no, I’m not a piece of whatever

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge…

Ephesians 3:17b-19b

I’m a believer in dreams and visions from God, and it just might be that I received one recently. I so easily nod off no matter what I’m doing if I’m sitting down. Recently I was opening our new Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, and thought I saw a song, or perhaps one of the readings simply stating that God calls us good, that we’re his beloved children, that we are not what we call ourselves. Really to the point, and actually better than what I expressed it just now. And just at a good time for me, because I was berating myself under and over my breath as I have off and on over the years. But after searching for it days before, and going through the entire hymnal today, I failed to see it. So maybe it was a dream, clearly to me, a dream from God.

That touched me deeply, and I knew it resonated with what we learn from Scripture, just how much God values each and everyone of us. And calls us to be close to him in his very family in and through Jesus. This is so helpful, to have this truth dawn on us, to begin to really believe that God loves us, yes “loves me.” Even when I have a hard time liking myself for many reasons. God’s love is wide and deep, and never lets go. We see the truth of that in Jesus, God becoming human in him, and doing what he did for us. God’s love in Jesus will pursue us.

We need to accept what God calls us. And quit calling ourselves what is nothing less than a lie from the pit of hell. God is helping me this way. In and through Jesus.

does God really love us, really love me?

We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. [God] loved us first.

1 John 4:19; MSG

There is a Love out there, a never tiring, never dying love which we humans are oblivious to. God’s love, the God who is love. We might by and by come to accept that as a possibility, even as truth. But do we believe it could possibly apply to us? That God might love even me?

This is far more important than we realize. That no matter what we’re experiencing, how we feel about it, and even what we’ve done, there’s a God who loves us far beyond what we could possibly imagine.

This is evident in God fully becoming one of us in Jesus, and in the death of the cross. God took all the wrong, all the hate we could dish out, then turns it around for our forgiveness and the new life, who we really are, and are meant to be. That is really so far beyond us. We have to accept it by simple faith, yes, what we can’t grasp or understand, by simple faith.

I think we have to let this sit to soak into us over time. It’s not just something we’ll jump into which can change us overnight. But over time, actually the rest of our lives, we can accept this never changing, never diminished love. And begin to live out that love to others, the same love which has embraced us. The love of God in Jesus by the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the politics of the good news

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he withdrew to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali— to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.”

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Mark 4:12-17

This Isaiah-prophesied revelation came to life in Galilee the moment Jesus started preaching. He picked up where John left off: “Change your life. God’s kingdom is here.”

Mark 4:17; MSG

Jesus’s message and proclamation was “the good news of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23). The gospel is actually political through and through. Of course it’s about our individual salvation as well, but it includes so much more, really everything within God’s creation and human culture. God’s kingdom in King Jesus was coming in, but not in the way that people would naturally anticipate. They wanted in one way or another for God to end Rome’s rule over them. But God saw a much bigger picture, and really an altogether different one. Yes, it was about fulfilling God’s prior promises to them, but in the ways of a costly love which would break down all barriers, creating one new humanity, a beautifully woven mosaic of people groups together (Ephesians 2:11-22).

During this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let’s take time to pray and ask God to show us where we are blind and resistant to what God has done, is doing, and will complete in and through King Jesus. And what works God has for us in what God is doing now in this regard (Ephesians 2:10; MSG). In and through Jesus.

the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

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.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.

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 high cost of not trusting God

When the people realized that Moses was taking forever in coming down off the mountain, they rallied around Aaron and said, “Do something. Make gods for us who will lead us. That Moses, the man who got us out of Egypt—who knows what’s happened to him?”

God spoke to Moses, “Go! Get down there! Your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt have fallen to pieces. In no time at all they’ve turned away from the way I commanded them: They made a molten calf and worshiped it. They’ve sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are the gods, O Israel, that brought you up from the land of Egypt!’”

God said to Moses, “I look at this people—oh! what a stubborn, hard-headed people! Let me alone now, give my anger free reign to burst into flames and incinerate them. But I’ll make a great nation out of you.”

Moses tried to calm his God down. He said, “Why, God, would you lose your temper with your people? Why, you brought them out of Egypt in a tremendous demonstration of power and strength. Why let the Egyptians say, ‘He had it in for them—he brought them out so he could kill them in the mountains, wipe them right off the face of the Earth.’ Stop your anger. Think twice about bringing evil against your people! Think of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants to whom you gave your word, telling them ‘I will give you many children, as many as the stars in the sky, and I’ll give this land to your children as their land forever.’”

And God did think twice. He decided not to do the evil he had threatened against his people.

Moses turned around and came down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of The Testimony. The tablets were written on both sides, front and back. God made the tablets and God wrote the tablets—engraved them.

