what are we here for?

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20

After the “beatitudes” and the salt and light portion, in what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says the above. What he is saying about fulfillment of the Law and Prophets and the necessity of the righteousness of his hearers exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, those considered the foremost religious leaders of that time certainly involves piety along a host of issues such as alms giving, prayer, marital relations just to name a few. But it surely also involves an awareness of how the Law and the Prophets along with the rest of Scripture needs application then and in our present day within society itself. If what we’re about only has to do with our personal piety and the personal piety of those gathered with us, along with trying to bring others into that same circle, all with the goal of entering the kingdom of heaven, then we’re definitely not going far enough, and could well be missing the point. What after all is our piety for? Just for our own good and the good of those joined with us? Or for the good of all, even of the world, with a sensitivity to what is right and just and good.

Churches that major on individual application of Scripture, thinking that’s the way to help not only individuals, but society at large, really fail to see the entire picture or see it correctly, what is evident in the Prophets and elsewhere. We as God’s people are after all the salt of the earth, the light of the world, what Jesus said just preceding the above quoted Scripture. Salt and light is meant to make a difference in the world at large, not only in individuals in the world. Or at least so I think. If concern for the world and systems in it is added on as something going beyond what is required, as an extra, that’s not enough. Such actually should be a part of the whole.

Yes, only in Jesus is this worked out and completed toward the perfection and shalom that God wants. But that light that we have in Jesus should expose the darkness of the world, and at least advocate for something better within the systems in the world. As we await the return of the one who will clean up the mess once for all and forever. In and through Jesus.

living at peace in an unpeaceful world

When the ways of people please the LORD,
he causes even their enemies to be at peace with them.

Proverbs 16:7; NRSVue

This is a post at risk of getting stuck in the weeds. We have terrible conflicts going on in Yemen, Ethiopia, Syria and elsewhere, and now Ukraine. And the victims are just that, victims. So the proverb quoted above really does not apply in every case, yes not in many cases on earth. Didn’t Jesus warn his disciples and by extension us, that in this world we will experience persecution and even possibly death?

Proverbs are maxims. They definitely have important, serious value. And some one can claim with absolute certainty, one famous one an example, Proverbs 3:5-6. But most of them are generally or often the case, with exceptions. And sometimes it’s hard to know where to draw the line between what one might take as a promise, and what is generally true. But often the proverbs in the book of Proverbs are maxims in the sense of tending to be the case in life, with exceptions.

If our ways please God, then we’ll be peacemakers, we’ll want to make peace. And radically speaking, in the way of Jesus, we won’t engage in tit for tat. We will not return violence for violence. Instead we’ll try to find a way out of conflict, not just escape, but resolution.

The maxim of Proverbs 16:7 quoted above is interestingly fulfilled in a good number of ways, but all related to peacemaking. Naturally the perpetrator, the enemy won’t want to make peace with you unless they have good reason for doing so. Those whose ways are pleasing to God will want to make peace and will refuse to fight back. That is if we’re talking about the way of Jesus.

This was part of the weeds I wanted to avoid. We have to respect those who stand up against great odds and are willing to risk life and limb in defense of their families, their city, their nation. So we don’t want to back down for a moment from giving them due respect and honor. Along with many prayers. But God wants something different from God’s people, if I read scripture and especially Jesus in scripture correctly.

We have to be quick to make right anything we’ve done which might possibly be wrong, or even possibly misunderstood. We have to go out of our way to befriend those who are our enemies since God in Christ has reconciled all people that were God’s enemies to God’s self. We may never end up being friends in the here and now, but we still can be friendly.

We do need to tell the truth at times, but we must do so gently, keeping our emotions, specifically our anger and passion in check. And again, with much prayer. By and large though if we just love our enemies, bless those who curse us, and pray for them, we’ll need to do nothing more.

We won’t be perfect in this of course, but we have to do the best we can, saying we’re sorry, working on ourselves and our attitudes, trying to make all the necessary changes in ourselves as first priority along the way. And also caring about the good of others, including those who either want to harm us, or actually are. In all the wisdom needed for every different situation, different actions required depending.

God wants us to be peacemakers, to not quit even when the peace God wants seems impossible, and to some extent is, in this present existence. God is present in Jesus to help us lambs even in the midst of wolves. In and through Jesus.

Christ’s judgment on the nations

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.”

Matthew 25:31-33

I wish this passage from Christ’s lips would be taken seriously by those who claim to be Christians. But when it’s not taught with its ramifications, then it will be largely lost, not a part of what faith and life consists of for the many who don’t even see themselves as Christ followers. This goes beyond that, and is really an indictment against the church, which can end up not only asleep at the switch, but even a part of the problem if it doesn’t really take seriously a passage like this, and its implications for life based on the rest of Scripture.

