God meets us where we’re at

Passing along, Jesus saw a man at his work collecting taxes. His name was Matthew. Jesus said, “Come along with me.” Matthew stood up and followed him.

Later when Jesus was eating supper at Matthew’s house with his close followers, a lot of disreputable characters came and joined them. When the Pharisees saw him keeping this kind of company, they had a fit, and lit into Jesus’ followers. “What kind of example is this from your Teacher, acting cozy with crooks and misfits?”

Jesus, overhearing, shot back, “Who needs a doctor: the healthy or the sick? Go figure out what this Scripture means: ‘I’m after mercy, not religion.’ I’m here to invite outsiders, not coddle insiders.”

Matthew 9:9-13; MSG

God wants to meet us all where we’re at. We have to come to God just as we are to be accepted. I think of the great hymn, Just As I Am. We come to him with all of our sin, all of our troubles. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not, as if that will make us acceptable to God. Nor do we try to overcome our troubles by ourselves. Coming to God involves trusting God to answer our prayers, to actually meet us where we are, and to do God’s needed work in us.

Matthew was as low can be in Jewish eyes of his day. Here was one of their own, doing work of the hated Romans, and siphoning extra for himself at their expense, making himself rich in the process. Jesus calls him right at his tax collector’s booth, and then eats with him and others like him. And of course gets called on the carpet for that by the religious leaders. What was missing for these leaders was the point of their religion: God’s mercy. For them, for all. 

I’m thankful I can keep returning to God again and again, not for who I wish I would be, or only when I feel good about life. But when I’m struggling, which honestly is at least a lot of the time, and when troubles are just a fact of life. God meets me there. Meets us all there, if we just come to God as we are. Even calls us, like Jesus did Matthew. In and through Jesus.

nationalism as a part of our faith is idolatry

They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods…

2 Kings 17:33a

For some, probably too many here in the United States, if you don’t vote a certain way you’re not godly, or maybe they’ll say, even a Christian. And Christian metaphors, even Christ himself are routinely replaced by American images. What often happens on a subtle level which may raise some eyebrows then be forgotten, can become blatant, indeed a part of our religion. Anytime you mix anything with Christ and God’s work and kingdom in him, you have syncretism, and that is exactly what we see here. We never place anything on a par with Christ and the reality present in him. To do so amounts to plain old fashioned idolatry.

United States nationalism I believe is part of the religion of many white evangelical Christians, their version of the United States. You start wondering when you see a flag in a church “sanctuary.” That is a part of tradition, and doesn’t at all necessarily mean the pastor or church is caught up in this idolatry. But it’s far better to remove any such symbol to help prevent any of that from creeping in.

Idols don’t come down easily. Just so much as tread on this territory, and you’ll get vehement, long protests, defenses and even attacks. That maybe you are not really grounded in the faith like you ought to be. Well for sure, one is not grounded in their faith, which sadly includes nationalism, yes even patriotism.

We can and I think even should love our country, but never with the attitude of total allegiance. Our one allegiance belongs to our one Lord, Jesus, and to no other. And we should love all other nations, too. We should see our nation as just hopefully a humble contributor to the whole, and at least trying to do good, and avoid what is evil. Unfortunately good and evil will be in the fabric of every nation state. We are mistaken to act as if that’s not the case.

God in Christ with the Holy Spirit is our one God. No other gods beside him. None. Something we’ll have to keep our eyes open for, because nothing can be alongside much less replace God. Only God is God. Everything else is phony in comparison, good in its place, but nothing more, and easily out of place.

May God help us, have mercy on us, that he may purge us, and that we might purge ourselves of all idolatry, and continue to do 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.

 

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.

 

pure religion

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.

Religion and relationship in scripture actually go together. From the time when people started to invoke or call on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26), right up to the present time when we gather in buildings, and partake of Holy Communion, we participate in a kind of religious service led by someone with a liturgy all its own, even if not liturgical in its emphasis. And we’re told in the Old/First Testament that to know God means to help those in need, perhaps getting more precisely in line with the point James is making here:

“Does it make you a king
    to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
    He did what was right and just,
    so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
    and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
    declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart
    are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
    and on oppression and extortion.”

