the church is the center in Christ

And [God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Ephesians 1:22-23

So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone; in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.

Ephesians 2:19-22

there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling….

speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:4, 15-16

Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own flesh, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but I am speaking about Christ and the church.*

Ephesians 5:22-32

The church has fallen on hard times in the western and northern hemispheres. For many reasons. People have said and thought that while they like Christ, they don’t like the church. “Nones” is a phenomenon at least in the United States in which often devout believers in Christ have left church forever. And I know such who have been looking but not finding, although they do have a church in mind. Since I have been a Christian, I’ve always been a part of one church or another. Since leaving a Mennonite expression of the faith not long after my boyhood church closed down, I’ve been a part of too many churches. Some of that stands to reason, but I admire those who have been part of the same church tradition all their lives, or at least I think doing that is admirable. All of this is understandable given the issues and explanations.

All that said, no matter how hard it may be, we will do best I think, if we commit ourselves to a local fellowship of believers, a local church. That is an expression of who we are in Christ, not just individuals, but the one universal body of Christ of which we’re a part by the Spirit. No easy formula here. In the wave of Christian nationalism, not a few churches have lost their way. But in the many denominations present, surely one can find a church in which at least they can be in community with others in the faith and participate in liturgy, hear the word and partake of the sacraments. At the very least one might be able to settle into an Episcopalian church which requires nothing for basic participation. I have returned back to the tradition in which I was raised, but with respect for the Great Tradition, for Anabaptist roots, and what has followed.

But there’s no escape from this. In Christ the church is central. And if we’re in Christ, we’re part of the church, and we will do well to find our way into an expression of that.

*Note that the words in the Ephesians passage are within a patriarchal society, and so it’s written accordingly, not unlike the slave/master section soon after.

fellowship

what we have seen and heard we also declare to you so that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

1 John 1:3

Central to and part of the core of the Christian faith is fellowship, or what some might prefer to call communion. Just as God in God’s triunity is in communion with God’s self, of course something we can’t parse out and understand, so we humans are created to live in such a relationship in harmony with God and each other. Fellowship or communion is at the heart of who God is, the nature of God. And so if God is a reality, or in Christian or Jewish terms maybe we could say the overriding reality, then any fellowship with God automatically takes us into this space with God and with each other.

Of course as the biblical story tells us, and as we see all too clearly in life, such harmony is rarely present, and indeed our fellowship and communion is indeed broken, or at least strained and cracked. This is not where we live or at least not what characterizes our existence. We are off on another quest, far removed from that so that we’re actually removed from life itself.

But Christ, what is called the cosmic Christ, but not divorced from the Jesus of the gospels, in fact united with that, is really the reality that gives humanity the hope which brings humanity together toward a harmonious whole. In this time and present existence there will always be the principalities and powers, both human and spiritual, which are ever resistant and downright opposed to this, infiltrating everywhere. We need to know that the answer is present in Christ, but that the struggle in the present will continue. Not that there can’t be progress, but it seems that this side of the end will always include opposition and struggle.

The fellowship here is not only a sense of blissful intercourse, but also a love which is concerned for all in the love for our neighbor as ourselves. It is a fellowship not at rest until what is true in Christ becomes something true of the world itself, of all things, certainly to be finished when Christ returns, but something we are to be committed to here and now. As we more and more live and experience with each other the reality in God and in Christ by the Spirit.

God neither wants nor needs any superstars

Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

I’m not sure what it is, maybe an American thing, partly a western idea from the heritage of the emphasis on the individual, but it seems like there’s a premium put on “great” leaders whether they be in government, the church, or elsewhere. Everyone wants to hear the powerful or effective speaker/preacher. Or they want the (usually) man who can get it done in Washington or elsewhere. Superstars.

