what the United States needs from us in Jesus, from the church

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29

God was at work through the mess of that time, judging his people, and sending them into exile into Babylon. And like all the empires of that time, Babylon was given to idols. And it was not the poster boy of virtue. Perhaps not as much a terror as the Assyrian empire which had preceded it, but still a terror to those who would not surrender and bow down to its sovereignty. Actually, when thinking about Babylon and the Babylonian exile of the Jews, one can turn to Daniel, the first five chapters, to see something of what it was like.

The nation where I live, and am a citizen of is a far cry from Babylon. The United States of America has become the world power. It doesn’t impose its will on the rest of the world like Babylon did. Yet it has been the major player in many places, usually linked to its own national interests, but not without some great sacrifice for the good of others, such as in World War II. I’m thinking especially of the Normandy invasion. The United States has had its sins from the beginning and throughout, just like any other nation. And it has done great good as well.

What I want to focus on to some degree might be applied by Christians of any nation, except for nations which practically outlaw the faith. But even in those cases, Christians can hope and pray for change, such as what may be and to some extent has occurred in China. It’s the idea that we’re to pray for the city, and by extension I would say the state/nation in which we reside, because their good will be our good.

“….seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

The church and we as Christians are to be a witness to the gospel, the good news in Jesus, come what may. That’s our calling. At the same time, we can hope and pray for the good of the nation in which we reside, and advocate that, provided we don’t get swallowed up in an agenda contrary to the gospel. Not an easy track or task for sure.

Right now in the United States we’ve reached a danger point, I believe, with a growing rift politically, which at the extremes is becoming more and more hostile. There seems to be no middle ground in which people who differ can stand and attempt to reason, and work through differences, to arrive to at least some conclusion, which in the nature of the case would ordinarily always be ongoing. I think this was what the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted as the ideal. Not that the U.S. has always lived up to that well.

The church needs to stand in that gap, regardless of where we are politically as individuals. This especially needs to be church led, and Christians should be part of it, of course. It is the salvation through the gospel, and the healing that comes with it that is needed today. What I said on Facebook yesterday:

What the church in large part needs to be here and now is a healing presence through the gospel. Salvation where needed, and the healing that comes with it, in and through Jesus. Across the political divides, and every other divide. What I want to major on and be part of.

We must confess where we’ve been part of the problem. And there is a time to speak up, don’t get me wrong. But how we do it makes all the difference in the world. If we demonize our opponents, and make it a good versus evil contest, then we fail to recognize and acknowledge our own part we’ve played in the breakdown, both in what we’ve done and left undone.

The gospel in and through Jesus is cross-centered, and we’re all included in the sin that Jesus took on himself there. We’re no better than anyone else; we’re all in need of God’s grace. Before there can be better solutions to problems, which are more God-honoring, there has to be a change in our hearts. And it must begin with us. We are the ones that must lead the way.

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

1 Peter 4:17-18

We must do so in the utmost humility, removing the plank from our own eye, before we even dream of trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye. Not disengaging necessarily, unless what we’re doing is not helpful toward healing the divide, and ultimately, for the good of others through the gospel. How we do that will depend on God’s wisdom given to us, unique to each one of us, and worked out in accord and agreement with the church.

We step back, take a deep breath, pray, and then proceed. Together. Hopefully what can become a groundswell that can help bring the salvation and healing on so much that is broken. With no final answers, except the good news and what’s in harmony with that, in and through Jesus.

 

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why don’t we trust the Father?

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,[a] your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,[b] your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[c]?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:19-34

I like to quote more than less, and often include the context on the links. We have the unhealthy practice of taking verses out of context, so that our application of them might not be at all in keeping with the context.

Jesus’s words here from the Sermon on the Mount have to do with faith in the context of money, and devotion to God. And material things as well. Actually here, basic necessities for life. Of course, while we have to read all that’s said here in its own context, we also have to consider that in the context of all of scripture. When reading this, some might draw the conclusion that planning for the future is unnecessary. But Jesus was not saying that. And other scripture contradicts that (Proverbs 13:11).