When Moses came near to the camp and saw the calf and the people dancing, his anger flared. He threw down the tablets and smashed them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, melted it down with fire, pulverized it to powder, then scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

Moses said to Aaron, “What on Earth did these people ever do to you that you involved them in this huge sin?”

Exodus 32:1, 7-16, 19-21; MSG

This is one of those passages you don’t know what to do with, which I imagine is not in the lexicons for reading in the church, although I’m not sure. Jesus said that anyone who saw him saw the Father. Jesus is the revelation of God. All that proceeded that was somehow preparatory. There does need to be a certain kind of fear, reverence and awe of God. Not only the First/Old Testament makes that clear, but so does the Second/New. But God reveals God’s heart for the world in the Son, in Jesus, in Jesus’s Incarnation, life, ministry in teaching and healing in the arrival of God’s kingdom to earth, in Jesus’s death and resurrection, ascension with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, with the promise of his return. At the cross in Jesus’s death we see God’s love for the world, for everyone. You get glimmers of that same love throughout the First/Old Testament, but only in Jesus, and especially in his death do we see it uncovered, on full display.

We’re also told in the New/Second Testament that whatever was written for us in the past, that is in the First/Old Testament, was written to us, the church, for our instruction and as warnings. We have to take all of it to heart, if we’re going to read Scripture faithfully according to what it tells us. We can see for sure in the above passage (click to read it in its fuller context) that God’s people paid an awful price for not trusting God. We can certainly draw from that, we too are both susceptible, and will suffer the consequences when we fail to trust God.

I tend to think that God was acting this way in significant part to bring Moses to the point Moses needed to be as leader of God’s people. Maybe there was something lacking in Moses, and therefore God in God’s wisdom was working to make him more the person and leader he needed to be.

Back to the main point. It’s easy to think something like, “Well, I’ll take matters in my own hands right now, because I just have to. Just for now, because I just have to. But I’ll do better afterwards. I’ll quit doing this.” But when we do that, and seemingly solve the problem ourselves, the loss of not trusting in God lingers, and does not easily dissipate.

We’re talking both about a relationship and even idolatry. God want us in relationship with him through Christ. And God wants us to trust him completely. How we do that is given to us in the pages of Scripture. To trust in anything other than God, or in place of God amounts to idolatry. Something I’m working on in my own life. And trying to do so not just by myself, but in community with other followers who are committed to the same. In and through Jesus.

finding common ground

He makes the creatures; the creatures don’t make him. Starting from scratch, he made the entire human race and made the earth hospitable, with plenty of time and space for living so we could seek after God, and not just grope around in the dark but actually find him. He doesn’t play hide-and-seek with us. He’s not remote; he’s near. We live and move in him, can’t get away from him! One of your poets said it well: ‘We’re the God-created.’

Acts 17:25b-28; MSG

The longer Paul waited in Athens for Silas and Timothy, the angrier he got—all those idols! The city was a junkyard of idols.

Acts 17:16b; MSG

We see part of Paul’s response to the Athenians, particularly those who did what so many Athenians did at that time, philosophize and listen to philosophy with whatever large and small talk that was done. But what stood out to Paul was just how wrong and how lost they were in their concept of God, or lack thereof, including their pantheon of gods of their own making. When you read Scripture you’ll find that along with idolatry comes not only the loss of loving God, but also not loving one’s neighbor. All is dependent on the latest thoughts floating around.

And we see something of this in our world today. People living in fear for this or that reason with maybe some legitimacy. We all have deep concerns today, no matter who we are and where our disagreements lie. And there are some things which for the follower of Christ are non-negotiables. We can’t set aside love for our neighbor which goes hand in hand with our love for God. And followers of Jesus even include love for our enemies.

Paul looked for common ground, but that which could ultimately undermine and replace the idolatry all around him. Instead of attacking them and their gods, he appealed to the altar of “THE GOD NOBODY KNOWS” (Acts 17:23; MSG).

Trying to translate this today in the mess we’re currently in is no small challenge. Maybe just the thought here can help us imagine ways this might be achievable to some extent. I think of our common humanity which I believe comes from our common origin, yes through evolution, but ultimately by the hand of God. And in that, being made in God’s image. We are all made in God’s image, regardless of our beliefs, or how we see life. We need to start there.

And then we need to inquire and search for just who this god might be. For some of us it may seem mostly a stretch to imagine such. For others, we were raised in that tradition, and have hardly ever had a doubt. Regardless, it’s good to begin to understand at least the uniqueness of us as a human species, and then wonder why, where that uniqueness came from. 