While God does give special gifts to Peter, Paul and Mary’s, etc., we have to remember that each of the originals, while in a formative time and situation were still part, albeit a prominently seen part, of the whole. Fastforward to our time, and we can think of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who certainly are wonderfully gifted. Women more often than not have been the leaders, such as Maya Angelou and many others. So it’s not like God doesn’t pick some to do work that is seen and noted.

But none of that would work apart from the body large. We are in this together, and dependent on each other. In Christ it is as his body of which he is the head, an ongoing healthy interdependence going on between each part of the body: the hands needing the feet, the feet needing the eyes, the eyes needing the mouth, and on and on. The entire body actually dependent on each part.

The impulse in us is so strong to think that we have to do it, a bunch of outstanding, rugged individuals. Maybe a kind of John Wayne mentality. “We can and will take care of it.” Instead in Christ we’re told to settle into our place and do well there doing what we’re called to do, along with others doing what they’re called to do, all together in love.

God neither needs nor wants superstars, but humble servants, always ready to serve with the help that Christ gives them. All of us together in this. In and through Jesus.

distractions

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.

Colossians 3:1-4; NRSVue

It would be a tragic misreading of this passage to suppose that we shouldn’t care about what’s going on on earth. Not caring about the plight of the poor, refugees, persecuted minorities, yes persecuted Christians as well, and all manner of many things. No, this passage has nothing at all to do with that.

Rather we might say that it has to do with our inner life “in Christ.” What we occupy ourselves with. You can’t multi-task, strictly speaking, though you may be in situations in which you indeed have to juggle a number of things. Jesus had to give his attention to many things: people, situations, issues, etc. But Jesus also gave himself fully to prayer to the Father, getting away by himself perhaps before anyone else was awake. And at other times as well. The point here is what is central to us, what is most foundational yes, and really us. What we’re not only about, but so to speak merged in, or hopefully so, seeking that.

It’s about Christ and the life of Christ in me, and also in us together. We’re to seek and set our minds on that. The things above. And when we do so, we just like Jesus can then be of much more earthly good. Our lives are meant to be influenced by heaven for earth, very “down to earth.” And yet from the love of heaven, in the blessed will of God. We indeed need to learn to live in that will here on earth, but to do so we need to focus on what God wants to give us from above. What is ours in and through Jesus.

looking forward to the end of what is destined to end

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating,
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy
and its people as a delight.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem
and delight in my people;
no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it
or the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it
an infant who lives but a few days
or an old person who does not live out a lifetime,
for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth,
and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat,
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD
and their descendants as well.
Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall feed together,
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
but the serpent—its food shall be dust!
They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain,
says the LORD.

Isaiah 65:17-25; NRSVue

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them and be their God;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

Revelation 21:1-6a; NRSVue

I really dislike living in a world in which even what is good and a blessing often also carries some kind of curse with it. Take even the blessed sunlight for example. Yes, what wonderful light it gives us, and we’re dependent on the heat that comes from it. But its rays not only can fade books on bookshelves but can kill those whose skin is too often or intensely exposed to it. Or take trees, another wonderful blessing. Needed for many reasons, one of them to store carbon, also for the ecological balance of our planet. Bringing wonderful shade from the sun’s rays, and some relief from the heat. Yet in a storm they can come down crashing and wreak havoc, even death. There’s really no end to this. We want to do the best we can in this life, but there’s really no escape from danger as well as problems. The best of things will fall apart over time, we humans as well.

But some blessed day the ideal which is so prevalent in our minds, but so deftly alludes us now will be completely realized. We will then live in the blessed light of the glory of God, in an existence in which we will no longer need to be protected from what can harm us. An existence which always will escape us in this life, even while we try to do the best we can. Told to us in scripture here for a reason. To help us understand that all the good we see here and the ideal imagined from that, the highest and complete good, will someday be fully realized. Through and through as God is all and all. Through the full reconciliation of all things in Christ.

