secondary matters

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”

Matthew 23:23-24

Jesus’s words here remind me of my own life and even the life of the church if I were to cite concerns. We easily get caught up in secondary matters, things necessary in their place which need to be attended to. And we often are focused on issues which distract us from what’s most important.

Our theological concerns can be far too narrow, and that becomes evident in what we are thinking about and what we do as a result. Is our view becoming more and more expansive like God’s? Or are we concerned about only the things which most directly affect ourselves both for this life and the next?

Jesus makes it clear that justice, mercy and faithfulness are to take priority over other matters. A key tactic of the devil, or so it seems to me is to get us sidetracked into obsessions which seem so important, but cause us to lose out over what is of first importance.

We need to take care of what we might call nuisance questions and problems. And in this life we’re beset by them, no doubt. But we must not let what is of primary importance be crowded out. Loving others, loving our neighbor as ourselves, loving even our enemies, certainly not neglecting those near and dear to us, all of this in our love for God must take priority. As we seek to follow Jesus in everything. In and through Jesus.

the way of peace found in Jesus

The way of peace they do not know;
there is no justice in their paths.

Isaiah 59:8a

And it’s clear enough, isn’t it, that we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else?

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him.

Romans 3:19b,21-22a; MSG

Justice and the peace that comes from that is often the emphasis we hear from younger Christians nowadays. And for many good reasons. For one thing, the gospel often proclaimed and taught in evangelical circles is mostly about our own relationship with God and with others. That is truth, and very needed, and certainly does not exclude teaching about what is just and right, true and good, merciful and bringing peace. But it’s not the entire truth or application of the gospel.

There does need to be an emphasis on justice in society, not just personal righteousness which supposedly brings the needed justice. There is a needed reckoning within the world system to judge and root out, yes, systemic evil. With reference to racial injustice, and many other evils in the world. So this instinct and passion within and active in the younger generations should be welcomed and appreciated.

What we have to be careful of is getting the cart before the horse. Justice in itself is not the point nor the goal, not for the Christian. Jesus and God’s good news of grace and the kingdom come in him is the proper focus. That brings the necessary judgment on evil to be replaced by what is truly the good, flourishing life for humans, for all humanity. 

The emphasis therefore needs to be on Jesus, on God in the human Jesus, the Spirit’s amen and work from that, and the difference that can make, yes, even in this world. In challenging all the injustice, and beginning to see the new world emerge among us. And we shouldn’t fail to mention that it is through nothing short of the blood of Jesus, his death, so that all evil was absorbed into that day on Jesus. So that evil is now dealt with in the truly Christian way through Jesus’s death on the cross. The new life through his resurrection, following.

Not to say that God isn’t at work through some ways in the world which though we would say ultimately is through Jesus and God’s work in him, is not actually linked to that. Indeed that may well be. But the unique way in Jesus in the love for one’s enemies and the way of the cross is at the forefront of what God’s justice looks like. It is tempered with mercy, and brings in the needed full salvation beginning even now. In our lives, but breaking into earthly principalities and powers, high places where this is not only known, but opposed. Even though that’s ongoing on this side of time. Not for the faint of heart, but part of our calling. In and through Jesus.

what matters?

And I saw something else under the sun:

In the place of judgment—wickedness was there,
in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

I said to myself,

“God will bring into judgment
both the righteous and the wicked,
for there will be a time for every activity,
a time to judge every deed.”

Ecclesiastes 3:16-17

As it turns out, a lot matters. Thankfully God has everything well in hand. So we can rest assured in that, believing that God will take care of what really matters.

Well that’s good insofar as it goes. But we still have to live with injustice and its fallout. It’s like all we can expect is God to take care of justice someday, but not today.

But when we stop and consider what the Teacher Qoheleth is saying, we see that what is done now matters. There is a standard in place and no one will get away with any evil done now, just as no one will fail to be rewarded for any good done.

As Christ followers we believe that, and base our lives on it, thankful for God’s grace and mercy which both triumph over justice, yet will bring in the needed justice and peace. In and through Jesus.

a justified life

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 evidence that we’re in Christ and his followers will be a changed life of love for God and for our neighbor by good works, the things we do. A justified life is living out God’s mercy in the world. We hope for justice as well, that is addressing wrongs and making things right even in this life. Christ took on himself all the injustice humans could possibly give him through the cross. Ironically in that way God’s justice could break through beginning in the lives of his followers, and out from them into the world. But always in the same way of Jesus, the way of love in the cross.

A justified life certainly involves both faith and works. Only God can set us on this path as we respond in faith and baptism to his calling. Like Abraham and Rahab, and all the faithful, we need to respond in faith. That will certainly involve a change of life, and along with that, the new course God gives us. In and through Jesus.

nothing fancy, just pray

Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’

“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”

And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

A lot of times I don’t feel like praying, although I’ve learned to ask God for help just for that reason. The special times I do, if I’m wise, I want to make the most of it, and just keep on praying. But by and large, truthfully, for whatever reason I often feel too overwhelmed or weak to pray. Those are the times we should consider it a necessity, because after all, don’t we need God all the more then? Of course we need God all the time.

