identifying with the poor

In my culture here in the United States, there seems to be a belief that has taken hold of many, that people are poor for a reason, meaning the poor are essentially at fault for being so. I’ve heard it put quite starkly that way, as if there are no outside factors which have contributed to their plight. Let’s face it, everyone makes less than best decisions at time, surely all of us have even done foolishly sometime when it comes to finances. But those who have a steady job and especially with a good income, have a nice margin of error, whereas the poor, who may not get much over minimum wage, do not. Yes, there’s all kinds of considerations to be added, like how some (some would say many) want to live off the government, while they smoke their cigarrettes and sit in front of the television. Yet there are others who have given up because they felt marginalized and simply didn’t have the qualifications needed to overcome.

Yes, there are poor people in the United States who barely have enough to eat, at times not enough. But most are helped in some way by the government or private agencies such as charities. The world’s poor in comparison suffer a much greater plight, since they often don’t have the resources that the poor here do. I think of places in Africa in which there is starvation even of children, often war ravaged areas in which governments can’t stop evil militia groups, oftentimes the governments themselves being corrupt.

People removed perhaps on the other side of the globe are sadly easy to dismiss or forget. But people suffering where we live is another matter. And yet we so easily live in bubbles among those of our economic, political, religious status, seldom breaking out of them enough to even begin to get to know the “others.”

To identify with the poor is essentially the way of Jesus, whose entire life, in fact coming was about identifying with the poverty of the human condition by becoming completely human except that he never sinned.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

2 Corinthians 8

So we must start with our Lord, and it’s good to see it in the context of the above passage just cited (the link goes to 2 Corinthians 8 and 9). Paul was encouraging the Corinthian church to give monetarily, an offering for their poor brothers and sisters in Jesus in Judea. Some in their poverty gave generously for the help of others in spite of their own lack.

In and through Jesus, our hearts are to go out to the poor, and we’re to help them in practical ways in the love of our Lord, those who do not know him, with the good news of the gospel, itself.

We also need to be careful that Money doesn’t replace God in our lives. This is a life changing series, entitled, “God and Money,” which while saying a good number of things we may already know, is revolutionary in challenging us to see all of our resources as not only gifts from God, but also belonging to God, we being stewards of such. That needs to get into our hearts and bones to change our lives.

May the Lord teach us more in this direction, as we endeavor to walk together with him, longing for others to know the true riches we have found in him.

grace strengthens our hearts (but the law doesn’t)

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Hebrews 13

The language of grace is different than what we’re accustomed to, in fact I would say it’s largely foreign to us. We tend to fall into one extreme or another: into living an obligatory life in trying to please God (law), or less likely for myself and people I know, simply believing that we can’t not sin in this life, so we might as well get on with it. But if we’re to learn the language of Paul, we’ll have to learn another tune altogether than either one of these.

It’s true that someone other than Paul most likely wrote the letter to the Hebrews. But that person was certainly in sync with Paul and the message of grace found in Paul’s letters. It’s a message that is radically simple, and simply radical. What we could never do ourselves, Christ did for us through his appearing (the Incarnation), his teaching (pointing us to the kingdom come in him, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel for the world), and his death and resurrection.

Particularly through Christ’s death, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, our sins are forgiven, and we live in a new realm, the realm of grace. This might be a hard one to wrap our heads around, since most all of our lives we’ve been accustomed to living in the default of law, or obligation. Where we’ve lived is tricky. We believe and feel that we’re obliged to do something for the one who gave his all for us.

That’s tricky and even a bit deceptive since in reality we certainly can’t add a thing to what Christ has done for us. Nor can we delete a thing from it, either, by what we do or fail to do. Of course we can sin against that sacrifice, even as Hebrews itself warns us (see Hebrews chapters 6 and 10). We can treat it in a contemptuous or careless way.