In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to do the best I can to mitigate what might not be good for others. All the while realizing that the best of this including ourselves can’t last. But that God will make all things new in a way which will somehow not only reverse but even negate all the tragedy that has happened before. Yes, everything. Somehow for sure. In and through Jesus.

the new existence of us “in Christ”

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:1-17

The new existence we have “in Christ” has nothing directly to do with our feelings and experience. If we can just let that settle in. And the point in Romans 8 is not about our position in Christ as at least one popular translation of Scripture would leave most of today’s readers think. The “no condemnation” of Romans 8 is about God doing through Christ’s coming and sacrifice for sin by his death, what the law could not do, so that we can be taken out of the law of sin and death, into the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which brings instead of sin and death and the condemnation accompanying that, life and peace.

This is such a blessing. We are Spirit people, not flesh people. Oddly enough though, we can live like people of the flesh, a flat contradiction to who we are in Christ as God’s adopted children by the Spirit. But we don’t have to live there a second longer. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that old habits and ways are often not easy to get rid of. But God in Christ by the Spirit is there to help us. So that we can indeed put to death the old, and put on the new, spoken about in other places by Paul. Wonderful thoughts for us to reflect on, and live into. In and through Jesus.

hold your ground

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the…

Ephesians 6:13-14a

“…stand your ground…stand. Stand firm…” The point in this classical spiritual warfare scripture passage is that we as individuals and together as church are to hold our ground against the powers of darkness and the wiles and schemes of the devil. We do so only in and through the mighty power of God given to us in our weakness, and the armor of God as part of the clothing of Christ which we’re to put on in this world.

Recently something was brought to my attention which I don’t think I’ve ever noticed before, the connection between this passage and Genesis 2 and 3 when humankind’s shame of nakedness, the fear of being completely known due to deception by the serpent came into view. God clothed Adam and Eve in the story, and provides for humankind the clothing of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:11-14).

We have to face this fact whether we like it or not, and actually I don’t care much for it, myself. But we have to realize we’re in a spiritual battle now. Definitely not physical ever, but spiritual. We’re up against forces that we’re no match for. But those forces, even the devil itself are no match for Christ, the victory and mighty power of God that is in Christ.

But we have to take all that’s given to us. We can’t do this on our own. We need each other in this, this passage is actually addressed to believers, plural; we’re all in this together. It certainly does apply to us individually, but we then mistakenly tend to see it as strictly something only we ourselves do day after day. But as the letter of Ephesians makes clear, it is Christ’s body through which God makes known the mystery and reality of the gospel, yes to the principalities and powers in the heavenly realms, these foes against which we’re to stand.

I am pretty strong in at least the wanting to hold my ground, but not yet good enough at putting on what God gives us in the strength he supplies. It is “in Christ.” Our triumph is in him, the good news in Christ. God will break through; God will help us as we stand firm, hold our ground. In and through Jesus.

accept the reality we’re in: Christian spiritual warfare

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no weekend war that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I, jailbird preacher that I am, am responsible for getting out.

Ephesians 6:10-20; MSG

I think there’s truth and wisdom in what I heard years and years ago from a servant of the Lord. We as followers of Christ are children, servants and soldiers. He then likened that I think to the old stools people used to sit on to milk their cows. Three legs, so that if one of them is gone, the stool is gone we could say, as well. For different reasons I think we either want to avoid the soldier analogy, or we misapply it, pushing it into “the culture war,” or even into what is some ways is worse, actual military or paramilitary activity. Not what Christ taught, nor what Paul is teaching here.

We are not in a physical battle, but spiritual, and we’d better face that and get used to it, and act accordingly. It’s not just something we do and get it over with. We have to be ready and engaged day after day. It’s a kind of mentality, but also something beyond that. It is we can say spiritual in the sense that we are looking to God for God’s strength and help, no less, in all that God has provided for us in Christ. As The Message puts it: “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation” along with “God’s Word” and “prayer.”