There really is no end to the prayers that need to be made. Isn’t there a list of loved ones, of family, of friends, of acquaintances that we ought to be praying for by name? And this is especially crucial for certain periods of life, like when children are growing up during their formative years. Praying for their parents as well.

Jesus didn’t tell his disciples that they had to meet any special qualifications. That rather, they just need to pray and not faint, lose heart, or as the above translation says, not give up. Sure, our hearts need to be in it. For some that’s easier than others. For many of us, we’re too easily overwhelmed by the setbacks and challenges of life. But that’s when we need to lift up our prayers, even when we can do so only with a whisper.

God is good. God will answer. We can trust in him to do that. God wants us to express our dependence on him, and to learn to live in that active dependence. We are doing something: praying. An act of dependence. So we are part of the equation for God showing his justice and mercy on earth. A privilege given to us. Through simple praying. In and through Jesus.

peacemaking and persecution

Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:9-12

At the end of what has often been called the Beatitudes, Jesus possibly juxtaposes two thoughts side by side which are related, but at odds with each other.

How can you be a peacemaker, yet be on the short end, indeed experiencing violence? Enter the world of Jesus.

Jesus was indeed a peacemaker, from Scripture we say by the blood of his cross, and that’s for sure. He took human wrath on himself to end human wrath. We say God’s wrath, but I would prefer to say God’s wrath against evil. God in judgment took the wrath of humankind on himself there at the cross, to end it once for all. And peacemakers following Jesus indeed need to point this out.

Peacemaking as Jesus was describing it here definitely was related to the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation later established by the cross. For us on the ground now it’s a matter of promoting peace on God’s terms, the peace of the kingdom established in Jesus. It is a peace grounded in faith and allegiance to King Jesus, and a peace based on his teaching and life. Made possible again through his death. We can’t do this on our own.

But even when we are people of peace, the peace spoken of here, that doesn’t mean we don’t end up becoming victims of war, violent opposition, violence in one form or another (Psalm 120). Certainly in being cursed, verbal violence, but sometimes suffering physical persecution. For us in the United States, this seems remote, of another world for good reason. We rarely if ever face one such incident of actual physical persecution during our lifetime. That probably speaks more of the society in which we live, but I wonder if we were more faithful in following Christ if we would see some incidents of it.

Is our persecution really because of righteousness and what is just, as well as for Christ? A good test might be if we’re truly becoming peacemakers in the way of Christ. Otherwise the “persecution” we experience might indeed need to be put in quotes, more about ourselves and our offenses, and less if at all about the offense of Jesus.

Would that life would be this black and white. Unfortunately there are times when it is partly our fault. We may not understand why, it may be nothing blatant or known on our part. Then there are the times we stumble and know better. Ironically those end up easier for us to make peace by simply asking for forgiveness. The other times, we know that somehow our weakness might be in play, but we have knowingly done nothing wrong.

It is hard to know what to do. To be as wise as serpents, but harmless as doves is surely something we need to be considering here. But we may just have to take what persecution comes our way, hopefully God doing a work for good in the one persecuting us, so that they might repent and change due to the love of God present even through us, in and through Jesus.

strength from God against opposition

It’s interesting how again and again in Psalm 119, the psalmist appeals to God for strength to stand in the face of opposition. You find it sprinkled throughout that long chapter. And it’s not enough just to note that. One really needs to go through the entire chapter to get the feel of it. It’s real life with all its struggles and our responses to them. It is quite experientially oriented, as well as the emphasis on God’s word and law.

We expect to see that in many of the psalms, but may not expect it in this psalm. But it’s there, meant to help and strengthen us in the midst of opposition. Spiritual opposition of course, but also when others oppose us. We hopefully learn where we might be off. The psalmist was certainly not infallible themselves. We can see attitudes in the psalms, and in this psalm which are likely wrong even in that day, and definitely off track for us today as Jesus followers. So we need to be open to needed correction that may come from those who oppose us.

But we also can expect God to strengthen and help us as we seek to humbly take a stand for Christ, for the gospel, for mercy, justice, righteousness and truth. In and through Jesus.

reflecting a bit on America: shades of gray (no, don’t even think about bringing down the Washington Monument, etc.)

This is the fourth of July, and if you’re going to read only one blog post today, settle in on this one from Brian Zahnd, I Love You, America, But Not Like That.

There is no doubt to me that another part of the reckoning due to the enslavement and mistreatment of Africans has come for America. We are in a day when  some would see the dismantling of all of America’s cultural landmarks. Almost the entire tent coming down to be replaced with something else.

There’s no doubt that great evil was done, and that the founding father’s blindness or acceptance of slavery is plain downright wrong. There is no gray in that. And as George Will pointed out in his most recent (outstanding) book, The Conservative Sensibility, there would be no United States apart from the slavery which under girded it, and gave founding fathers the time to hammer out the foundation of this nation.