It’s all a matter of devotion and trust. We are called to be responsible with money, but not devoted to it. Our devotion first and foremost is to be to God only. Which doesn’t mean we are not devoted to our spouses, families, or loved ones. True devotion to God will enhance our devotion to others. But we’re not to be devoted to money. Scripture tells us that the love of money (not money, itself) is a root of all sorts of evil (1 Timothy 6:6-10). Note Jesus’s language about the eye, and the NIV footnotes that it has to do with either being generous or stingy.

And Jesus teaches us to trust our heavenly Father. That he will indeed take care of us. That instead of worrying about whether our material needs will be met, we need to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness. And then how all that we need will be then be taken care of.

I think that often a big part of our struggle is the desire to have our needs and I must add, wants fulfilled on the world’s terms. The world tells us we need such and such an amount of this and that. But as followers of Jesus, we are to live in a way in which, while we should enjoy all that God richly provides for us, we have a heart to bless others, the very heart of God (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

And so in this key, basic way we’re to follow Christ, as he taught in his foundational sermon. In utter devotion to and trust in God. In and through Jesus.

 

the beauty and brokenness of life

We see everywhere both the wonder and brokenness of life. There is something wonderful about our world, even about us. And yet there’s something broken as well, that needs fixed. Beauty and brokenness all around us, yes, even in our midst, and within us.

We can get so used to it, that we live in it without much complaint, but bearing its weight. This reminds me of Jesus’s healing of a woman:

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

Luke 13:10-17

And it also reminds me of the prayer the Lord taught us to pray, this part:

Our Father in heaven…
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:9-10

So we live in a beautiful, yet broken world. And the promise in Jesus is both for the present and the future: this present existence, and the life to come. So that we want to pray and work against the brokenness present now, especially the worst of it. I think of slave trade, ongoing injustice against African Americans and against other people in other places, abortion, etc., etc. There are hands on practical ways in which we can help. And of course the ultimate answer is in Jesus, and God’s good news in him.

May God help us see where this healing can take take place now and what place we can have in that, and may we hold on to the hope of the ultimate healing to come, when heaven and earth become one at Jesus’s return, in and through Jesus.

the prophet

In the Bible, and specifically the Old Testament, there are the roles of prophet, priest, and king. In Jesus they are summed up and fulfilled. And today somehow shared within his body the church, through the Spirit’s working. In the Old Testament the prophet is a bit different. Like all prophets along with the gift of prophecy in the New Testament, it is essentially about speaking the word of the Lord for a specific time, with an emphasis in the New Testament on “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Corinthians 14:3). In the Old Testament there are what are classified by us as the major and minor prophets, the difference being solely in the length of the books, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel being major prophets, and Habakkuk and Zephaniah being among the minor prophets. But David, though king, is called a prophet as well, because he spoke the word of the Lord as recorded in the psalms and elsewhere.

Old Testament prophets seem to come on pretty heavy handed in judgment, calling the people of God back to faithfulness to God and to God’s covenant with Israel as given in the Torah, and yet stretching beyond the Torah to what the fulfillment of that Torah was to be, somewhat unbeknownst to them. And their word would normally always end in God’s blessing. It is as if God’s judgment was really only a necessary means to God’s blessing, therefore judgment is called God’s strange work, because God’s heart of love is always to bless. However those who refuse God’s blessing when it’s all said and done end up under God’s curse. Of course that blessing is fulfilled in Jesus and made known through the gospel.

I believe there are a few voices now and then, here and there who speak prophetically today, even echoing to some extent the prophets of the Old Testament. They sometimes speak in a way which seems to be a stretch, yet they mean every word of it in making their point. At the heart of it is often the idolatry of God’s people, and a call to repentance. And included in that is an indictment against the whole world for its sin and evil due to its waywardness from the Creator God. But true prophets speak a message of hope, even if in the current times all seems at least bleak, and darkness has set in. The end of the story we find in scripture is bringing to full circle what was true in the beginning of an idyllic picture of paradise in a garden (Genesis 2) broken at the fall (Genesis 3), the heavenly city, the New Jerusalem added, as heaven and earth become one in the new creation when Jesus returns (Revelation 21 and 22). So no matter what is happening in this life, we can be assured of God’s goodness winning out in the end, and bringing in full justice and restoration of all that is good in the kingdom to come in Christ when shalom will be the reality at work in all relationships on earth.

