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.

pray and love, love and pray (the theme I keep returning to)

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:7-8; NRSVue

I keep coming back to the same theme again and again: Love and pray; pray and love. I have often thought I would enjoy or at least appreciate being a part of a monastic (married) order. The idea is not just here and there, now and then practice of this and that, but a regular communal practice of scripture readings, prayers, and partaking of Communion together. That is not likely, so I try to practice it faithfully when it’s offered with others, as well as in my own practice. I am thankful for the newish Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, which has a helpful morning and evening office in the back which keeps me in scripture, and in regular prayer.

I see the world at a dangerous place, maybe a precarious tipping point. Climate change with catastrophic consequences ahead if it’s not addressed forthrightly, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, racial injustice in the United States and in many other places in the world, an attack on democracy by an authoritarian rule which is even cloaked with the name “Christian” and is often ardently supported by Christians in a deadly and idolatrous union of church and state, and I’m sure there are numerous other concerns that deserve attention. You may not agree with all I list here, or you might see things somewhat differently. What we will agree on is that these are difficult times.

First of all we have to make sure that we’re aspiring to be followers of Christ. Christian is not enough, and especially with ties to a Christendom which fails to see the radical nature and difference of Christ and Christ’s kingdom in this world. While we hope and pray for the best of each nation in which we live, our citizenship and allegiance is elsewhere. We are citizens of anything in this world in a loose, secondary sense. We pay taxes and give due honor and respect and want to contribute to what is good, but as aliens.

I think of those younger: children and grandchildren. What they will be left with. Yes, people like to remind us all the time that “God is in control,” but remember that God lets people have the consequences of their ways. What is important for us who name the name of Christ is to really be led by the Spirit as Christ followers. The fruit of the Spirit evident in our lives.

And what more can we do than love and pray? Good works must follow, or our prayer and love will be empty, hollow, or at least not as full as it needs to be.

As is pointed out in the passage above, this requires self-discipline on our part along with a maintaining of constant love in the community, an attitude with corresponding actions supporting both. What I want to be about, growing in that, whatever else I think. Not letting up and seeking to live that out with others. In and through Jesus.

just pray

pray without ceasing

1 Thessalonians 5:17; NRSVue

We all breathe one breath after another without thinking about it. Prayer needs to become like that for us. We breathe so to speak one prayer after another without thinking about it. We are in an attitude of prayer even when we can’t pray. There will be plenty of times when it takes effort for us to summon ourselves to pray, when there seems somehow to be a resistance against us praying. Just pray.

Paul tells us to do that without ceasing. Prayer can be understood as two-way communication between us and God. We need to be in Scripture as well. Our desire is to hear from God, to receive God’s word as we continue to pray to God. Note that this is given to the church. This is where that starts, and maybe the main point. We pray together, we’re in that together. But from that it becomes a part of each of us as members of Christ’s body.

Prayer includes a good number of things in no particular order such as confession, praise, worship, thanksgiving, petition/supplication, lament, even silence before God as in waiting on God. The one thing that should more and more characterize us as people of God and followers of Christ is prayer, the practice of prayer, as we seek in love to God and to others to live in God’s will, to do good to all. In and through Jesus.

prayer and then whatever else (all in love in Christ)

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.

Colossians 4:2; NRSVue

There’s a critique out there which has a point, criticizing “thoughts and prayers.” But honestly for the follower of Christ in God’s love, that’s generally where all the good begins. Otherwise we’re prone to want to do everything on our own and actually we can do that. But the needed change in us and in the world can only come from God. And prayer is a prime vehicle of that change.

Prayer is communication to God, deeper: communion with God. Through God’s word coming to us from scripture and in answer to prayer, our lives will take on a life and light that they otherwise wouldn’t have, from Christ himself. And there’s nothing greater we can actually do then pray.

Of course all of this has to be in God’s love in Jesus and by the Spirit. Otherwise it will ultimately be empty (1 Corinthians 13). But that doesn’t mean that when we’re upset and angry or struggling with loving someone that we shouldn’t pray. There’s no time prayer isn’t important. Good times, bad times, and every time in between.