The heart is not strengthened when it is under the constraint and obligation of law. See Romans 7 for the clearest indication of that. There Paul is referring to life under the law apart from grace (Romans 6) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). Our only hope for beginning to live the new life is the very same grace through which we entered into that life in the first place. Our own effort, or prescribed works (or proscribed as in forbidden, for that matter) will not carry us into that new life, in fact cannot be a part of it. But on the basis of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we indeed are put into a realm in which there is a new life to be lived, but a life never dependent even on our own faithfulness, but only on that of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20; see the CEB and context).

That is what I’m working on now. To better understand so as to begin to more fully live in the grace of God in Jesus. And by that live a life in which the heart is strengthened to carry on well in and through Christ himself from the Father by the Spirit.

the watchword for this time: grace

We live in a tumultuous time when nearly everything seems in flux with radical change coming in epic proportions; in biblical language the heavens being shaken, the sun blotted out, the moon turned to blood, and the stars falling down from the sky.

And we live in a time when friends, family, and yes, even Christians disagree with each other on issues in a way at least in which there can be no compromise, set in our ways of thinking and understanding. However we might assess that, that’s not the point of this post. We must take care not to sin against the one reality which is given to us in Jesus.

What is needed today is grace in the distinctive way of Jesus, the grace we find through the gospel. So that even in our disagreements we in Jesus apply grace to each other, forgiving each other when we misspeak, and holding on to the one truth and reality that unites us: the good news in Jesus. We might define this grace as loving each other no matter what in and through the gospel, that we are family, bonded together in love in and through Jesus. Something we have, and need to grow in.

How that plays out is important. We can seek to persuade on what we must acknowledge are lesser things than the gospel, however important they well may be. Humility should help us, since we all know in part, and are to some extent part of the problem in one way or another, even if it’s in simply ignoring what might come to our attention that is unpleasant.

What we must hold on to for ourselves, for each other, and for our witness to the world is our essential unity in God through Christ by the Spirit. We are fully committed together to the good news of God in Jesus, meant to impact our lives in the hard places, and keep us unified in love, even when other issues would pull us apart and break the communion we have. We must show the world the better way.

What about when we think people, especially those in Christian leadership are off the mark? Are we praying for them? We can strongly, yet respectfully disagree with them. Grace ironically dictates there, and dictates nothing less than that.

And the grace which pours out of the gospel in Jesus, a love no matter what, which holds each other up in encouragement as well as accountability to the gospel because we care, that is the watchword we need to hold on to. For ourselves, for each other, and for our witness to the world in and through Jesus.

when who judge others we condemn themselves

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Matthew 7

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Romans 2

It is interesting how often it is apparent that the very thing we see wrong in another is something we practice ourselves. We need insight from God to be able to see that. Jesus doesn’t tell us to quit judging as in having discernment in the Matthew passage quoted above. Rather he tells us to make sure we are scrupulous to take care of the sin in our own lives,  before we think we can help someone else with the sin in their lives. The crux of the matter is that we’re not to condemn others in a kind of final judgment which only God can make.

I think Paul is saying much the same thing in the Romans passage quoted above. He is challenging Jews who think that just because they had the Law/Torah, they were a cut (circumcision) above the rest. But Paul makes it clear in that letter that just like the rest of humankind, they too were under the power of sin. So that again, an emphasis is made on judging one’s self with reference to that Torah, and becoming obedient to the Law’s requirement, which is love for God and for our neighbor from the heart by the Spirit.

James has some good words for us related to this:

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4

Simply put, we’re not to put ourselves in the place of God. And here:

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.

James 2

Finally, in a sense bringing this to full circle, back to our Lord’s words:

Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.

John 7

I am very wary of topical studies such as this one, because they too often don’t do justice to the context of each passage, and are summarily slapped together in a way which ultimately often fails to support the main point, or at least is simplistic, failing to take into account the whole. Of course we should compare scripture with scripture, no doubt, while letting each passage and book within scripture have its own voice to be appreciated within the mix of the whole.

