who do we identify with in the gospel narratives?

As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed by demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases and cast out many demons, and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

Mark 1:29-34; NRSVue

I’m in a devotional time where we’re working through the gospel according to Mark. As we go into it, and consider this writing, I was thinking who I identify with. We’re to be followers of Christ, so one might think we ought to identify ourselves with him. And in a sense, that’s so true. Christ fully identified himself with us, so that we might fully identity ourselves in him, find our true identity in him. But none of us in this life gets everything right the way he did. We have to be far more humble knowing that we simply can’t have the same assurance he did. We not only won’t get everything right, but there probably is some measure of wrong or mistakenness in all we do, everything. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t in it as we depend on Christ and seek to be led by the Spirit.

This makes me think I identify more with Jesus’s disciples, bumbling and slow as they were. I have no problem connecting myself with that. I almost always am struggling over something or another. But I can also identify well with bystanders in the story so to speak, participants like the man whose son was suffering terribly from a demon which Jesus’s disciples couldn’t cast out. Jesus comes, and asks if the man believes he can do this. He says I believe, help my unbelief! Yes, I can identify with that. And with the disciples at what’s called “the Great Commission” at the end of Matthew’s gospel account, when they worshiped him, but as the NRSVue renders it, doubted as well (“they doubted” not just “some doubted”) which might be a better rendering from the Greek.

People in Mark’s gospel account are in a position of receiving from Jesus. And as followers of Jesus we’re meant to be those who can bless others, mostly through our prayers and simply being available to them, hopefully being led by the Spirit to help them in anyway we can, whatever God gives us. At the same time I often feel like I’m the one in need of Jesus’s touch, of his cure and healing.

We are part of the ongoing story. Jesus is ascended, we fast as the Bridegroom is gone, at least in our attitude, though Christ is very near us by the Spirit. But the Spirit was with Jesus’s followers when he was present. How can you beat that? Yet Jesus said it was better that he depart so that the Comforter could come, the Spirit in whom he would be present. So the story continues.

As we read and work through such gospel accounts, may God help us to find our footing, where we fit. And to go on, seeking to follow Jesus entirely in every way to the very end.

In and through Jesus.

reconciling broken relationships

“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder,’ and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council, and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.”

Matthew 5:21-26; NRSVue

One must pay careful attention to Jesus’s words here to not fall into serious, even dangerous error. For example a wife might be told that she must reconcile with an abusive husband, who has shown over and over again that he needs help. This passage gives no space whatsoever for that, nor anything else in the Bible. As can be seen in the passage, it was spoken in a different time, yet the ramifications come across pretty straight forward to our present time.

What I want to dwell on a bit is the importance of Jesus followers making their relationships a priority. But add to that, when you consider all Jesus said here, doing our best in every relationship.

First of all contempt has no place. Yes, we might be shaking our heads to ourselves, but we must never do that in public and if we do, make sure we make it right. We should express all our concerns to God, this after all is a good even important occasion for praying. Everyone deserves a certain basic respect as a human being made in God’s image. That said, we do need to proceed carefully because while many people fully intend good, others certainly don’t.

When some occurrence has made a rift in a relationship with a sister or brother in Christ, then we need to do all we can on our side to mend that rift. And I would add to that any other person, whether or not they profess to follow Christ. We can’t force any kind of reconciliation, and only God can heal. Often either words or actions or some combination of both has broken the relationship and what fellowship there was before is gone. We’ll have to express our regret and seek forgiveness where we’ve been wrong.

Let’s be careful not to think we had no wrong in a given situation. That is strictly the case only with Jesus. But let’s not force some equal responsibility when clearly that is not the case.

If we take Jesus’s words seriously, this is something we need to take with the utmost seriousness. Do all we can, pray, and keep doing that along the way as needed. God can bring the needed change both in us and the other person. That we might live out the unity that is ours 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).

trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

when hope is gone

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three…

1 Corinthians 13:13a

But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

1 Thessalonians 5:8

Hope is a basic of human life. It’s looking forward to good, and more than that, it’s living with the idea that our lives matter, that there’s a good end.

Suicide prevention involves helping people get on track to find hope as in a reason to not end life, to live, that somehow there’s something good about carrying on.