What we need to keep in mind is the whole. Not excusing any part that is wrong and actually downright evil. But remembering what was good. I shouldn’t neglect to mention the other part of what’s called America’s original sin: the stealing and killing of native Americans, “Indians.” Both African-Americans and native Americans suffer to this day.

Without trying to cover everything that should be, I just want to point out here that we need to see life as it truly is. I love biographies that are not hagiographies, but try to tell it, warts and all. That’s one thing among many others that I love about the Bible. It doesn’t try to hide the blemishes, blotches, and indeed complete failures of characters. A great case in point is David, said to be a man after God’s own heart no less. But his actions when you read the account we’re not altogether good. And what he did in the case of Bathsheba and Uriah were downright evil. But do we dismiss and diss David? No we don’t. It’s not like the bad part is forgotten, because it’s not, and shouldn’t be.

Looking at American history, I can still respect men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Instead of just seeing their flaws, I can acknowledge their good points, and greatness in some respects. Ironically holding to ideals on paper, not lived out entirely in their lives.

Again, this is not to excuse what’s wrong, or say what’s past is past while failing to see the many ramifications and realities which live on to this day.

So let’s not bring down the Washington Monument, or the Jefferson Memorial, etc. If anything is idolatrous then yes, that ought to come down. But let’s leave memorials like what I just mentioned intact. We should not even be considering removing them. I’m not referring to monuments that honor those who rebelled against the United States, the Confederacy, etc. They ought to be moved into museums, no longer to be honored in public squares. We can set up with our iconic memorials, new works that remember what Africans had to endure, and the great contributions African-Americans have made to this nation. As well as memorialize the good native Americans have done.

God have mercy if any of our lives are looked at strictly in terms of good and evil. For some there is great evil, other’s great good, but for all, there’s some mixture, so that there’s a certain shade of gray. As we Christians look to the one light of the world, Jesus, to expose our own spiritual darkness, and all the spiritual darkness around us, for the good of all. In and through Jesus.

God’s word speaks into our lives, into life

Your word is a lamp for my feet,
a light on my path.

Psalm 119:105

If you read the Bible, God’s word from cover to cover you’ll find out God’s priority of love for God in response to God’s love, and love for our neighbor as we love ourselves. Justice along with mercy is a major theme, the end of the story, shalom: universal flourishing, prosperity, and peace in the new creation in Jesus.

If God’s word is to have the impact needed, we must be in it every day, day and night. And we must hear God’s concern for the poor, the oppressed, for the foreigner, the disenfranchised, those pushed to the margins. It isn’t only about my personal relationship with God, but it’s also about my relationship with others. And it’s about God’s people together in love as a witness to the world of God’s goodness and kingdom come in Jesus, feet on the ground and hands in love helping those in need.

It’s a new vision by which not only the world is ultimately judged, but which should impact the world to at least be held to a higher standard.

That’s part of what we have when we hold a Bible in our hands, open it up, read its pages, and respond to God’s word in faith and prayer. And keep doing that. In and through Jesus.

 

 

true religion today

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Amos 5:21-24

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 1:26-27

It is a sad time, and a difficult one indeed, worldwide. With the pandemic, and all that has swirled around that, and now with the murder of another black person at the hands of a white person, even one who is supposed to enforce the laws of the land. There’s little wonder over the reaction that has taken place, terribly mistaken as it is, from years and years of pent up frustration and anger and loss of hope.

The anger on all sides is nearly overwhelming. You have Christians on the religious right holding the line steady on abortion being the evil of the day, and too often minimizing other evils, in my opinion, though not always. Then you have Christians on the religious left who too often it seems to me think that a political change can solve the problem. I don’t deny at all that political process and change can’t make a difference.

But what both Amos and James are getting at demands more than religious services with lots of words on how to fix the problem. What seems needed is an underlying passion for justice, and a heart set on making a difference. This goes well beyond politics, how one thinks in terms for example of American politics: left, right, moderate, whatever. It doesn’t leave those behind, and I think there can be good points in them all. But what is at the heart for Christians and for the church is nothing more or less than what Amos and James were getting at.

What is needed is a change of heart that can lead to the other changes needed. And this should be seen in the church, in its care for each other, and for its community and beyond. And it must touch the troubles of the day with the healing hand of Jesus. Our politics of this world should not even enter into the picture. There should be the kingdom of God influence which permeates all we say and do. “The politics of Jesus.” When people look at the church, they should not be able to figure out what American or other national political persuasion we’re of. They should instead think something like, “Wow, these people really love each other and everyone. They care about the poor, the oppressed, the disenfranchised, pregnant women, the unborn, the born, everyone.

I am confident that’s already true across the board. But that’s not seen when we make a big deal out of our American political stance. All that does is alienate others. We should not care ourselves one bit as to where we do stand politically. That’s all beside the point. The wise words of Abraham Lincoln can help us here:

Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.

None of us at all are on God’s side. But yes we can be and are, and we need to live accordingly, only in and through Jesus.