What we’re referring to now should be more basic to us than anything else. But out of that will come a shaping of our thoughts in every way conceivable. For us who are followers of Jesus, that is shaped by Scripture, and ultimately Jesus and his fulfillment of it. And only in Jesus do we see God.

We will continue throughout this life to have our different perspectives, and won’t see eye to eye on everything. After all, it is said that even we Jesus followers see through a glass dimly and only know in part (1 Corinthians 13). What we do end up with is something of the sacredness of human beings. We need to appeal to the best, what’s good and beautiful. And find unity in that. 

Yes, through the good news in Jesus, and his death, all division is ultimately broken. Humanity becomes one in him. But we’re not there yet, though that’s supposed to be becoming evident in the church, and ultimately that’s true in what actually is church. We in Jesus want that grace to touch us and everyone. In the meantime we are thankful for God’s common grace which can help us live respectfully together in spite of whatever differences we have.

For us Jesus followers, we’re going to have to take the way of the cross. In sacrificial love finding what is most basic, what should center all of life. And living together with other Jesus followers in that. Always honoring the oneness we have as human beings in creation. As we live in the new creation in and through Jesus. 

 

was Jesus nice?

Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?”

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.

He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus’s way was the way of the cross, and that holds true for us today. It’s not the way of the power of this world, legitimate as that might be in its place. It is not. And when Christians act like it is, they are doing precisely the same thing Peter did when he told the Lord that he would never go to the cross. As far as the Lord is concerned, it’s either this way, or no way at all.

Brought forward to today, that means that the offense of the cross remains, not just in our message of Christ, but in how we live. Do we love our enemies? Do we challenge what is contrary to the way of the cross? We won’t get any reward for being nice in this life in following Jesus. To love others, and to love good, also means to be in opposition to all that stands in the way of that. In ourselves and others. In and through Jesus.

what is the most important thing about you?

No matter what else, the most basic truth about us all is that we’re made in God’s image. And that we as individuals are part of the human community. And that God has placed us here to rule over the earth under God’s rulership and authority. That plays itself out in as many ways as there are people, but humankind is to be in that together.

Yes, sin has broken our relationship to God and to each other. So another basic truth about us is that we are sinners in need of salvation. That we’ve all disobeyed God’s will which is essentially our failure to love God in return for God’s love for us, and our failure to love our neighbor as ourselves, sometimes instead, sadly enough resorting to hatred. And violence in word and deed, tragically way too often.

Another basic truth about us is that we as human beings are indeed unique. Each and every animal and species deserves our appreciation and respect for their own importance and dignity. But human beings alone are said to be made in God’s image, as already stated. We need to protect God’s creation, the animals which are important for themselves and for the biosphere, and seek to manage all of that well.

That God became flesh, fully human and one of us in Jesus speaks volumes as to who we are. God forever becoming human in Jesus means that our humanity is valuable, as we read in the Psalms, we’re made a little lower than the angels or it can be translated there, a little lower than God.

That Jesus took our sin on himself, the wrath of humanity poured on him at the cross, and that God turned that very act into God’s means of forgiveness for all who believe is quite remarkable. In God’s purposes done before the creation of the world.

And Jesus rose from the dead, thus defeating death and ushering in the new creation. And all who have faith are destined to share in that new creation when all will be well at last. For all who have faith, and look to God. Through Christ.

But we must beware that this is only about making ourselves feel better, while failing to include others. Like our African American sisters and brothers who have suffered indignity after indignity. Or our Muslim friends, or the LGBTQ+ community. We’re all in this together in the human race. Each and everyone of us is important to God, indeed cherished by God. We need to stand with those whose humanity is falsely seen as diminished for this or that reason.

And so what is most important about you or I is not a whole host of things we might be thinking about now. Like how you voted or what your American political position is. We are loved by God, and out of that love we’re to love each other. All through the saving work of Christ. So that who we are is more and more fully known only in community together with everyone else. In God’s love in and through Jesus.

a justified life

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[a]? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[b] and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.

James 2:14-26

The evidence that we’re in Christ and his followers will be a changed life of love for God and for our neighbor by good works, the things we do. A justified life is living out God’s mercy in the world. We hope for justice as well, that is addressing wrongs and making things right even in this life. Christ took on himself all the injustice humans could possibly give him through the cross. Ironically in that way God’s justice could break through beginning in the lives of his followers, and out from them into the world. But always in the same way of Jesus, the way of love in the cross.

A justified life certainly involves both faith and works. Only God can set us on this path as we respond in faith and baptism to his calling. Like Abraham and Rahab, and all the faithful, we need to respond in faith. That will certainly involve a change of life, and along with that, the new course God gives us. In and through Jesus.