the peace of Christ in a world of trouble

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

John 14:27; NRSVue

I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution, but take courage: I have conquered the world!”

John 16:33; NRSVue

In his Upper Room Discourse, Jesus made it clear to his disciples what they would face, but also that they would have all that they need to stay the course, and follow in no less than his way, the way of the cross, the way of love.

I’m smacked up against trouble of one kind or another most every day. Some of it can seem threatening and dangerous, indeed is, not so much at this point because of my own faith, but just living in a broken, fallen world.

Christ promises us his peace unbroken in the midst of it all. Part of shalom I take it, but he is speaking here of an inward peace, a tranquility right in the midst of the storm.

I easily want to run from that, and do. But I want to do better, and I think I am at least in the sense of coming back to the posture of faith Christ calls me to. And it’s all the more powerful as we learn to do that together as Christ’s body through our regular gatherings.

The peace of Christ in a world of trouble promised just as much to us as to his disciples in days of old.

testing the spirits in the present day

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world. Little children, you are from God and have conquered them, for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and whoever is not from God does not listen to us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

1 John 4:1-6; NRSVue

There seems to be a whole lot of sifting going on nowadays. And it’s happening everywhere. No entity seems to be immune. Instead of getting into specific details, which I’m not well capable of anyhow, I would like to touch on some generalities which hopefully will be pertinent to the topic at hand.

John tells us that we’re to not believe every spirit, but test them. And the test pertains to Jesus Christ, whether or not he has come in the flesh. There evidently was some denial at that point, that the Word who was with God and was God, that this Word had become flesh, that is, human (John 1). John addresses that head on, and makes it clear that a denial of such amounts to opposition of Christ.

Surely today some of that continues. But I wonder what else is spoken in the name of Christ or as with authority from God which actually stands in opposition to Christ. In order to get there, we’re going to have to have the gospels in hand: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and we’ll need to study Jesus: his birth, life, teachings, works, death, resurrection, ascension, the pouring out of the Spirit, and only after we study that, then what follows in the rest of the books of the Christian New Testament. And with that in heart and mind, we’ll also need to consider everything else: history, tradition, and noting all of this in the context of the present day. In other words translating the teaching of Christ into the present, a tall order indeed, but one to which we’re surely called.

I think we’ll find a lot that we hear or pick up from supposedly Christian sources which actually does not comport with Christ, with the Spirit of Christ. It is not enough just to line up some beliefs that must be subscribed to, often seeming to have little to no connection to actual living. It’s about life as well. Are we following in the teaching of Christ (2 John 1) or not? It’s not only about Christ, but also Christ’s actual teaching. What about loving our enemies, seating ourselves with outcasts, taking in strangers, helping the poor beyond mere giving of scraps, a concern for justice, inclusion of all ethnicities, really of all as Jesus did, etc.? Of course not leaving behind any of the teaching. The Spirit of Christ will surely be at work in us collectively to that end.

If it isn’t Christ or Jesus through and through, then it’s not of the spirit of Christ. I’m not at all referring to perfection, because no follower of Christ or church will ever be perfect in this life. But it is about perfection in striving in the spirit of Christ for what is actually held dear by Christ. And again, that’s going to have to take some prayer and study, not just by ourselves, but together. And only as we keep on doing that will we be able to begin to see through spirits which are not of God, not of Christ. As we seek together to live in the spirit who really is of God and Jesus.

the central importance of self-control

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith…with self-control…

2 Peter 1:5-6; NRSVue

There are few things more important than self-control, in fact we can say that’s it’s on the first level of needed virtues to make our way in faith in this world. To understand it within the Christian or “in Christ,” following Christ framework, we must never consider self-control on its own. As in the passage from 2 Peter above, it’s attached to faith, and in the end, love. Our consideration of self-control here is not about self-control by itself, though that surely has its place in the world. But considered within our faith, it becomes a life saving and we might even say life giving component.

We must exercise self-control in the midst of doubts and difficulties, even disappointments from happenings. Yes, no matter what the thought, self-control must prevail. Of course it’s not alone. Reading the passage above as a whole, that’s quite evident, just as we’ve already hinted:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and excellence. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with excellence, and excellence with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is blind, suffering from eye disease, forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you.

2 Peter 1:3-11; NRSVue

So this call for self-control like any other place in Scripture requires context. And when you consider our culture, just as much so. After all, self-control would be the epitome of the celebrated rugged individualist “can do” attitude which can overcome all odds. So says the narrative we’ve been raised on. But that’s not the self-control referred to here. It means the same, but in an entirely different context. We are self-controlled in and from our life in Christ, a life together in Christ’s body, and then in our own activities in the world. Again, entirely different.

