there. No one will be left behind, no one left out. Not even the sad religious folk who somehow imagine themselves better and look down on everyone else (see Gregory of Nyssa, George MacDonald, etc.). Not that judgment and severe judgment isn’t in the mix, because it most necessarily is, but not a rejecting, obliterating fire, but a purging, redeeming fire. But this is another subject entirely.

But the point is that we need to see that “in Christ” we are indeed God’s beloved. That we don’t have to measure up to this and that which other people, even churches might want to impose on us. No, we are not rejected, but God’s children.  In and through Jesus.

*Religion in the sense of something fabricated by humans rather than received from God and regularly practiced and lived out in response to that (example: James 1:26-27).

ratcheted up a notch

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like washer’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD, as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”

Malachi 3:1-7; NRSVue

I’m not sure if anyone actually likes difficulty in and of itself. For other reasons, people might like it. To meet the challenge, to achieve some goal through it, maybe winning in competition, along with other reasons why people embrace what is hard. Hardship might be another matter, after all there’s surely a line drawn for each person, which they wouldn’t care to cross.

God was out to change the descendants of Levi, to purify them so that sin was being dealt with in their lives, and so that sin could be dealt with through their assigned task in the lives of others.

What about when we run into difficulty and what for us are impossible things to accept? Life won’t let us down that way. For some, especially who have plenty of material wealth, they may be able to glide through and pretty much avoid what are the common struggles for others. But even they can’t avoid everything, like possible sickness and eventual certain death. And difficulties will come their way as well, even if not so much circumstances, but disillusionment over emptiness in spite of being so well set.

God is active in people’s lives, and especially in those who name God’s name as those belonging to God and supposed to be the Lord’s followers. And part of that activity is not at all comfortable. “Refiner’s fire” and “washer’s soap” imagery above refer to purification and cleansing. We all need it. In the heat of life, what arises can be anything but pleasant, and not good. This can come through a multitude of small nagging things as well as a major concern which hangs over our heads.

But God is at work in that. It’s up to us to respond in being aware what sins need to be confessed, and the change that needs to come in our lives. And actually God is at work to ratchet us up a notch so to speak. So that we are becoming what before certainly was not the case. God is at work for great good, certainly including us. But we need to endeavor to accept that fully. So that we might be a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1-2).

In and through Jesus.

if John “the elder,” the beloved apostle were here today: 1 John 1:5-2:2

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[b] sin.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1:5-2:2

This, in essence, is the message we heard from Christ and are passing on to you: God is light, pure light; there’s not a trace of darkness in him.

If we claim that we experience a shared life with him and continue to stumble around in the dark, we’re obviously lying through our teeth—we’re not living what we claim. But if we walk in the light, God himself being the light, we also experience a shared life with one another, as the sacrificed blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purges all our sin.

If we claim that we’re free of sin, we’re only fooling ourselves. A claim like that is errant nonsense. On the other hand, if we admit our sins—simply come clean about them—he won’t let us down; he’ll be true to himself. He’ll forgive our sins and purge us of all wrongdoing. If we claim that we’ve never sinned, we out-and-out contradict God—make a liar out of him. A claim like that only shows off our ignorance of God.

I write this, dear children, to guide you out of sin. But if anyone does sin, we have a Priest-Friend in the presence of the Father: Jesus Christ, righteous Jesus. When he served as a sacrifice for our sins, he solved the sin problem for good—not only ours, but the whole world’s.

1 John 1:5-2:2; MSG

John here is talking about the light believers in Christ are to be living in, in contrast to the darkness. It’s the light of God no less, the God who is light. Our walk in this world is to be in that light and in nothing else. C.S. Lewis pointed out, in that light we see everything else much clearer and for what it truly is.  Anything other than that light is darkness. It doesn’t matter what it is, if that’s the “light” we’re living in, it’s actually darkness. And we’re sinning.

Yes, we maybe are no longer called “sinners” or “unrighteous” in Scripture, in fact we’re called “saints” or “holy people.” But this passage makes it clear that we still need a Savior. We still have sin, what I just heard a pastor call “sin sickness” in our lives which needs to be healed, or taken care of by God, not only legally, but fully.

