the emptiness of the flesh

The flesh in scripture is somewhat complex and multifaceted in meaning, depending on its context. Although it can simply mean created bodily entities, in general “flesh” means the weakness of sinful humanity both individually and corporately, the latter in some kind of sytematic way that is under the thumb of the powers, meaning the entities of the devil. The world (as in the world system set against God), the flesh and the devil have aptly in some respects, been called “the unholy trinity.”

I don’t like to get too caught up in flesh/spirit dichotomy, as some teachers of the Christian faith have. At the same time it is important, even vital to keep in mind the importance of us seeking to live (or walk, the metaphor used) in and by the Spirit, so that we don’t fulfill the lusts of the flesh. A passage in scripture lists (some of- unless these are categories which capture all) the works of the flesh, along with the fruit of the Spirit.

I come up empty, or at least rather empty on those days when maybe I have too much caffeine in my system and with all kinds of pressure and problems I rather fairly much depend on myself to get the job done. Of course life can be a struggle, but the difference can be in how we handle it. It may look the same from the outside, at least on a surface level. But inside might be another story. For me one of my biggest struggles is simply to get down. To kind of kick into survival mode, while seeking to do the best I can.

Even so, the Spirit of God does not abandon us when we drift in this way. The Spirit is at work to help us in drawing us to come closer to God through Christ. And to reorientate us into Christ’s likeness. What we need to do which can make all the difference in a day, is to seek to walk by the Spirit. For me this means I need to slow down in my mind and spirit, if not always in my body, though the latter often helps, as well. To be in prayer, praying the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray, as well as my own prayers, hopefully prayers the Spirit helps me to pray. And to repeat “the Jesus Creed,” the command to love God and neighbor.

I think too that to walk in the Spirit is relational at its core. The fruit of the Spirit is lived out in relationships, at its heart being love. To love God and our neighbor is its essence.

And following Jesus means to live a cross-formed, or cruciform life. In the same letter, actually the same passage, Paul says that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. And that since we in Jesus live in the Spirit, we’re to keep in step with the Spirit.

I write here of things I don’t know well enough. But I do know this well enough to believe it, and to prayerfully seek by the Spirit to live it. And I want to do so in community and communion with others in Jesus, and for the world.

all flesh is like grass

“All flesh is like grass.” The older I get the more I know this to be true. This summer so far is one of the hottest and driest ones I can remember. We have to diligently water the plants, but our grass is a lost cause.

It is amazing how life flourishes for a time. But inevitably even the best of it grows old and eventually dies.

And yet God honors flesh and life. Humans are made in no less than God’s very image. And fearfully and wonderfully made at that. And yet we perish. After all, the tree of life was in the garden at the beginning, but humans never partook of it so as to live forever, the text says. Sin did block the way to the tree of life in that sense, so that death is inevitable for us all apart from the Lord’s return. In and through Jesus we do have access to the tree of life, but it is an access that does not prevent death in this present life. By faith we anticipate the end of death as the last enemy to be destroyed through Christ when all the faithful come to share fully in his resurrection at the renewal of all things in the new creation.

We were made of dust and to dust we will return. It is good for us to feel our mortality, to realize that we flourish for a time soon to be gone. That the only thing that stands forever is the word of God, what that word breathes out as well as into, what that word speaks into existence with all the limitations, as well as glory.

I realize just how much in need of God I am everyday. And of how I need all that God gives in and through Christ. I used to take much more confidence in this or that which are from God. But not enough confidence simply in God himself, and in his word.

God wants us in that place where our sole dependence is on him and his word in and through Christ. We want to depend on this or that which is one step or more removed from God himself. Good and legitimate things, indeed blessings from God. And yet those blessings can become a curse to us if through those gifts we lose sight of the Giver of all good things.

And so let’s not despise the reality of our weakness and complete dependence on God. In fact let’s embrace that and see it as incentive all the more to find our life and everything we need in God in and through Jesus.  Together with others in Jesus for the world.

becoming like Jesus

It is one thing to join Paul in desiring to be like Jesus. Hopefully a desire born in us by the Spirit, certainly so if it’s genuine and true. But it’s another thing to begin to enter into that. As Jesus told his disciples of old, James and John, who wanted to sit at his right hand and left in his kingdom: “Are you able to drink the cup that I will drink, and be baptized with the baptism I’m to undergo?” Their ready reply, “We are able,” was surely breathtakingly unaware of just what they were saying. Though I think even in their ignorance, there was something of God in this, to reveal to them their shallow and even deceptive hearts in helping them along the way of Jesus. Indeed Jesus told them, “You will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized with the baptism I will undergo. But to sit at my right hand and left is not for me to give, but will be given by my Father.”