Today the point is that we must beware and at least be wary of judging others, since only God can see and judge, and since we are sinners, too. But as by grace we do judge ourselves, God will give us insight to help others judge themselves by God’s grace on the path of righteousness. And in the end, we should apply mercy, remembering that mercy ultimately triumphs over judgment. In other words, God’s salvation in Jesus overcomes the judgment and brings mercy in and through Jesus. So that we should learn to see both ourselves and others in light of that great reality and hope.

 

faith because of the faithfulness of Christ

In Paul’s letters, there are a number of places in which the literal translation would be “the faithfulness of Christ” as being front and center for our salvation. Of course our faith is factored into that, but our faith is not central. Oftentimes it is translated “faith in Christ,” which still puts Christ as the object of faith, but also emphasizes our faith. And there’s no doubt that there is an emphasis on human faith, such as in the case of Abraham in Romans 4. And that our faith is contrasted to our works, and specifically to the works of the Law. So that grace is grace only if it is by faith and not by works, I think not so much with regard to human effort, but more in terms of adherence to the Law of Moses. It’s a bit complicated, but even in that case in Romans 4, I think Paul is simply trying to show that it is faith in God’s word, and specifically in the gospel which justifies or brings salvation, and to think that works of the Law enter in, is to bring in a category which is actually as foreign to the First/Old Testament, as it is to the Final/New Testament. Abraham was justified by faith apart from the works of the Law, and before he was circumcised. The boasting Paul says is to be rejected is not really about one’s own effort, and not even a smidgen about some supposed moral perfection, even if Paul uses the latter to point out that those who emphasize Law/Torah keeping must not break any of it to remain in the clear with God. The boasting by the Jew would be in the Torah itself, and the fact that they possessed and sought to live by that Torah/Law.

But to the main point of this post. The faithfulness of Christ in his coming, life, and especially in his death, followed by God’s vindication in his resurrection from the dead, then his ascension to the supreme place of authority at God’s right hand, with the promise of his return when the final judgment and salvation come and in that, the new creation, is what our focus should be on. Not our own faith, but on the faithfulness of Christ. It is far better to have a small faith in a great object, instead of a large faith in a small object. The focus must not be on our own faith, but on the faithfulness of God in Christ, yes, on the faithfulness of Christ. That is the focus in which our faith can be established and grow.

Romans 7, and the case for two natures

Yesterday I suggested that the sinful nature teaching among evangelicals is questionable. Today I want to touch lightly on a most challenging passage, which has different interpretations, though by and large, I think one should prevail, with some possible overlap into the Christian life.

Romans 7 is often understood as teaching that the believer in Christ has two natures. And I’ve heard the teaching repeatedly, we probably all have, that it depends on which nature one feeds as to which one survives, or thrives and grows. At the same time it’s taught that the believer will have an inevitable struggle with the two natures, even a tug of war (it has even been inaptly called I think, a civil war), and the struggle won’t end in this life; it will always be present.

Romans 7 needs to be read and studied in the context of at least Romans chapters 6 and 8. What is noticeable in Romans 7 in contrast to the previous and following material is that both grace and the Spirit are absent. Romans 7 depicts life under the law, we might capitalize Law, life under the Torah. At least at this point when the transition has taken place and the first/old covenant is of the past, the final/new covenant present, grace and the Spirit are no longer present with what is now the old covenant, as important as that covenant being first, was. Paul would have surely argued that only in the new/final covenant was God’s grace and the Spirit to be dominant, the old/first covenant having laid the groundwork for that.

One might argue that Paul’s use of the first person “I” indicates he’s talking about his own experience as a Christian. I think along with some interpreters (at least one of the early church era) that he is using a rhetorical device which was especially common, or at least known when he wrote it, and is simply identifying what life is like under the law in the graphic terms of one living there. However insofar as we who are in Christ, no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit (Romans 8) and under grace, not under the law (Romans 6), insofar as we live like those who are under the law, something of the experience of Romans 7 will be experienced. But in reality we are not under the law, but under grace, and not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, so that the thought is a deception.