We’re called to simply acknowledge our sins, ongoing, something which we’re to practice in our lives. At the same time John wants to help us to not actually commit the sin we would inevitably stumble into, left to ourselves. It’s a matter of walking in the light, in the light of the God who is light.

In this blessing we have a shared life, fellowship with one another as the blood of Jesus through his sacrificial death on the cross continues to cleanse us from all sin. When we do sin, as we confess it to God and when need be to those we’ve sinned against, that sacrifice of Christ takes care of it.

This is the reality in Jesus in which believers are called to live. To understand more fully what John is telling us here, we need to read the rest of the letter. But for the moment we’re let in on this marvelous reality for all of us in our individual lives and together. In and through Jesus.

vindication from God our Savior

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Psalm 24

When I read in the psalms about God vindicating his people, I think how undeserving I am of such vindication. And this is a psalm of David, who doesn’t seem that worthy of vindication when you consider his great sin of adultery and murder. But maybe that is meant to be an encouragement to the rest of us who, while we may have not committed such an act, still know we’re so undeserving because of what we have done, left undone, and because of grievous attitudes in our heart at times.

Just to make it clear what vindication means, it involves someone being proven to be in the right. When one thinks about that, one can’t help but think of God’s grace without which none of us would ever be in the right in the first place.

What especially stood out to me today in reading this great psalm is the line: “They will receive…vindication from God their Savior.” I think that helps us understand how God’s people are vindicated. It’s not because of them, but the God who saves them.

N. T. Wright helped me see from the psalms how God’s righteousness is tied to God’s salvation of his people. God’s saving act includes vindicating his people, who apart from that would never be vindicated. Of course this goes beyond what we deserve, because when we read all of the psalms and the rest of Scripture we understand that no one deserves vindication in themselves. We’re all sinners.

We receive vindication from God because of our faith and the difference God makes in our lives. We are different through and through, not wanting to do what is wrong, but wanting to do what’s right, even while we do fail along the way. It’s God’s working that makes us want to face our true selves, repent, and walk in God’s way, and keep doing that again and again with our ongoing confession of our sins, and endeavor to walk anew and afresh in God’s will for us in Christ.

And so we can be encouraged with this thought. God’s vindication of us is completely not because of us, but because of God, as by faith he credits righteousness to us, and helps us to want to live accordingly, even in the midst of our inevitable stumbling. God will vindicate us, yes, each one of us, in and through Jesus.

 

how Jesus began the Sermon on the Mount

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:2b-3

If I would choose one passage to summarize my life, it might be this, and with a hope so. Jesus begins here, and this is where we need to begin and keep beginning. This is not like a one time thing, and then we move on. It’s something that should always characterize our thought and attitude about ourselves.

We’re ever in need of God’s grace and if we look at our lives honestly, we’ll know that we don’t measure up both in terms of sins of commission as well as omission. That doesn’t mean we excuse ourselves or our sin. But it does mean that we acknowledge our need for ongoing forgiveness of sin through confession, and acknowledge too our utter need of God’s grace to grow spiritually. We should never dismiss or minimize God’s promise to not only forgive our sins, but cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

I have often seen Christians who looked down on other Christians or churches as not being “Spirit-filled.” But it has seemed to me over and over again that too often what is exhibited in such attitudes is a demonstration of leaving this saying of Jesus behind. They somehow are beyond that, or maybe to them that only applies to people before they come to Jesus for conversion. Utterly false. I would rather be with the humble, poor in spirit any day, than with the Spirit-filled who have to look down on others. I’m at home with the “poor in spirit,” since I’m most certainly one of them.

At the same time it is the poor in spirit who will actually know more of the work of God’s Spirit in their lives. Especially in terms of “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-26) as we note that no matter what spiritual gift we might exercise, if it is not exercised with love, it amounts to nothing (1 Corinthians 13). That doesn’t mean we leave the Spirit-given gifts behind, but only that we put first things first.