Becoming like Jesus is to live in this world as he lived. It is certainly in God’s love, but it is within the realm of the world, the flesh and the devil, all in joint opposition against God and God’s purposes in Jesus. We will begin to think the thoughts of Jesus, and desire to act and love as he did. Of course we won’t be sinless in this life, but we will want to live in a holy love; we will pursue holiness.

Our desire to become like Jesus will be tested. It will expose our hearts at times, and our choices will determine the depths to which we go in this. At the same time it is God’s grace that will make all the difference. Never does God despise a broken and contrite heart, one that is truly sorry and grieves over their sin, or weakness. Some of our weaknesses may actually not be sinful in themselves. But they may indeed be weights which hinder us in following Jesus and becoming like him.

When I find myself up against something such as that, I need to pray for grace, and for God’s help to live in a way that brings glory to God. That is bent on living in a way that is pleasing to God, which of course is part of God’s grace in us having such a desire in the first place. We have the promise as we hold on to it that God will fulfill every longing and desire he gives us in and through Jesus.

Becoming like Jesus is not just about my individual walk with God. It is about living in community with others in Jesus. That’s where the rubber often meets the road, because then our devotion, indeed desire, can be tested. Are we desirous to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace, come what may? Or do we bail out, ready to protect ourselves at all costs, and reticent to forgive the wrongs done to us?

And becoming like Jesus is about being on mission to the world with others in Jesus. We each have our part to fulfill as part of that witness. It is in terms of both doing good to all people, and proclaiming the good news of King Jesus. Jesus is our life and God’s will in him our goal. If we are becoming closer and closer to Jesus in fellowship with him and therefore becoming more like him, we will indeed want to be in the Father’s will by the working and power of the Spirit.

Becoming like Jesus. A good thought indeed, and a tall order to be sure. But part of God’s good will for us in which God can and will see us through in and through Jesus.

hot days

We’re hitting some days that are quite hot temperature wise. And we haven’t yet reached July, so it’s hard telling what this summer may bring. Actually, though there is an evident warming trend, what has been most noteworthy to meterologists here, not to mention fruit farmers, is the wild fluctuation in temperature. From hot in March to below freezing in April. Not conducive for any fruit crop.

But what about those days when it seems all is hot? When it seems like all is pitted against us, including ourselves. Of course there’s the seven deadly sins to consider: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. We had an excellent study of these over several weeks in adult spiritual formation at our church. And each of the sins as categorized is well worth considering. They are not called deadly for no good reason.

I like to consider our struggle during “hot” days in terms of the world, the flesh and the devil. We don’t do well when we lose sight of this. We are inherently weak and prone to wander, prone to become enmeshed in sin. The entire world system termed the world, and described by John as the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life is bent on selling us a lie. And the world is ever seeking to lure us with its goods. This is where we do well to be like the hermits. Unlike them really in the world, but like them seeking solitude from it. Or a kind of solitude or separateness. This problem has bedeviled Christians who at times make some outward code like dress a requirement in seeking to be different. But we do well to remember that the difference begins in the heart. I will do well in actions, how I live, only  because my heart is where it needs to be. If I love this present world, or age, then it’s inevitable I’ll be swept up in that tide, and lost from God’s purpose for my life.

The flesh is again that aspect of our humanity which is very intimate to us, in a sense more than a part of us, but actually our true selves. We are enfleshed, bodily beings with certain impulses and drives which while being good in themselves, and part of our creation as human beings, are also tainted by sin through and through. So that what is good, even our strengths or blessings, can end up being our weaknesses and curse. So we are a mix of good and evil and thus under both blessing and the curse.

And then there’s the devil. Wily creature, hardly a person and yet personal, a power, an entity set against God and against humanity as well as against all creation. The devil is always a factor, ever at work, primed in the art of deception. One way or another the devil would bring us down.

So what is the answer to these hot days in which it may seem that the struggles of our soul are hard to bear? The answer is in Jesus himself, in God’s good news in King Jesus for us and for the world. Our faith must be centered in him. We must come back time and time again to Jesus and to his cross, his death for us, for our sins, for our forgiveness. And in that cross is the promise of life through his resurrection. Since by faith we indeed participate in his death, we also participate in what follows: his resurrection. And so we share in his resurrection life.

Because of this, we are crucified to the world, and the world to us so that we indeed are different. And we are to crucify the flesh with its passions and desires. And we are to resist the devil with God’s armor given to us in Christ.

Awareness is half the battle, but then we must act on God’s revelation given to us in and through Jesus found in scripture. It is a victory in which we’re to live by faith. And yet one lived out in brokenness, knowing we do fall short. But that we also are more than conquerors in all of life through him who loved us. Together for the world.