People refer to Paul calling himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1), as if he sins right up to the present, contradictory of the teaching of Romans 6 and 8. But Paul is surely thinking of his past life of persecuting Christians, and not to his present life. At the same time, it’s true that we don’t arrive in this life. We still have both indwelling sin, and sin to confess. So there might be some case to make for two natures. As Galatians 5 makes clear, if we don’t walk/live according to the Spirit, we will live according to the flesh.

There is little doubt that at least at times we can and will falter. And we don’t arrive in this life to any kind of sinless perfection, but do sin in thought, word and deed daily in both what we do and fail to do to love God with all of our being and doing, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. So that we are always in need of God’s mercy to us as sinners. But at the same time, our lives are to be characterized as those who are led by the Spirit, putting to death the deeds of the body, and living as those enslaved to God and to righteousness in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.

agreeing to disagree agreeably

Yesterday I made a plea for grace to be practiced among us, especially during this contentious (to say the least) election, and time of ungrace. What about the fact and reality that Christians who are equally committed to the Lord, may completely disagree, and strongly so? I can’t help but think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who most think was in  a plot to kill Adolph Hitler, though based on a challenge to that (one I haven’t read), I rather doubt it. However there’s no doubt that Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler and Nazism early on, for years and years, and ended up more and more in the minority among professed Christians in doing so. So he stands out as an example of one who disagreed strongly with the majority of Christians of his day.

Now to the presidential election of this year: Some swear up and down that Hillary Clinton not only should not be elected president, but should be locked up in prison. Others decry Donald Trump as unfit for the presidency because of his temperament, troubling ethics, and lack of real knowledge. Maybe others are not sure on this.

For many, to be gracious means not to say a word at all, to simply be quiet, and perhaps in doing so, being above the fray. For others, to be gracious might not preclude speaking out, but would surely include being silent and listening well to counterarguments, and the claims of the other side, as well as to other positions.

I for one have spoken out some, and I likely will continue to speak out. But I will read and listen to other sides, as well. I am certainly open to further understanding. And there’s a time for silence. As we read in Ecclesiastes 3:

There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

…a time to be silent and a time to speak…

To practice grace with each other, doesn’t mean that we simply agree, or rationalize so as to agree. Nor does it mean that we never speak out on difficult, contentious issues. It surely does mean that we do so always with a full measure of grace, the truth as we understand and take a stand for, always done with love and respect for those who oppose that, and may be challenging us.

At the same time, by and large I think silence should prevail, and certainly so rather than a constant bickering and arguing. There can be a time to make one’s case, have the other make their case, perhaps receive counterarguments, maybe followed by each one giving a closing, summary statement, and letting it go at that. Refusing afterward to speak, even when inevitably more, and perhaps new, fresh thoughts arise on the contentious matter.

I think churches and pastors do well not to take sides in political elections for the sake of the gospel, so as not to alienate those who may be very much sold on one position, or another. And even in the most extreme cases, we might do well to ask questions, and hopefully by that increase awareness about a matter we consider to be of utmost importance. We should be careful of the idea that unless another thinks like us, or sees what we think we see, or acts as in voting (or perhaps not voting at all) the way we might suggest, that they are somehow being disobedient to Christ, and a lesser Christian. Remember, the same grace that they need, is exactly what we need, as well.

In the end, we all need to love, and make the most of it, whatever differences we may have, and whatever happens. It is no less than the gospel of Christ which unites us who are in Christ. We must continue on with that, come what may, and learn to do so together, even as we disagree on what amounts to lesser things, as important as they are. Knowing that even in the present, God is at work, and Jesus will return as Judge and Savior to sort out the inevitable mess that we humans will leave behind.