Jesus’s words here echo something of the concern of the Hebrew (Old Testament) prophets about God’s vision of shalom: peace and prosperity for all, which while we know will never be entirely fulfilled until he returns, nevertheless is at the forefront of Jesus’s words of blessing and judgment in this passage.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,[a] you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:34-46

Individuals yes, but also nations will be judged by how they treated those in need, and that includes how they treated all. The rich nations who do not help the poor, indebted nations. Who put their own prosperity ahead of ending terrorism and starvation. Who put national interest above the good of others, and are willing to kill innocents in the process. Nations which refuse to help those fleeing war and death. Nations which have made systems of evil and hold on to them, against ethnicities, here in the United States obviously, against African Americans, along with the Native Americans. And the widening gap between the rich and the poor cannot rightfully be ignored. Christ will judge all of that, and will judge whatever complicity we’ve had in it.

So we need to become aware of this, develop a conscience that is no longer seared, but becoming sensitive, so that we can begin to see Christ where we’ve never seen him before. And be present to help in whatever ways we can. 

In and through Jesus.

peace of mind

Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.

Isaiah 26:3

Shalom is the transliteration of the Hebrew word translated “peace” which means more than inward tranquility and rest. As translations indicate and considering the context, here it could mean safety (NET), as well as the flourishing of humanity and creation. Peace of mind comes with the sense that all is taken care of, that all will be made well, and in the end be well as in whole, no longer broken.

I think in this life we have to hold on to promises like this, because so much seems in flux, unstable, threatening: undermining what is good. We certainly do need peace of mind, which is often the way this Scripture passage has been applied, even if that’s not its precise meaning. It certainly is included. And notice that it’s dependent on whether or not we trust in God. When we do, no matter what, God will give us God’s peace. This reminds me of another Scripture passage, Paul’s words to us:

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Notice that the promise here is not that everything will turn out just the way we like. We know better than that in this life. But that no matter what, God will be at work through our prayers is implied, with the promise that God’s peace which surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. We need to hold on to this promise and not let go of our faith, putting that faith into practice by doing what Paul tells us to do here. God will always answer. According to our faith, it will be done for us. And God values our efforts, even though inevitably imperfect.

We know that in the new creation we’ll live in God’s care with no concerns whatsoever, whole and fully at peace in the love of God. But even in a world which is often turbulent and tearing at the seams, we can still have God’s peace. Yes, right in the midst of the storm. And in spite of so many things we wish would be different. Peace of heart and mind. In and through Jesus.

God’s shalom on us

At that time, this song
will be sung in the country of Judah:
We have a strong city, Salvation City,
built and fortified with salvation.
Throw wide the gates
so good and true people can enter.
People with their minds set on you,
you keep completely whole,
Steady on their feet,
because they keep at it and don’t quit.
Depend on God and keep at it
because in the Lord God you have a sure thing.
Those who lived high and mighty
he knocked off their high horse.
He used the city built on the hill
as fill for the marshes.
All the exploited and outcast peoples
build their lives on the reclaimed land.

Isaiah 26:1-6; MSG

This especially caught my eye yesterday:

People with their minds set on you,
you keep completely whole,
Steady on their feet,
because they keep at it and don’t quit.

And this follows:

Depend on God and keep at it
because in the Lord God you have a sure thing.

I am leery, basically suspicious of big breakthroughs, though I do believe they happen, especially over time. But I prefer the preponderance of building slowly over time, day after day, so that real and lasting change occurs. Not something fly by night, a great experience here today and gone tomorrow.

In this rendering in The Message, I sense the pastor coming out of Eugene Peterson. He is encouraging us to “keep at it” rather than look for some great experience in which we live, I mean the “perfect peace” as in the NIV, etc. The idea of “completely whole” probably better captures the meaning behind shalom.

What really hits home for me is the encouragement to “keep at it.” To not give up, to not give in to disparaging thoughts which come our way. But to set our minds on God and depend on God. God honors that. For the down and out, for the broken, for those who have no hope of fixing themselves. God makes a way, and gives them all they need.

We may or may not see ourselves in that category. But we need to take care of ourselves. And how we best do that is to put ourselves under God’s care. We look to God and keep doing that. Trusting in God to see us through, that all will be well. In and through Jesus.

inhabiting God’s peace about anything and everything

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

John 14:27

I’m leaving you well and whole. That’s my parting gift to you. Peace. I don’t leave you the way you’re used to being left—feeling abandoned, bereft. So don’t be upset. Don’t be distraught.

