a different way of living

I’ve referred to Stephen Backhouse’s podcast entitled Followers of the Way: A New Political Imagination, and want to again highly recommend that you listen to them carefully in order. I just listened to the eighth session, and I must acknowledge that while it certainly critiques what has been troubling to me, it also critiques part of my own way of looking at life. Too often, or better put, it’s really embedded in me, the idea that what is most important and most real is my own world with God, as if my individual life somehow is central. Of course it’s important to keep a balance, and realize that yes, our individuality plays a part in the whole, for sure. But the whole is so much bigger. We have to deal with our own responsibility, but we do so realizing that we do so as part of a kingdom and way which is an alternative to every other kingdom and way of the world, contrary to every principality, which includes nationalism, and so on. And that we’re in this together in Jesus, as no less than an alternative kingdom under King Jesus.

To get this much more simple (and trust me when I say that the podcasts are simple enough to understand, but profound enough to have to chew on, and continue to ponder), and that’s what I need myself, we need to be aware that Jesus presents to us a completely different way of living. We act not out of what is aptly called “the orphan spirit” so that we’re hoarding, and refusing to give and failing to do what God would have us do. But we keep on giving and giving, and essentially giving ourselves, because we know that in God’s kingdom in Jesus, there’s always more and more that will be available to be given. That is a part of what we might call the economy of God’s grace. We see this especially laid out in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount.

We live as part of an alternative kingdom and way. Not in lock step with any other way, or kingdom or political ideology of this world. Everything seen in the light of Jesus, what he taught, his way, the way of the cross and resurrection. Something I want to better understand and live into and live out along with others. 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.

 

beyond what is seen now

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11:13-16

I’m getting a little past the saturation point when it comes to politics and all the arguing, name calling, etc. I know politics has its place so I’ll still pay attention and pray and participate to some extent. And there are always issues that need to be addressed, something certain in this life. But I fear that we as Christians, or at least I, have largely lost the vision of the writer quoted above.

Sometimes what might be disparagingly called “Bible Christians” are criticized for being “so heavenly-minded, they’re no earthly good.” What might be missed there is all the good Christians have accomplished through the centuries for humanity. Everywhere you turn, you can trace back more than a little good to Christians. Sometimes though, it has been true that Christians seem not to care at all what happens here and now, thinking that the only thing that matters in the end is the life beyond this life. That is truly a short sighted view, and a misreading of the Bible.

Perhaps the best way to understand the above passage is not at all to project a “heaven” beyond this life when earth is gone. But the new creation in Jesus when heaven comes down to earth. Instead of a completely different existence, perhaps angelic-like in our imaginations where spirit replaces matter, the existence we live in now will be forever crowned with a fulfillment that we probably can’t imagine. Except what the Spirit gives us to experience or taste of that.

This hopefully will give us pause, even in the midst what attention and action we give to the politics of this world to remember what makes for lasting, even eternal change. As well as the one hope we can be assured will come. In and through Jesus.

 

what makes the difference in the Christian life? (not politics)

“And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace.

Acts 20:22-24

A cursory reading of Paul and his ministry makes it evident that the gospel is the heart and soul of what he was about. And it is clearly evident that Christians share in that, Philippians 1 along with the rest of that letter being a clear example.

When we read the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Amos, etc.) along with the rest of the Bible, it becomes clear that justice in terms of the love and righteousness of God’s will in totally loving God, and loving one’s neighbor as one’s self is front and center. It is not something on the side that we can get to if we are so inclined, or find the time, while simply evangelizing, getting people “saved” takes up the bulk of our time. No. Evangelizing and discipling involve inculcating people in the reality of God’s love and truth, the witness of the gospel, the good news in Jesus being made clear in the church itself in the forgiveness of sins and the new life found in Jesus.

Fastforward to the United States today, and politics. You find good people divided on virtually anything and everything, including Christians. But guess what? Jesus’s heart beat is not Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Progressive, Conservative, whatever. No. It’s God’s grace and God’s kingdom come in him. It’s essentially his own heart beat given as a gift to us by the Holy Spirit. So that in love we can live past whatever differences we have with each other, as hard as that might be at times.

When we buy into something less than that, then we’re into idolatry, pure and simple. Our passion, our heart beat, and frankly how we evaluate everything comes from God in Christ and the good news in him. We’re to do it in all humility and love. Not simply dissing the significant importance of earthly politics in its place. But knowing that what we have goes beyond that, so that ironically it can impact it in a heavenly way. Being heavenly-minded so that we can be of earthly good. But living through and for Jesus and the gospel. In and through him.

the works of the flesh, or the fruit of the Spirit

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit,you are not under the law.