 

N.T. Wright on evil as a dark force in the world behind the cunning, crafty work of the satan upon flesh, i.e., humanity*

Without the perspective that sees evil as a dark force that stands behind human reality, the issue of “good” and “bad” in our world is easy to decipher. It is fatally easy, and I mean fatally easy, to typecast “people like us” as basically good and “people like them” as basically evil. This is a danger we in our day should be aware of, after the disastrous attempts by some Western leaders to speak about an “axis of evil” and then to go to war to obliterate it. We turn ourselves into angels and “the other lot” into demons; we “demonize” our opponents. This is a convenient tool for avoiding having to think, but it is disastrous for both our thinking and our behavior.

But when you take seriously the existence and malevolence of nonhuman forces that are capable of using “us” as well as “them” in the service of evil, the focus shifts. As the hazy and shadowy realities come into view, what we thought was clear and straightforward becomes blurred. Life becomes more complex, but arguably more realistic. The traditional lines of friend and foe are not easy to draw. You can no longer assume that “that lot” are simply agents of the devil and “this lot”—us and our friends—are automatically on God’s side. If there is an enemy at work, it is a subtle, cunning enemy, much too clever to allow itself to be identified with simply one person, one group, or one nation. Only twice in the gospel story does Jesus address “the satan” directly by that title: once when rebuking him in the temptation narrative (Matt. 4:10), and again when he is rebuking his closest associate (Mark 8:33) for resisting God’s strange plan. The line between good and evil is clear at the level of God, on the one hand, and the satan, on the other. It is much, much less clear as it passes through human beings, individually and collectively.

N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, 122-123.

*The title is an attempt to accurately portray and summarize N.T. Wright’s thought here, but it’s certainly my attempt, as I put on it the world, the flesh and the devil paradigm.

saving justice

The justice God brings in Jesus through God’s kingdom come in him is a saving justice. Justice at heart is what is right and good in God’s eyes. Different from other standards set in the world, such as the past Roman justice, different in heart and therefore in the results. That is not to say that in a certain elemental sense justice can’t be served today, limited though it is from human government. But there is only one justice in the world which is truly saving. That which comes from God through Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him.

We recognize that God sets a certain order in place in a fallen world. These are governing authorities who are answerable to God, and whose direct responsibility to God is to keep order and restrain evil. When one studies  one classic passage, it would seem what they do is indeed limited, yet necessary in this present age. What is said of them elsewhere must also be considered, such as the hold Satan has on them. Somehow the world, the flesh and the devil are in unholy alliance in this present age.

Beginning in this present age, there is one saving justice in the world. The justice that comes through King Jesus, which brings salvation in him. Yes, in individual, personal terms, but also a justice that is meant for society and the world at large. Not to be implemented in full until Jesus reappears. But to be lived out and indeed worked out in this world by us in Jesus even here and now. The only justice in which lives are changed forever even into the likeness of the one who saves, King Jesus, who brings in a new humanity of which we in him are a part, together for the world.

the sin of disunity

Christian Smith in his book, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture, clearly and compelling presents a sound case to demonstrate how “biblicism,” which is a staple of Protestant evangelicalism and fundamentalism fosters “the sin of disunity.”

In a nutshell we might call biblicism the belief that the Bible is the word of God by which we order our lives. An inerrant word from which we can draw knowledge in regard to everything including dating, marriage, child care, etc., etc. The failure of biblicism in a nutshell, I might say, is that it fails to take seriously just what the point of the Bible is. Scripture points us to Christ, the Word of God. Scripture is the written word of God in both a human and divine way in doing this, in the telling of God’s story. Protestant evangelical and fundamentalism is noted for its thousands of splits, many of these groups isolated to themselves. I would highly recommend the book, by the way.

But the sin of disunity among Christians is not relegated to just one part of Christendom. The Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are split. Due to the dogma of the real presence in the Eucharist, no one who does not believe that the bread becomes Christ’s body, and the wine is blood can partake with Roman Catholics.

Smith distinguishes between dogma, doctrine and opinion. Dogma are matters the church has determined are essential. This was hammered out in the early centuries in church councils. Doctrine are more or less important matters which divide Christians yet are not necessary for the orthodox faith, or to have a living faith in Christ. And opinions are opinions, for whatever they’re worth. Smith suggests that the less baggage we have, or the more streamlined our dogma is, the better. His concern is that we don’t fall into theological liberalism, while at the same time we don’t divide over nonessential matters, however important they may be. For me a Christian pacifist stand is an important outworking of the gospel. Smith leaves the door open, wisely I would add, to the church learning more and more, which can be demonstrated. And perhaps there will be a consensus someday adopting at least something of a pacifist stance, should Jesus tarry.