If we fail to accept the reality that we’re poor in spirit, then we’ll inevitably be proud and compare ourselves with others, favorably for us, of course. Instead we’re to take the way of Jesus who made himself nothing (Philippians 2:7), who was humble in heart (Matthew 11:29). In and through Jesus.

loss

Loss is a part of life. In games, yes. But more seriously loss of spouse, marriage, child; job, career, dream; friends; reputation, status, opportunity. You name it.

Loss in life can make one jaded. You don’t trust others; you know they won’t accept you because you won’t, you can’t measure up. And this is a world often bereft of grace. But sadly it seems all too oftentimes that even the church isn’t grace-filled. Grace meaning acceptance as human beings and individuals into a fellowship/communion of truth and love.

I think one has to lick one’s wounds and go on. You have to find a church that does seek to uncompromisingly live in God’s grace. This is messy since we’re all a mess. None of us have it all together, and we will at times fail at each other’s expense. Hopefully we’re not referring to major failures, but sin is sin. It divides us, and if we let it, apart from God’s grace, it conquers us. Confession of sins and forgiveness and cleansing always available to us in Jesus.

Not only do we need to find a church that is faithful as a witness to the gospel, but we also need to plug into a small group in which we can pray for each other, help where needed, and hold each other accountable.

And we need to remain in the word, in Scripture, ourselves. Loss occurs in everyone’s life, and sometimes significant loss can seem to mark us, that we are a failure. That we didn’t live up to others’ expectations, who never knew us in the first place. Or for that matter, far more seriously, the Lord’s expectations.

There may be plenty of truth in that, indeed there’s some, but in Christ there’s always and forever God’s grace offering forgiveness and new life. Life out of death. Redemption from “determinism” or the inevitable, from the addiction one can’t break free of.

And there’s restoration. To the God-given special place for each one of us, helping us find and settle into the goodness God has for us in the good life and good works given to us. In and through Jesus.

cleansing from idols

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Ezekiel 36:25-27

We read as the first of the Ten Words, which we call the Ten Commandments:

“You shall have no other gods before[a] me.

“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.

Exodus 20:3-6

Idolatry is endemic to humanity. Simply put, it’s putting anything above God. We were created to be in relationship with God and with each other. And God is not only alone deserving of our entire devotion, but we find our true value and the value of everyone and everything in light of the revelation of God. And when we give God our complete love in response to God’s love, we actually find that our love for others is more pure and indeed sacrificial.

“Love” in the world is often more about what I want than what I can give. It often is essentially self-centered. Not to say that there aren’t people who love others self-sacrificially apart from worshiping, indeed even knowing God. That is part of the image of God in humanity. But sin has come into the picture, so that human beings are inherently self-seeking, turned in on themselves, their own interests, and not God’s interests. And ironically to put oneself first ends up resulting in loss, including the loss of one’s very self, according to Jesus. But acknowledging God as the one who is worthy of full devotion is to find one’s own self, and the true value of others, seeing the blessing of others through who they are, and not by what we can get out of them for ourselves.

But what we need is nothing less than a cleansing of the impurity of our hearts from idolatry. Only God can do that, and it occurs in what in theology is called “regeneration.” In the context quoted above in Ezekiel, it is a promise for Israel and involves the promised land as well. In Christ it’s fulfilled within the promise given to Abraham, that he would be the father of all nations, and thus inherit the world. So what is needed is nothing less than a change of heart. And ultimately, as the passage indicates, and as we read elsewhere in Scripture, only God can do that.

That is our need. It’s not easy, because ironically when we’re tuned into God and God’s love, we’ll love others all the more. It will be a love, not about us, or our wants and needs, but for the good of others, to serve them in God’s love. We genuinely love and care about others in God’s love. And we experience God’s love for us and others. It’s important to remember that we’re included, loved by God, who loves in a way that’s beyond our wildest imagination, with no end. But we know and experience that love only through the cleansing, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Something we should ask for and value, basic to our lives. In and through Jesus.