In Scripture hope is included with faith and love. Those of us in the Christian tradition and familiar with Scripture will readily see the importance of faith and love, but hope might not often occur to us, if at all. But there it is, right beside faith and love. So it is important.

Central to hope is that God is working to bring good to all, to the world. Of course we can and do resist God’s working, even when oftentimes we are not conscious of doing so. But God continues that work, nonetheless.

Hope is short, medium, and long term; even with reference to the past in the thought of the redemption of all things, the present so that day to day we can find good, and the future, ultimately in the return of Christ when all is made right and new.

This is not some fantasy, nothing more than in our dreams. But for the real world, with all its difficulties, conundrums and even tragedies. Somehow in the midst of all of that, the hope we find in God is to help us not only survive, but live in the victory of Christ which paradoxically means for us now a resurrected life in the way of death, in the way of the cross, in the true following of Christ. Looking forward to the complete healing to come.

In and through Jesus.

going through it, not around it

Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

Psalm 23:4

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

Psalm 23:4; MSG

Psalm 23 is a delight, and one of the earliest Bible passages many of memorized and recited from the beloved King James Version. Couched in the middle of this David psalm is the reference to the darkest and most difficult of our experience in this life. What we would well like to avoid, but can’t. The inevitable trials and tribulations, dark in either what actually is experienced, or in the perceived threats which trouble us.

God, I believe is wanting to teach us something basic, but so crucial to our life in God as pilgrims in this world. We’re not to try to avoid or even escape the darkness we face, but walk through it, yes through it. Knowing that the Lord will be with us. Yes, God will be with us. Jesus our good shepherd. Protecting us with his rod and staff. The Lord will see us through. We’ll receive all the help we need, comfort and security, and will be better off, remarkably enough, for having gone through it. Or at least afterward we’ll be receiving the healing we need. In and through Jesus.

“we all need a home”

Someone recently told me that. It is wonderful, the family settings we can live in. But even the best of them is not without some hurts and wounds along the way, even with some cracks and brokenness. And tragically, sometimes those fractures are not mended and there can be a parting of ways. Home together as family does involve a commitment.

When it comes to church, we Christians at least here in America I think have some difficulty seeing it as family or being comfortable there. Why? It could be in part because of our own experience as family. And churches in our society are like a dime a dozen. Unlike days of old when there were parishes, and you had your church according to your location, in which you may well attend and be part of for a lifetime, now people so to speak go shopping for church. Wherever it’s the right feel, or serves the needs of one’s family, or their own needs, we stop and shop there. Maybe for a few years, maybe more, but often less. Until we move on to our next church and church experience. The older I get, the more I value the practice of those who have been in one church for decades, even entire lifetimes. Unfortunately not true of myself. Though there are times, sadly, to leave a church.

But the church in Jesus is meant to be our primary family, in a certain sense more family than our own family. Though of course each have their unique special place. Jesus made it clear that his sister, brother, and mother were those who did God’s will. And we find in the New Testament letters an emphasis on a community held together in the bond of love in Christ, with the fruit of the Spirit moving that fellowship, and the gifts of the Spirit helping it, all toward growth together into maturity in Christ.

We need a home where we don’t have to perform and have it all together. Where we can be our honest, even broken selves. I’m not saying at all, excusing our sin. But really being honest with ourselves and others. Just that sense given to us together by the Spirit who leads us to the broken body and blood of Christ for us individually and in our relationships with each other.

We need a place where we’re at home. Where people really care for us. Grace-oriented, so that by and by we can start measuring up, but not at all about measuring up, even while there is loving accountability. Where we realize that we’re all in this together, that when one suffers with whatever, we all suffer. Where when one rejoices and is happy, we all are happy for and with them. The sense that we’re indeed not in this life alone. But we’re present and in place for each other. And together for a broken world. In and through Jesus.

taking an inventory of one’s life

This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you. For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

2 Corinthians 13:1-10

“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” These words from the Apostle Paul to the Corinthian church echo down the corridors of time all the way to us. 2 Corinthians was written in large part to get the Corinthian church back on track, as many were being influenced by false teachers within the church. We may think we live in a different day and age, but if we pay closer attention, we’ll know better. 