John 14:27; MSG

I’ve been really honestly wondering why we can’t begin to inhabit God’s peace about anything and everything, albeit certainly in a limited way. What God thinks and feels, if we can say such a thing, and it seems to me based on Scripture, we most certainly can. Instead of being left to our own thoughts and feelings, sometimes full of alarm, or maybe more often just a gnawing fear and uneasiness, we can be hopefully more and more filled with God’s peace. By God’s peace I mean the sense that all is well in the sense that all will be well (Julian of Norwich).

This doesn’t mean we don’t face the real world, and experience more than disappointment along the way, with all the normal reactions that brings. Nor does it mean that we won’t face actual trouble. It just means that in the midst of all of this, we can inhabit God’s peace. And how is that possible? Jesus gives us no less than his own peace. Given not just to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. But to us all in and through Jesus.

I quote a hymn included in the new Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together:

1 Joys are flowing like a river
since the Comforter has come,
who abides with us forever,
makes the trusting heart a home.
Refrain:
Blessed quietness, holy quietness
what assurance in my soul!
On the stormy sea speaking peace to me
how the billows cease to roll!
2 Like the rain that falls from heaven,
like the sunlight from the sky,
so the Holy Ghost is given,
coming on us from on high. [Refrain]
3 See, a fruitful field is growing,
blessed fruit of righteousness,
and the streams of life are flowing
in the lonely wilderness. [Refrain]
4 What a wonderful salvation,
where we always see God’s face!
What a perfect habitation,
what a quiet resting place! [Refrain]
-Manie P. Ferguson

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.

the slippery longing for shalom in this world

The wolf will romp with the lamb,
the leopard sleep with the kid.
Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
and a little child will tend them.
Cow and bear will graze the same pasture,
their calves and cubs grow up together,
and the lion eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child will crawl over rattlesnake dens,
the toddler stick his hand down the hole of a serpent.
Neither animal nor human will hurt or kill
on my holy mountain.
The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive,
a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.

Isaiah 11:6-9

Shalom (שָׁלוֹם) is the Hebrew word meaning “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB). It certainly carries the idea of the absence of war which so many of us more than less take for granted, but would seem a luxury in too many places. Both human flourishing, and the harmony and well being of all creation are part of this wholeness which shalom brings. It is really like a dream that comes true in the First/Old Testament writings, as seen above in the prophet Isaiah. It is not to come to fruition until the new creation. God who made creation, can certainly remake it, and that’s the promise from Scripture that God’s people count on. While the word is not in the above passage, the words there are an apt description of this shalom.

We long for something of that in this current existence. That promise is present in our minds, and the new creation is breaking in through the new life and existence in Jesus, but it’s breaking into a world which seems largely incompatible with it. That is in part why Christians are called to take the way of the cross in following Christ even today. It is an uphill battle and slippery slope we might say, a daunting journey all the way, though Christ followers don’t do it in their own strength, but in all their weakness through the life and power of the Spirit.

I  think as we say in “the Lord’s prayer,” that we should long for something of God’s kingdom and perfect will in this life. But at the same time, we have to recognize the limitations set in place. After all we have natural disasters, and conflicts between warring factions, as well as just random violence everywhere. Add to that the human abuse of the earth for consumption and greed. And then to cap all of this off, even in the best of times humans just don’t get it all right, but we live in an existence in which even if one possibly did, they still wouldn’t be shielded from trouble, even disaster at times.

God’s people must remember that while the Day is coming, we need to be advocates for the poor, the marginalized, the outcast and downcast. We must not let up, but go forward in love, taking the way of the cross, remembering that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In this life the lamb and the wolf don’t get along, and sin resulting in broken relationships between people and God is very much present among us.

In Christ is our hope for seeing the beginning of shalom now. Bringing healing and new life in the midst of the old. We accept the limitations, in the way of Jesus now, even as we are part of that new creation in Jesus breaking in.

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.

intimacy with God in a brutal world

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Psalm 91:1-4

If you read Psalm 91 in its entirety, you can’t avoid the reality it’s describing: a brutal world. There’s no two ways of getting around it.

But even in the midst of that God not only wants to protect us, but be intimately close to us. God will take care of us, and help us flourish, even through the worst this life can bring.

But we have to hold on to this promise, and act on it. In spite of ourselves, sometimes God will break through in love. But this needs to be an ongoing daily practice, so that we experience more and more God’s protection and intimacy in a brutal world. In and through Jesus.