The sin of disunity is not just a matter of failing to make the gospel of Christ front and center. In Galatians we see that it is of the flesh, which means it arises from humanity’s fallen, sinful weakness and evil. We divide over this and that, often because we dislike someone. Or we want to be in control. But Christ will have none of that. The way of Jesus is a completely different way, which takes everyone by the Spirit into the love of the Father in the faith that is in Christ.

We shouldn’t pretend like our differences don’t exist. Yet we should hold onto our unity in Christ as one of those matters (as dogma) of first importance. So that we should go out of our way to acknowledge and live out our oneness with anyone who names the name of Christ in the faith. Even when we may disagree over some serious matters.

When we pray the Lord’s/Our Father prayer, we implicitly and clearly reject disunity. We are all one through Jesus as family by the Spirit. Let us live in and out of that love before and for the world. That all might see this “one great fellowship of love, throughout the whole wide earth.” And believe.

Advent is about change

In the story of Joab in the account of David, it’s sad that it seems like he never changed. I hope the same is not true for me, through the greater David, Jesus.

Advent is about change. God came directly, personally, fully, intimately, forever in commitment- to earth in the person of this baby Jesus. The promise of Abraham through Israel was beginning to be fulfilled. A promise that is as wide, high and deep as life itself. Fulfilled in terms of earth, and yet not according to this world system, which is in alliance with the flesh and the devil.

Jesus came as the promised one. The Messiah for the world. Yes, in the hearts of those who accept him. Ultimately to turn everything inside out and right side up. That heart and systemic change is to be evident and taking place now in his Body, the church. Yes, the church worldwide, and also local churches, each of which can be said to be the church.

From the church the world is to catch a glimpse of the change that is in the air. A change which can impact society now. But never to be brought into alliance with the world system, which is invariably at odds with the kingdom of God come in Jesus.

Advent is about change. Beginning with that angelic announcement to Mary. The baby boy wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Shepherds hurrying to see what the heavenly angelic hosts had proclaimed to them. Completely down to earth. Countering the power and wisdom of this world through the cross. Destined through the resurrection to reign in the new life on earth. In and through Jesus.

May I be a part of that change even now in and through Jesus. With others in Jesus. As we remember the great change that came when our Lord and Savior was born.

never forget

We in Jesus are loved by the Father, in fact God loves the world. But we must never forget that this love of the Father does not exclude us in Jesus from the way of the cross.

We need the content of scripture, along with seeing their fulfillment in the life of Jesus as seen in the gospels. I have been thinking on the Father’s love. We have to think through that to realize that while it’s not less wonderful, it does not exclude us in Jesus from the way of the cross, as was just said.

God’s victory in Jesus has been won. Now we in Jesus are left to live out that victory on an earth which along with us, has yet to participate in the total results of that victory.

We in Jesus are to participate in his sufferings. The world (as in the system antithetical to, and set against Christ), the flesh and the devil are still present and active.

We in Jesus are together in this, indeed we are the Body of Christ in this world. And we’re to live like it. Loved by the Father in Jesus, while living in the way of Jesus. In mission to and for the world.

the status quo

There are people who like change, and then there are people who want to be settled. I think most of us like to get settled down into something  that agrees with us. We want life to go smoothly and well. Unfortunately that is not how life works. As far as circumstances go, and even in relationships with people we can meet challenges which at times can overwhelm as well as overcome us. And we may not be doing well in it. For the follower of Jesus the world, the flesh and the devil are in alliance and with that comes direct opposition.

Life can be quite unsettling at times. Broken or strained relationships, ongoing problems, and issues in one’s life. We all have them.

In the life in God through Jesus in this world, the status quo is never good enough. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, I think, when we want things to remain just the same as they are now. Actually even in the world to come while there will indeed be a settled state of shalom, change will still be a part of what will be a dynamic existence of love. Change I would take it in terms of growth and creativity. But while we begin to live that out in this life, be it in a small but real way, we face the tough and stern reality that we are in no less than spiritual warfare. That we need daily confession of sin. And that we need to continue to grow in grace along with others in and through Jesus.

So we might as well acclimate ourselves to the reality that there is no status quo in this life for us in Jesus. Not only will there be trouble, but we are in the process of being changed more and more from sinners to saints (holy ones, God’s people). Into no less than the likeness of Jesus.

So we must press on. Ever leaving behind the notion that there is such a thing as a settled state of life for us in this world. But longing for that peace in and through Jesus which goes beyond all our understanding and misunderstanding. As we seek to faithfully follow our Lord.