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:13-26

The “works of the flesh” as pictured above (and this is a sample list) are evident to us everywhere nowadays, especially when we consider the national (US) political stage. This has always been true to some extent, but it’s especially the case now. And unfortunately it can spill over into the lives of followers of Jesus who act and react accordingly, sometimes even against each other.

Paul was facing a religious controversy, so to speak. It seems true that there’s no two issues on which people can get more hot over than religion and politics. And when you study history, go to war over as well.

The kingdom of God come in Jesus calls for its followers to be completely different, to live in another way entirely: the way of the Spirit as opposed to the way of the flesh. I think the NIV footnote here is correct concerning the Greek word σάρξ, translated “flesh”:

  1. Galatians 5:13 In contexts like this, the Greek word for flesh (sarx) refers to the sinful state of human beings, often presented as a power in opposition to the Spirit; also in verses 16, 17, 19 and 24; and in 6:8.

Unfortunately we in Jesus who have the Spirit can fall back into those old patterns and way of life. If we who live by the Spirit fail to keep in step with the Spirit, then we fall back into the ways of the flesh, and can become conceited and hateful toward each other.

Living by the Spirit is not simply shrinking back and becoming passive, even hiding. It’s our answer in Christ to what is all too common fare in the world. We in Christ must refuse to respond in kind, and that especially concerns our disagreements with each other. But even toward our enemies, our lives in our actions and words should be marked by “the fruit of the Spirit.”

This is not something we can produce on our own, but we’re responsible to yield control of our life to the Spirit so that the Spirit can bear this fruit in us. It’s up to us. Will we give in to the flesh and its demands? Or will we yield to the Spirit and endeavor to keep in step with the Spirit? There’s no middle ground, it’s either one or the other.

 

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.

let Christians be Christians

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

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

James 4:1-12

James is a great go-to book for the present day. We have to be careful when we do, about making applications to any present day situation. First of all, as James says elsewhere, we have to keep looking at ourselves squarely in the mirror of God’s word, and keep looking, instead of thinking we have some sort of great application for everyone else.

That said, I think we can together acknowledge our need and our propensity to depend on and be devoted to the world rather than on God. And even find our identity somewhere in the world system, when through Jesus, our identity is in him and God’s kingdom come in him.

I take it that “friend of the world” from James doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make friends with people of the world, nor does it mean we’re not present and active in doing good works. What it does looks like will differ among us depending on our gifts and calling, and our understanding of the nature and extent in which we can be involved. For some Christians, they will be involved in the political process, some even running for political office. Other Christians will not even vote, but will try to be good neighbors, and help in ways they can. And everything in between.

The call here is that we as Christians must simply be Christians. If we’re anything else, all those things must be secondary. For example as a citizen of the United States I would like to understand so as better appreciate the founding of this nation from the ground up in its early decades and beyond. But when it’s all said and done, and I know better than to think that’s not an ongoing endeavor, but always and in the end, the bottom line is that we who name the name of Christ as our Lord, are above and beyond anything else, simply Christians.

That should mark our thinking, words and actions. If the first thing that comes to mind when people think of us is that we’re Republicans, Democrats, progressives, conservatives, or even moderates, whatever, then we should well wonder just what kind of witness in the world we have. And to the extent we’re part of this world order, we’ll partake of its fruit. Note the passage above. Cutting others down who don’t see the light that we think we have is a sad example.

This is difficult, and it’s not like any of us is perfect in it. But this should be our goal. To be Christian, to let our light shine before others, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. In and through Jesus.

defining God and God’s mission by our own expectations

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

John 6:14-15

As Aaron Buer pointed out this past weekend, the Jew’s agenda, especially among the Zealots was to get free from Rome, for the Zealots get rid of Rome altogether by force. Aaron pointed out how we often see God and by extension Jesus according to what we expect God to do for us, instead of letting God reveal himself in his words and works.

There’s no question that what God is doing sometimes includes nations. The spread of the gospel was helped much by the Roman roads, even the empire itself, though certainly unwittingly. We can say that God not only used it, but in some sense orchestrated it to a greater end than what it was originally intended for. Not that human civilization and culture doesn’t have its place in the present.