This is vitally important for me. I have suffered with anxiety, a sense of not feeling well, glass half empty, however else you might describe it, syndrome for years. Maybe related to all the head injuries I’ve had starting as a boy. But whatever the case may be, this is especially important for me to keep in mind since so often in my life I’ve felt on edge. But really, for all of us, for everyone self-control is a necessary part of the whole package of virtues we’re to keep in mind and pursue day after day in our life in Christ.

the spiritual battle in which we’re in is down to earth

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil, for our struggle is not against blood and flesh but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on the evil day and, having prevailed against everything, to stand firm. Stand, therefore, and belt your waist with truth and put on the breastplate of righteousness and lace up your sandals in preparation for the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Ephesians 6:10-20; NRSVue

In case we haven’t received notice, we’re in a spiritual battle whether we realize it or not. This battle, while spiritual definitely has ramifications on the ground. It addresses principalities and powers which not only engage persons, but systems. At the heart of it is Christ and the gospel of Christ, which actually is what the whole armor of God is tied to. God gives strength to that end. And that good news is about freeing all who are in bondage, the bondage of sin, and also giving the freedom to follow Christ in this world.

Any system which is not of this good news in Christ, not tied to or a part of God’s kingdom and rule in Christ is suspect. In fact systems which seek to impose standards of virtue and goodness and mark characteristics that are not supposedly good, short of working at stopping violence, are worse than suspect. They are indeed part of the problem, oftentimes with religion backing them, in our own context: church and state.

We have nothing to fear in Christ, in the good news in him. It will prevail after all else has failed or has been judged in the end for what it actually is. We are together in this, it’s not only an individual, daily matter, not even primarily, though it does include that. This directive is addressed to the church, very much for today, yes on the ground, down to earth where we live. God’s victory in Christ ultimately the winner.

pray simply; simply pray

Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving.

Colossians 4:2; NRSVue

This command or I prefer directive is given to a church, by extension to us as church today, as well as to individuals of the church. And it surely refers to public and private prayers.

Prayer simply put is talking to God. To pray well requires listening, being in Scripture and in life over time. But really beyond all else, prayer is a matter of the heart, a matter of being, and then from that, doing, so that in fact, anyone can offer prayer to God.

Frankly in my case my default is often feeling empty, unready, or even worse. At times it can seem uphill at best to pray at all. Most of the time for me, it can seem mechanical, just something I do. But then there are those moments when it seems like I’m taking up into a space of God’s making in which I feel the love and peace, yes presence of God.

Whatever may be the case in our experience of prayer, we’re told that we’re to devote ourselves to it. Praying for ourselves and loved ones, for neighbors and community, for the church, for the world, for concerns on our heart, whatever is on our hearts and minds. But also people and things we consistently pray for, regardless of how we feel (thoughts from morning and evening prayers in the hymnal, Voices Together).

Nothing fancy, in fact perhaps the most eloquent prayer might be the most simple. Just pray. Speak your heart and mind. For me that often involves not knowing what to think or how to look at a situation so that I just lift the person or situation up to God. We pray and keep praying.

we are weak, but Christ is with us

This is the third time I am coming to you. “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again I will not be lenient— since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you but is powerful in you. For he was crucified in weakness but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God.

Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless, indeed, you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed. But we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth but only for the truth. For we rejoice when we are weak but you are strong. This is what we pray for, that you may be restored. So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.

2 Corinthians 13:1-10; NRSVue

When you look at Jesus’s teachings, for example to the rich young ruler, and all the rest, it really leaves you in wonder, awe, and really left falling short, like hardly being on board at all. That doesn’t mean that there’s not the desire to be, though that can become beaten down as well when reality sets in.

All of this can lend itself to the false idea that we should throw in the towel and give up. That we’re really not followers of Christ after all. But Christ doesn’t tell us to make it work ourselves, but just to follow. I’m reminded of when Jesus told Peter at the end of John’s gospel not to worry about whether or not John would remain until his return, that he simply should follow Jesus. That was talking about post-Pentecost, so there is indeed a way in which we are called to follow Christ now.

We are weak indeed, but if I read the end of 2 Corinthians along with the rest of that letter correctly, that seems to be a prerequisite to being followers of Christ. We are this in our individual lives, but together as well, the essence of our being, in Christ and with each others in Christ’s body.

Christ calls us to the same weakness he carried, in which he lived. It is never our own strength, religion, position of power, whatever. It is always in him, and it turns out that being in weakness.

And so there is the greatest hope after all, in fact this new reality for us to live in, in Christ.

(I currently am unable to hyperlink on these posts. An article I read which largely contributed to the thought here was by Walter Brueggemann entitled, “The Unending Work of Contradiction” on the “Church Anew” blog.)

differences in biblical interpretation and understanding

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15; NRSVue

I take the words above to be pertaining to the explanation of Scripture itself. To do one’s best to be approved by God takes work. And the goal seems to be the right explanation of the word of truth. The person of God to whom this applies needs to take the particular scripture into account in context, along with all of Scripture, and see it in the light of the present time and circumstances. What might be taught and emphasized one year won’t be what is taught and emphasized the next time the given passage is proclaimed, at least not precisely. While the gospel doesn’t change, the word needed in season will.