All who are in Christ will sooner or later realize that they are in a spiritual battle. I remember a successful and loving pastor who seemed to suggest that we should ignore Satan. I may have well misunderstood him. Perhaps he was making the point that our focus shouldn’t be on Satan or spiritual warfare, the spiritual battle we’re in, but on Christ. And that is a good and important point. We succeed in resisting the onslaught of the enemy by getting our strength from God, and applying what God has given us in Scripture, in Christ.

There’s nothing fancy here. All we’re supposed to do is stand firm, holding our ground. It may not look pretty, and may not get us any style points. It’s not about us. We accept this difficult, heavy reality, after all, there’s really no escape from it. And we want to take it head on, not at all in our own strength, but only in the Lord’s mighty strength, the strength of his might. Again, living out all Christ has given us, all we are. Holding on. Not trying to overcome ourselves, but knowing we will overcome by standing firm through Christ. Along with others. In and through Jesus.

do the next “good work”

…we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:10

Sometimes we live what we imagine is a necessarily frazzled existence. We fly by the seat of our pants in what amounts to essentially unmanageable situations at times. And can live there for a time or longer.

What I think God has been teaching me lately is to relax more, and simply go to the next “good work” God has for me. And when I think of good work, I’m not thinking of anything big at all. Just a bunch of little things, which in themselves may seem insignificant, but put together can mean a lot. Actually meant to be part of one’s life. God has done a good work in us, so that we might do good works for others.

I little know what might be next, but I take whatever I believe has been assigned to me, and try to do it the best I can. That doesn’t mean I’ll just take anything and everything. Of course I’ll do all within the sphere of my responsibility. But there are extras on the side we might try out, and find that although we might be able to do it, it just isn’t something that we resonate with, perhaps even disliking it. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to like everything that comes our way, which we have to do. But we need to differentiate between those things we’re called to do, and what we’re not actually called to do, but are for someone else.

So for me, late in my life, this is a breakthrough of sorts. Simply relaxing into my next “good work,” doing the best I can at it, before I do the next “good work.” With rest in between, in part finding my “rest” in all of this. In and through Jesus.

I’m okay; I’m not okay

I was asked recently by a friend how I was doing, maybe even if I was okay. I replied that I’m okay, and I’m not okay. And that’s the way I think and feel about life in this present world.

I’m okay in that my identity is “in Christ.” And I’m part of Christ and his body in the world. “In Christ” I have God’s promises that begin now, and assure a good outcome.

I’m not okay, because of all the suffering in a broken world. Christians are persecuted today, arguably worse than ever, worldwide. And many other peoples suffer as well at the hands of injustice and pure evil.

I am a citizen of a nation (the US) where I don’t believe either major political party is pro-life, if one considers all that’s involved in helping people from the womb to the tomb. And where there’s a growing, deeper divide, the two sides further and further apart. And Christians taking up sides, but where I live, mostly one side, which I think is mistaken. The issues are more complex than that, I think. And neither major party is worthy of endorsement by Christians, but rather, rebuke. But we should praise whatever good we can find.

I am uncomfortable with a Christianity which doesn’t openly grieve over injustice. I don’t believe that is consonant with the Bible I read. How can we be okay when so many Christians are suffering? There’s no doubt that any real suffering in the US, minimal at this point is often self-inflicted through caricatures, and not trying to understand, as well as not accepting what has always been true in the United States: people don’t agree, and often vehemently disagree. Look into the early history of the US, and you’ll find plenty of that, and it never ends.

I think Christians can ultimately be okay, because they know in the end that Christ prevails, that the gospel, the good news in Jesus wins. And that God is working in his grace in spite of so much, often the church in the most persecuted places, growing exponentially and thriving.

Yet at the same time, with Jesus and the prophets we weep. Longing for something better in this life since we’ve been given a taste of that “in Christ.” As we look forward to the end of all the brokenness and evil, in God’s kingdom to come. In and through Jesus.