Present day issues, just as in the past can be nagging and even biting. And it’s not like so much that’s up in the air politically isn’t important or significant even for Christ’s mission and the gospel, like the plight of the poor. But as Christians we have to step back and ask ourselves just whose agenda we’re on: our own, someone else’s, a combination of the above, or God’s?

In terms of the politics of this world Jesus would have none of what people wanted out of him. From a reading of the gospel accounts and the rest of the New Testament we see that the battle of the Lord is spiritual, not physical. And that Jesus conquered through the cross, through his death and resurrection, his ascension with the promise of his return not only marking that victory, but seeing it proceed by the gospel through the work of the Spirit right in the present time.

Nowadays it’s as easy as a click to get sidetracked from what God is doing and wants to do through us onto some other agenda, often set by well meaning people, even Christians, yet by that sidetracked from God’s calling to us in Jesus. And perhaps the most dangerous part is trying to sublimate as in include it in our gospel agenda, somehow merging the Lord’s work and man’s work into one, as if it’s a hand in hand endeavor. But as we see from Scripture, that’s not the case at all. It’s either the Lord’s work entirely, or it’s not his work at all.

Jesus would have none of what the people of his day wanted, indeed seemed to expect. What are we expecting today? Are we open to God’s work in Jesus? Or is it something else that matters more to us?

paying attention to God’s commands

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119:1-8

It seems hard and almost old fashioned, at least open to question nowadays, the necessity or even importance of keeping God’s commands. For one thing we live in a relatively Bible illiterate day, when it seems like year after year, people who attend Bible teaching churches know the Bible’s content less and less. At least that has been the case. And we live during a day when there’s a major cultural shift arguably accompanied with a hermeneutical shift, how Christians interpret the Bible. With the obvious changes from the Old (or First) Testament to the New (or Second, we could say Final) Testament such as found in Leviticus, for example the prohibition of sowing two different fabrics together to make clothes no longer being in effect comes the protests that sexual mores have now been changed as well. The idea that sexual relations are confined to a woman and man who are married is considered odd and a thing of the past, almost taboo at least among many in their practice.

Among Christians who fall prey to none of that, there can be such an emphasis on grace, that keeping God’s commands is nearly beside the point. Impossible since that is considered falling under the law, which is only meant to indicate that we’re sinners, incapable of keeping the law. With others it might be a decided shift in emphasis due to priorities which determine more what we’re to do and not do than Scripture itself. It’s almost like Scripture is present to help achieve what is considered most important, often referring to priorities in one’s personal life, or from the political sphere.

May I just suggest that I think all of us Christians and churches ought to stop, back up, and go to square one. We need to return to the plain words of Scripture, of course read faithfully and in light of God’s revelation given to us in Scripture of Christ. We might be surprised at just how traditional it might come across. Not the air of today’s “brave new world” but the fulfillment of the old creation in the new creation in Jesus as spelled out in the Final “New” Testament itself. Something to which we should aspire, even as with the psalmist we lament in not arriving to perfection in this life. In and through Jesus.

divisive issues and the Christian witness

The cultural divide in the United States seems to be expanding with little or no hope for any meaningful bridging of the gap. Not that Christians should regard that as a chief concern since our calling is to be a witness of Jesus by the way we live, what we do and say. We live in the present time in a kind of exilic state, citizens of heaven, but “resident aliens” on earth, yet praying and hoping for the good of the nations in which we reside (Jeremiah 29), certainly more than a tall task in some places, yet part of our calling.

Those who say experience should override the intellect, or something of the like are themselves making an intellectual proposition. There ought to be a commitment to a reasoning process which includes civil conversation in debate over the issues. And that means all the issues.

The Christian appeal, as Dallas Willard pointed out somewhere in a much more substantial way is to the intellect. I don’t know how Scripture can have such a central, foundational place in the Christian tradition, and anyone think otherwise. After all it is the written words certainly appealing to us as humans through the intellect. That is, if we take it seriously.

I think today’s climate is toxic, not to mention divisive. Christians need to be present in complete humility, willing to learn, but also stating a case made through a disciplined commitment to the study of Scripture, and of life, which of course would include history and philosophy, and whatever else. We should gently and humbly make our case.

Our primary calling to the point that I would simply call it our calling is to the gospel. We are witnesses of it, either good or bad. Our lives either show or fail to show the light of God in Christ. That is what we ought to be known for. Even as we listen and speak out in testimony to the truth as we understand it, and as it stands in Jesus.