In the meantime the prophet continues to wail –this message being part of the teaching ministry of the church as well– with calls to repentance, pointing to the promise of a better day, even as they hold God’s people, and the world to the standard God set in creation. But with an emphasis on living in the hope of the new creation in this broken world in which we live. A new creation present now in Jesus through the gospel, witnessed to and the beginning of it lived out in the church, in and through Jesus.

Sermon on the Mount Christians

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
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 5:1-12

It is puzzling to me, how Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (see link above: Matthew 5-7) is so easily relegated to another time, or as being under the law and not under grace. While Jesus’s context is different than today, which is after his death and resurrection, and his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, yet the new era of the gospel of God’s kingdom and grace in him was being revealed in significant part in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and is echoed elsewhere in New Testament letters which follow.

And I’ve found too that it seems to be a strict either/or. Either a tradition such as the Mennonites sees the Sermon on the Mount as basic to their lives, or many evangelical traditions really do not. An exception to the rule might be John R. W. Stott who wrote a book on it, as well as a Bible study, and in his last book emphasized taking up the cross and following Jesus. And I appreciate it when at least a church often cites scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

What seems to mark a church or tradition as Sermon on the Mount Christianity as we might call it, is their view of the church and the state, and whether or not Christians should serve especially militarily in the state. A plain reading of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as taking in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a whole seems to me to suggest something different than what has occurred historically beginning with what is called the Constantinian turn, effective, even if different, right up to the present day as in the United States, where, while there’s separation of church and state, church is still allied with state in a way that seems to me to be foreign to the New Testament.

Of course there are arguments on the other side, such as the military centurions who had faith as in Jesus’s day. The gospel is open to all, and God’s grace meets us all where we’re at. I’ve lived most of my Christian life with Christians who take it for granted that Christians can serve in the military. And I’ve known a number of fine Christians who have.

I was raised in the tradition of Sermon on the Mount Christianity as a Mennonite, even though it may have been taken too much for granted, and not as indelibly impressed on us as it needed to be, though being so far removed now from that time, I can’t really say, but I’m wondering. My own inclination it to completely embrace the Sermon, which for me included a pacifist Christianity. And arguments supporting Christians going to war for the state, and possibly killing other Christians along with nonChristians seems to me to be rather far fetched. Yet with the Romans 13 seeming (to me) to authorize police force (not military might, as a study of that passage would bear out), although I see it in context with the end of Romans 12 and the rest of the New Testament in a way that still sees the state as other than the church, I think I’ve come to the place where I’m not sure if there can’t be some use of force to stop evildoers by Christians functioning as part of the state. In fact it seems for sure that at least God uses those in worldly governmental authority to do that when necessary. Although I hold to a position of no capital punishment under any circumstances in line with what Jesus himself taught contrary to the Old Testament law. But I still hold to the position, that Christians should not bear “the sword” in the function of the state.

Should Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) be central to our faith as Christians and the church? I think so, regardless of how we answer some of the thornier questions. Jesus’s teaching should characterize our walk and our life in this world as a witness to the one who is the gospel: to Jesus. That people might see the new life breaking in, in contrast to the old, and even in the face of the old, bearing the mark of the gospel, which is weakness to Greeks of old, and foolishness to Jews of old, and certainly remains counter to this day. The message of the cross. In and through Jesus.

the church and injustice

Nowadays there is nothing more hot among many professing followers of Jesus than addressing injustice, and there’s no end to that, in either number of items to address, nor the depth to address in any one item. Human trafficking, slave trade, need for water wells in villages, continued discrimination against people of color– particularly those of African descent, refugees from war torn countries being turned away, and the list could go on and on, even if I would need some help in making it.

And part of what has happened in recent years is the withdrawal of younger people from the church, thinking the church itself to be irrelevant in their passion and pursuit for justice. And really, can we blame them when we consider just how absent the church has been oftentimes, probably even complicit in injustice as during the days of the American Civil Rights Movement when black people were not allowed into white churches.

The question is being raised nowadays: Has American Christianity failed? I’m not sure I like the question altogether, because normally every church has its strengths and weaknesses (see the the Lord’s letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3), and in the end the Lord is the one who makes the final judgment. But in the meantime with the Lord’s help by the Spirit, we in him are to judge ourselves, and seek to be discerning. So that quest is not necessarily amiss, though it can easily become amiss, I’m afraid.