Jeremiah 22:15-17

James echoes something of both the Old Testament wisdom, and here, of the prophets. To know God is to begin to know something of the heart of God. And God’s heart goes out to the poor and displaced. Those who profess to know and worship God must begin to have the same heart for others. Otherwise their profession of faith is empty. Specifically here in caring for widows and orphans in their distress, which can include and group in the same category today.

James, as he does in this short letter, especially in our chapter 3, really focuses on the tongue, our speech, and learning to hold it in check. If anyone considers themselves religious, James says, but fails to keep a tight rein on their tongue, their religion is suspect at best, in fact in God’s eyes, worthless. And they deceive themselves. We often can say all the right things, but fail to follow through with action. And James will get to that in this letter. But that’s not the point here. Rather it’s about a loose tongue which more often than not is quite destructive. And the rest of the letter, particularly chapter 3 informs what James is referring to here.

We should be known as Christians for what we do in helping those in need, not in what we’re saying, particularly when it comes to issues which can end up being critical and disrespectful of others. And make no mistake, such speech can be right on the tip of our tongues. That’s why James says here that we’re to keep a tight rein on our tongues. We have to bridle as in controlling our tongues, and not let them have their way in words which ultimately will be helpful to no one. And even deceptive to us, perhaps in the sense of putting us on the wrong track when we think we’re in the right, though often we should know better.

And to keep ourselves from being unstained or unpolluted by the world. We have to be aware and beware in this regard. We need to develop a humble ability to see through what the world holds dear, mostly by developing a stronger commitment to keep a single eye and heart on what God holds as important for us, individually and together. In and through Jesus.

grace changes

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

I don’t like talk against religion, and comparing that to relationship, because it seems to me that religion properly understood is what God put in place to bring about relationship, all through God’s grace in Jesus. But we can contrast law and grace, and see from places like Romans 7, compared to Romans 6 and 8, that the law helps us see our need, but ultimately can only condemn us. What we’re in need of is grace (Romans 6) and the Spirit (Romans 8) through Christ. And this grace changes us, in contrast to law. We can’t do it on our own.

It offers, or more literally brings salvation to all people. In other words, this grace is tied to salvation. We can’t do it on our own for sure. We need Christ. Or what we evangelicals like to call “a personal relationship with Christ.” We need to keep reading the entire Bible on what it means to know God. It is quite down to earth, and not just about “me and God.” Yet it is personal and relational. God loves us as if we were the only being that exists, because God is pure love. God can love each and every individual that way, and does.

So that God sent his Son. Remember, God did not hate the world so much that he sent his Son, but loved the world in this way, or so much, that he sent the Son (John 3:16). And while God loves the sinner, when one repents and believes through the gospel, the good news in Jesus of Jesus and his death and resurrection, than one enters into a relational, saving love, which helps one navigate life in such a way as not to please themselves, but God. And paradoxically end up pleasing themselves in the process. Whereas those who live to please themselves, will in the end be displeasing to themselves and others. Or, to get to Jesus’s point: Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives for him and the gospel, will actually find them. We begin to find our true selves as God created us, in and through the new creation in Jesus (Titus 3:3-8).

And so we’re all in need. And the answer is to live in God’s grace by the Spirit, a grace available to us all in the salvation of God in Jesus.

 

remaining/abiding in Jesus

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

John 15:5

Whatever remainder of time I have left, I would like to learn more and more what it means in experience, to remain or traditionally, “abide in Christ”, as it was always put.

This entire discourse is suggestive to that end. Jesus was talking to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion, telling them he must depart, but that he would return to take them where he would be in his Father’s house, which at a certain point will come to the new renewed earth. But in the meantime, and we still live in that time, he would not leave them as orphans, but would come to them in the person, presence and power of the Holy Spirit, to be with them and help them.