And the word above from Paul is addressed to the church. We’re in this together. The more we join together in prayers, the more powerful prayer can be. Potent in God’s love cutting through into our lives and through us into the lives of others. And simply for those in whatever need, while we open up ourselves to be the answer to our prayers in whatever way God might put on our hearts. In and through Jesus.

we are not left on our own in anything

LORD, may you ordain peace for us,
for indeed, all that we have done, you have done for us.

Isaiah 26:12; NRSVue

I have thought that in God’s grace God gives us wisdom to make good choices. That comes through scripture, especially the wisdom writings and sayings. And one might say secondarily from that, from God, through others’ counsel, through experience, through the “still small voice,” along with whatever other ways God might communicate to us. But I had the idea that we’re than left to make the decision ourselves.

There’s some truth in that and not. It is probably impossible for us to wrap our heads around, just like other truths we find from scripture. Yes, somehow we’re making the decision, yet God never leaves us on our own. Wisdom is ever present with us in making any good, just and right decision. And wisdom strictly speaking or at least ultimately is God, God’s Self. So that even in the good decisions made along with the good works done, we did it, but God also did it. In other words, we’re not left on our own in anything strictly speaking, yet in another sense, yes, it is we who made the decision and did the good work.

Of course, we’re going to make mistakes along the way, not always making the best choices or doing what’s best. But God is always present to help us work through all of that as well, repenting and making things right where we can. And as part of the mystery of all of this, nothing we do is entirely foolproof at least not to us or our understanding of things, although God may well be in every part of that to accomplish the greater good.

The greatest thing for me is the rest this can give us. That somehow God is in every part of the process so that we’re not for even one moment or instance left on our own. Comforting as we go along in the mystery of this life, seeking to put all of our trust in God who will see us through. In and through Jesus.

what really matters?

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what really matters, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:9-11; NRSVue

I wonder if Mary and Joseph would have done what they blessedly did if they would have been caught up in secondary matters. Maybe being caught up in details that would make no difference in fulfilling the task at hand, to get to Bethlehem to be registered in the required census. I’m sure they took care to help Mary be as safe as possible, along with the baby she was carrying near the end of her pregnancy.

And then came the time for birth. No place in the guest room, so a manger would have to do. Nothing fancy, and certainly not ideal, but what people were used to. But that opens up an entirely different conversation which we won’t go into here. I’ve not even investigated well enough myself. What is apparent might turn our understanding of the nativity largely on its head. But that doesn’t matter for this post.

Paul’s prayer for the believers in Philippi was certainly something God was helping Mary and Joseph with at this sensitive, crucial juncture. What really matters is something we need to be sensitive to, day after day. We can get so easily get sidetracked on nonessentials. I’m supposing that Mary and Joseph were not the kind of people who were easily distracted.

For us this will require God’s help. Yes, prayer, as the scripture passage indicates here. So that we don’t get lost in the weeds over secondary matters. The end result being that God is less encumbered by us to do God’s good work in us, and also so that the good works God has for us to do might be done always in love. The main point the focus while we let go of what really doesn’t matter. In and through Jesus.

the mistake of Christian nationalism

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

1 Peter 2:9

I ring an old bell, one who is hardly qualified to do that, but we draw from Scripture, from the wisdom given to those who have studied and continue to study Scripture together, from whatever wisdom God might have given us. And I speak as one who is and has been alarmed for some time now over what seems to me to be a clear and present danger, significantly so because of the mistaken thinking of many sincere Christians.

By Christian nationalism I mean the idea that God sets apart a certain nation of the world, whatever nation that may be as somehow more or less a Christian nation, or if not that, at least a nation which has special purposes for the benefit of Christianity and the gospel.

That God uses nations for good and then judges them for the wrongs they commit is a matter of fact, attested to in Scripture and seen over and over again in history. The idea of Christian nationalism carries with it a close tie between the church and state, whatever tie that might be.