One of the big problems we face is the same problem that church faced: we fail to take with sufficient seriousness the message of God’s word, the exact teaching. And when we do that, there is a rationale behind it probably that makes sense to us at the time, and we’re carried away into something other than God’s will.

It is crucial to pay close attention to God’s word and to our own lives, both. The message and teaching of God’s word is meant to impact our lives, no less. But in order for that to happen, we need to prayerfully go over our lives, especially being attentive to what God might be wanting to teach us now while also being open to how we might better process the past as we receive God’s redemptive healing. The point here is that we need to examine ourselves, of course to see if we’re in the faith, yes. And also to understand so as to truly practice our faith day to day in every circumstance so that we might not only recognize Christ in us, but that others may as well. In and through Jesus.

 

 

peace of mind to the lowly in heart

And it will be said:

“Build up, build up, prepare the road!
Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people.”
For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.
I will not accuse them forever,
nor will I always be angry,
for then they would faint away because of me—
the very people I have created.
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their willful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners,
creating praise on their lips.
Peace, peace, to those far and near,”
says the Lord. “And I will heal them.”
But the wicked are like the tossing sea,
which cannot rest,
whose waves cast up mire and mud.
“There is no peace,” says my God, “for the wicked.”

Isaiah 57:14-21

The peace described here is a rest in faith in God, which comes from a repentant heart, as we acknowledge our sin and need for God. The wicked are on their own, living in such a way that there’s no peace, no rest in God. They are restless in themselves, ever wanting more, oftentimes more in the way of money and power, status.

The passage, well entitled in the NIV, “Comfort for the Contrite,” is an encouragement for us to remain contrite and lowly in spirit, readily confessing our sins, and not thinking of ourselves as better than others. In doing so, we find our rest in God, comfort and provision from him, even praise of him on our lips from our hearts, in place of mourning.

The place where I want to live. In and through Jesus.

James’s ending note: community life

Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5

James certainly talks about relationships in the community of faith in his letter. But community life is saved for last, perhaps because that’s where James’s heart is as a pastor.

It’s not like the community of believers are to take the place of God. As James notes, anyone in trouble should pray and those who are happy should sing songs of praise to God. All of this is dependent on God. There’s a dependence on God and from that, an interdependence on each other. God made us for him, and for each other. We can help each other as we receive help from God, or with the help we receive from God.

When someone in the community is sick, they’re to call on the leaders of the church to pray over them, anointing them with olive oil as a symbol of healing. And the leaders are to pray over them, and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well, and their sins will be forgiven. This implies any needed confession of sin by the one sick. But includes those not aware of any such need for confession, except for acknowledgment of the everyday sins and weaknesses we all carry, which might be affecting us more than we realize. I think of James’s warning against judging each other, and how the Lord judges such. And all his words against loose, careless speech, particularly as described in James 3, straight from the pit of hell. The healing in the context seems to be more or less connected with confession of sin, though not necessarily so.

And then there’s the word of encouragement concerning our prayers, probably especially encouraging the elders who pray, but also anyone else in the community of faith. Elijah is seen as extraordinary, including his prayers and God’s answers, but as James notes, he was just an ordinary human being with the same passions and struggles as the rest of us. If God answered his prayers, God will answer ours. Being righteous in James is more the character of righteousness we receive and mature in, than the standing which especially Paul talks about along with its character. We are always in need of God’s forgiving, cleansing grace, but we are not to excuse ourselves and our sins, and then expect to be heard by God in prayer. But when we are confessing, and doing our best to be obedient people, growing in grace, then our prayers will matter much.

And then the closing word on rescuing the one who is wandering from the truth in the error of their own way. Nothing less than saving their souls from death is at stake here. The community is not to let them go, but to try to bring them back in. And what’s implied here is that we as individuals our involved. One of us from within the community can make the difference as we step in and reach out to help the sinner in need repent. This takes much grace, but we are called to this for each other.

Deb and I are part of an evangelical mega church in which is emphasized the row (weekend worship service), the circle (small group), and the chair (personal devotions). We plugged into a small group early on, and it’s been as great a blessing as all the rest. People can receive some of what James refers to in the weekend gathering, and especially so in smaller churches. But a small group of say eight to twelve people, committed to each other in love and prayer, can make the needed world of difference.

What James calls us to at the close of his letter. What we need, and what the world needs to see from us together. In and through Jesus.