The vine/branch analogy is quite helpful in conveying what Jesus was trying to get across to his disciples. Christianity lived out at its heart is all about life. Paul gets at this same thing from a different angle:

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

People tend to look at the Christian life as a religion, and understood right, I believe religion can be helpful, though that can all depend, as well. It might be a hindrance if it simply is a set of rituals one practices which somehow can seem to become more or less ends in themselves. Here we see Jesus speaking in terms of relationship which certainly includes communion with someone, but a communion that is from a relationship, in this case as close a relationship as one can have. In fact Jesus suggested that somehow we’re taken into Trinitarian love, Jesus loving us as the Father loved him, and us loving him and each other in that same love, as we remain in his love, which clearly by implication is always present.

I have much to learn on this, and I’m thinking mostly of experience. But it’s amazing, the words Jesus used in the discourse, which tie in with the point he is making in John 15, well worth a slow read, and meditation. John 13-17.

 

what do we have in the faith, whether to us it is religion or not?

There have been studies which supposedly indicate that those who have no faith or religion help others more out of a genuine heartfelt love than those who are of a faith tradition. The latter, it’s supposed do a lot of what they do out of a religious sense of duty.

Everyone is made in God’s image, so the idea that all can love wholeheartedly insofar as that can go is perfectly understandable, and even to be expected except in the case of some who have become so jaded in character that they are completely lost insofar as the ability to love and receive love.

But the notion that people of faith can seemingly have less genuine love is most troubling. I’m afraid there can be truth in that, depending on one’s religious or faith orientation. Theology comes into play here. What is one’s main take on the Christian faith as far as where one actually lives? Hopefully the reality that is present and sets in can trump at least some of that. But there’s no doubt in my mind that abberant thought affects one’s life. Augustine said something which fits in well here, to the effect that one’s interpretation of a scripture passage closest to leading one to love for God and neighbor is likely the interpretation closest to the truth. That echoes Paul’s words here:

The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.

1 Timothy 1:5

Religion and faith can be helpful in keeping one’s focus what is good and true. If it becomes an end in itself, then it leaves one high and dry, and probaby all the more ripe for God’s judgment. Jesus had his harshest words for religious hypocrites, who not only failed to love, but preyed on those they should have loved.

But religion and faith can be quite helpful if it’s grounded in scripture and tradition, with reason following. We as humans need the salvation it brings, a salvation which not only saves us from our sins, but in so doing saves us for the love of God and others, even including our enemies. The gospel or good news in Jesus is the point of it all, a good news which takes us into the love of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and out into the world. A love which is not yet full bloom in us, but budded and growing.

What do we get out of the true religion, out of the faith? We get no less than Jesus himself, whom to see is to see the Father. The Jesus who rose from the dead, and whose love knows no end, being the very love of God himself. That is the difference.

Lent and love

Oftentimes during my lifetime I’ve heard or read that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship. Religion is understood there as in ceremony and liturgy and relationship is from faith in Christ and what follows, nothing short of a personal relationship with God through Christ. As Jesus said in his high priestly prayer: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” And James, the Lord’s half brother states this: “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.”

A careful reading of the New Testament will help us see that God does not put down the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Table, nor ritual as in religious practice. Both the sacramental and common life are given a high place in the New Testament. And good ritual is simply carrying on what scripture does as in the psalms and in the New Testament.

What is at the heart of true religion, evident in the words of James quoted above, is love. And it isn’t just a “love, love, love,” as in “all you need is love.” It is indeed distinctive in that it is a Jesus shaped and therefore cross shaped kind of love. While it has much in common with the ordinary love we see in the world, it is both sacrificial and life giving even for one’s enemies. It is both redemptive in its action as well as Trinitarian in that it is about relationship and by the Spirit nothing short of a relationship with God.

One can’t help but think of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Religion is never an end to itself, but a means to an end. Love is to be the goal and heart of it all. In fact love takes priority over ceremony without denying the value of the latter. Here is that passage in full:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”