I personally don’t think one should be that concerned with differences in understanding the meaning of a passage from Scripture. Even in the same church gathering, there will be differences and questions which might remain unresolved when all is said and done. The same scripture passage can bring a number of diverse insights, maybe seeming on the surface to contradict when actually this helps us see the depths that Scripture has, with all the fresh insights the same passage can give us again and again over time.

So on the one hand while we likely shouldn’t get too overworked about the differences in understanding, at the same time we should strive for a correct explanation of a scriptural passage for a certain place and time, being willing to call out what is off track as far as the good news and teaching of Christ is concerned. And being willing to receive correction ourselves. But trusting that God will help us, the person to whom this work is entrusted along with those who listen to have the needed discernment to understand and apply it to life.

what can I do?

Now the angel of the LORD came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the LORD has cast us off and given us into the hand of Midian.” Then the LORD turned to him and said, “Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you.” He responded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” The LORD said to him, “But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.”

Judges 6:11-16; NRSVue

The longer I’m on my faith journey, the less I like to focus on individuals and individual faith. But it’s a part of life, an important part of it actually, and while the church in Christ is preeminent for our spiritual journey at this time, it’s not like each one of us is not on a spiritual journey, because we most certainly are.

Just like every story in Scripture, there’s something we can gain, or at least we should make the effort to do so. And it’s not hard to see a few things in the Gideon story. One of the questions I ask myself from time to time is just what I can do. I can see enough from the whole of Scripture and from life that there is indeed plenty I can do. Just learning to pray and continuing in prayer, to grow in that is by itself exponential in importance. Good works will come with real prayer; God will make sure of that.

In the passage above, Gideon is humble, understands his limitations, probably doesn’t appreciate well enough the gift that he has so that God’s call makes little or no sense to him at all. And as we see from the rest of the narrative, he struggles somewhat in his faith, or at least I would consider that to be the case given his seeming propensity to demand signs or proof that it is really God who is speaking to him. I can imagine that had I been living in that time, and it were me, I would have been the same way.

God commissions Gideon, but the key seems to me to be the point God makes that God will be with Gideon. This is something for each of us to take home. We are the called in Christ, yes together primarily, but also out from that into our individual lives, to do the good works God has for us, and to see God’s loving rule in Christ present in all of that.

It’s good to read Judges 6-9, the entire Gideon story, and consider. It may have had a good beginning, but not such a good ending. Nor was it necessarily all good throughout. That is a heads up for us. It’s important that we remain steady, which means continued growth in Christ, and for us, in Christ’s body.

Hopefully good things to remember as we consider yet another fascinating story in Scripture.

don’t fall out of practice

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become sluggish in hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

Hebrews 5:11-14

If I get lax over anything, it won’t be long before I can tell the difference. That’s all too truly physically. It may be comfortable and feel perfectly fine to sit in my easy chair hour after hour, day after day. But when I get up, and especially when I have to do much at all I certainly realize that I’ve lost something. And the same is true spiritually. When I let up on reading Scripture and prayers, not to mention meeting as church, it doesn’t take long until I realize that my heart and mind are out of practice. What was more or less natural and rather taken for granted becomes a little less so, and if I would let it go longer, what had been natural will no longer feel that way, but more like drudgery or perhaps like climbing a mountain when one is out of shape. Hard to do.

When we’re in practice, at times it will feel like drudgery and often not feel easy. I speak from experience. But we need to keep doing it day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. That in part is how spiritual growth will occur, yes how we’ll avoid eventually falling. Slacking off except perhaps for relatively brief intervals of rest is absolutely not an option for us who are Christ followers. We must continue on and keep going. God will help us, that we can be assured of, as we do this.

don’t lose your nerve

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my accuser.’ For a while he refused, but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Luke 18:1-8

There are so many reasons in this life that one might lose their nerve so to speak and become unsettled, unhinged. There’s the politics along with the culture war and all the dangers that come with that. There are the issues which are dividing families, friends and churches. The real world fallout which accompanies all of this. And you have the normal problems to look after. If there isn’t one problem, there’s another, likely a few others. Family, work, house, whatever.

In and through the midst of everything, our Lord encourages us not to lose heart, but pray. I find it easy myself to fall into something other than faith and when doing so I find that prayer seems irrelevant, beside the point, even though I know better. But at that point I’ll be flailing away trying to come up with good answers and find peace. And it is important that we try to understand issues as well as where people on every side are coming from. All of that is good, but we have to be careful not to forget just where our faith is and proceed from that.

It’s not in human institutions and humans, even while we hope and pray for needed change and good to come. But in all of that we have to remember that our faith can be in none such. Only in God. Only in God. Yes, only in God. This faith is not just an individual venture, but even more, together as church. We are to be people of faith demonstrated in prayers which Jesus tells us here are to be done always.

Something I have to keep reminding myself of and especially at certain times, again and again.