That God’s people should pray for and care about the good of the nation in which they live even as exiles was exemplified in Israel of old (Jeremiah 29:4-7). Christians will vary in what specifically that means. Some will be willing to participate in more or less all the activities of the state, though we have examples of those who won’t even vote, much less do any of that. Some of us are somewhere in between.

But the main point I’d like to make here is that we in Christ are the holy nation on earth whom God calls as a light to the nations. No nation-state on earth even has such a calling. At the same time we can hope that each nation in humility will learn to do better through God’s light that is present in Christ, and in the human conscience as well through “common grace.”

This is nothing more than hopefully a gentle heads up over what I see as a clear and present danger in that the ramifications and results from it will be nothing short of devastating, as we’ve seen clearly already in the United States. But we in Christ are called to follow one Lord as one holy nation together, by our good works to point to the greatness and goodness of the One we serve. In and through Jesus.

the gospel and salvation is personal in more ways than one

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Most often in the Christian tradition I’ve been a part of for decades, the gospel and salvation is personal with reference to our individual relationship to God, and to each other. And that’s good insofar as it goes. But we need to take personally the entire vision God casts. Yes, we have only our small part in that, but it’s our God-given part, and therefore a gift fitting into the whole.

We have to take this personally where we live: among our loved ones, in our neighborhood, in the church, at work, and in the world beyond where we live. In the words of Micah: we’re to do justice, to love kindness and mercy, as we walk humbly with our God. Simple, yet profound.

This means we really do want to understand what is going on around us. If we’re part of a church and denomination involved in such with good works, we can be thankful, and we can learn a lot from them.

This is to become a part of who we are, as well as what we’re about. What we’re aspiring and learning to do day after day, week after week, and year after year. In and through Jesus.

actions are more important than words

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

In our Christian culture there seems to be nothing more important than expressed belief, profession of faith, or acknowledgement that at one time or another a person accepted Jesus as their personal Savior. All that is well and good in its place, but if I’m hearing James and his words here correctly, it’s not enough.

A person is justified, declared righteous, made right, considered righteous- whatever the precise meaning, James teaches us, not by a faith which is alone, but a faith which acts.

The gospel is indeed the message by which saving faith is awakened, better- created. And that is a faith apart from works. We believe in Christ, in Christ’s work for us, in the victory of God in him. But that faith inevitably results in good works.

Only God is the judge, but it seems to me that those who act well without understanding the gospel are better off than those who have some understanding of the faith, but whose actions are not in line. Of course none of us are perfectly in line with the truth of the gospel. That will only occur by God’s grace when Christ returns. And there are those who are saved, yet as escaping through the flames, their works not found to be works which come from this faith. We’re getting into a gray, even rather dark area in which we can’t see well, and even if we could, probably is still well beyond our ability to discern. Somehow though, as we read elsewhere, someday God will give us the ability to judge angels.

But back to the point the pastor James is trying to get through to his readers, to us: faith is not really the faith which justifies if no works follow. It is an empty profession, which sadly enough seems to have been all too common in Christendom and even in our churches today. Though again, we all need mercy. God is the judge, one who is full of mercy as well. In and through Jesus.

faith is not just what you believe, but what you do

…humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:21b-27

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[b] and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James 2:14-26

The Protestant Reformation emphasized faith apart from works along with a creedal emphasis, stating “we believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…” Etc. But in so doing what people could easily slip into is the notion that works didn’t matter, as long as they have faith. After all, our good works can’t save, but only Christ so that the one requirement is faith. That’s good and even vital as far as it goes. The problem as James tells us here is that it doesn’t go far enough.

Yes, faith alone saves us, but the faith that saves us is not alone. True saving faith is always accompanied with a life change evident in works of love. Our lives are summarized in love for God and for our neighbor. Unless our faith results in good works, then it’s not faith at all, not the faith which saves. If we look to Christ for salvation, we’re also looking at the Christ who bids us to come and follow. You can’t separate the two. Theology which does is destructive. Note the separate components for sure, but note too that these components end up together. In God’s saving work. In and through Jesus.