The problem which has some tensions with it, is that the church has been all too quick to give its voice to the voice of a party or platform of this world, so that the church is a mere echo or extension of whatever the party is saying. That has been true of both the Christian Right, and Christian Left. Instead of grappling with issues, and being a prophetic voice from God to both sides of the aisle, and to everyone else.

The gospel of Christ is central to how we should address everything. And it’s as big as the story of God that this good news in Jesus is the climactic turning point of and end to. And it’s always in and through Jesus, his life as God becoming human– one of us, his teaching as in the Sermon on the Mount, etc., his wonderful works pointing to the great deliverance/salvation in him, and his death and resurrection, which marks the beginning of when this new life takes hold, the new creation breaking into the old. And his ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit, which resulted from, and accompanies that. With the promise of his return, when heaven and earth will be one in him, and all things will be made new.

The vision is shalom, translated “peace,” but meaning much more than the absence of conflict, but especially human flourishing and in terms of love in relationship to each other. And if at the heart of that vision isn’t reconciliation of all peoples together in Jesus, then the vision falls short of that which we find in scripture, fulfilled in the gospel (see Ephesians especially, but other places as well, and really the entire story found in scripture). The church through the gospel is to be ground zero in seeing the beginning of this new life in Jesus, and from that reality, the church is to reach out to the world in its unique contribution, which no government or political system can emulate or duplicate on earth. Yes, the gospel is political, but never as an entity of this world since it’s not of this world, yet is in and for this world, to be sure. It is the good news of God’s grace and kingdom come in Jesus.

And so we need to point toward the right direction, and get to walking. Not thinking we’ll arrive, or there won’t be plenty more along the way for us to learn. But doing so, completely committed to God’s call to us in Jesus in a gospel/good news which is not idle in the face of injustice, but sees the answer to be found in and through Jesus, and the new life and community that he brings. In which we’re to live, and welcome all others in with us, in and through King Jesus.

the center for the new year

As we enter into a new year on our calendars, and reflect on the past year, as well as this new year to follow, we do well to consider just what is central to our existence, and to the world’s existence, and what’s not.

For children, especially toddlers, often they are the center. It is what they want or think they need that counts, and nothing else. And babies necessarily need special care, along with children, to be sure.

All of us enter into the new year with either new or renewed concerns. And we tend to center on the factors, oftentimes people, who are involved in those matters. And naturally we are often trying to figure out just where we fit, or what our response is to be. Or it may be responsibilities we have, which can be in the mix with the concerns. We either don’t know what to do, or we might in panic try to fix everything, or whatever else might go on in how we process and work out things.

In Colossians in particular, but also in Ephesians, we find the center, as far as scripture and the story there, the gospel (good news) puts it. It is no less than Jesus himself, who brings us and the world into the very life of God, the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is the case of the new creation breaking into the old, and to actually be completely in place, making all things new when Jesus returns.

The center is not any given mess in the world, in our world or the world at large. It is not the immediate concern we have, nor perhaps something at best hard, that we’re trying to navigate in our life. The center is always and forever, Jesus. Jesus is in the midst of everything, yes in the mess. And also according to scripture, the church is intricately woven into that (see the end of Ephesians 1). And so here’s probably the most important point, so that this post won’t be misunderstood: Jesus is the center, but it is always through the church and the gospel that this is so.

That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians 1

That is our only real hope on a personal, family, neighborhood, local, state, national, and international level. Jesus somehow is in the midst of all of this, but always through the church and the gospel. Yes, mystically by the Spirit, but also through his teaching, like the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), through his death and resurrection. And though it’s always through the gospel and the church, yet in some sense Jesus is at work in everything. God is sovereign over all, and that sovereignty now is always and forever in and through Jesus. Even though there’s a day coming when the Son turns over the kingdom to the Father so that God might be all in all (1 Corinthians 15). Whatever that means, we can be sure that Jesus will be at the heart, and in the center of it all.

And so I look to the new year, wondering about some things. But not wondering about one thing: just who is at the center of all of this, who is in control even when things seem out of control, chaotic, and maybe heading in a bad direction. Not to ignore the things which are good. It is Jesus himself, who is with us through the good news of God in him. And through us and that, for the world. Jesus being the center.