grace instead of law: “I want to” compared to “I have to”

The law is not a necessary evil in scripture. The evil lies in us (Romans 7). The law tells us what we ought and ought not to do. The law is from God and is good.

What we need is grace, which amounts to God’s undeserved favor given to us in and through Christ. It is a gift that we receive, pure and simple. Through Christ’s death for us on the cross, we are forgiven of our sins when we repent and believe as in entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, and committing our lives to him.

Law necessarily condemns, but in grace there is never any condemnation. Christ has taken all the condemnation on himself at the cross. The Spirit is given to us, and we have the assurance that we are once for all time forgiven. But that doesn’t mean that the law no longer applies to us.

By grace through the Spirit we actually fulfill the requirement of the law, which in shorthand amounts to love, but not without details spelled out in scripture. For example, we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves when we commit adultery, or either do, or fail to do a number of things.

If we’re living under God’s grace, then we’re made both willing and able. And we in Christ are under grace, not under law (Romans 6). Law comes to us in a coercive way: we have to or else. Grace comes on us in a compelling way: we want to, period. Yes, out of love in love. And it’s a want to placed in us by God. As those who are forgiven and given new life in Jesus. To follow on and be victorious. In and through Jesus.

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the thorn in the flesh: my reluctant go-to passage

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

One of my favorite parts of the recent Paul, Apostle of Christ film was their treatment of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and showing how it tormented him all of his life as a Christ-follower. And how that was addressed immediately after he was beheaded. Love is the only way I can describe my reaction to that. What they chose as his thorn in the flesh was a possibility I had never heard of before, and was rather compelling, at least for the film. But the main point is beside the point of what it actually may have been. The fact of the matter is that everyone who seeks to follow Christ will be living in opposition to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we will experience opposition in terms of what is expressed in scripture from the devil, the demonic. And like Paul, these are actually allowed into our lives to keep us from becoming proud, which for reasons far less than Paul’s we are all too prone to become. To keep us humble, and dependent on Christ, and I would add, interdependent on each other.

I am faced with this myself, maybe not as much as in the past, yet it seems to come crashing in on me just as hard, usually in one form in my life. I think there is genius so to speak behind the concealing of what specifically Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him, was. We simply can’t say for sure. There has been more than one reasonable answer. That means whatever it is that torments us as we seek to follow Christ, we can chalk up as something of the same, in fact our thorn in the flesh. Flesh could mean physical weakness, but in scripture it’s most basic meaning is one’s life. It may involve some physical debilitation or weakness, but doesn’t have to, and I would go so far to think, most often doesn’t. What it doesn’t mean is out and out sin. We deal with everything, and especially our sin through Christ’s death for us, confessing it, and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing as part of our ongoing walk in Jesus.

Who likes to be tormented? In the film as I recall Paul seems to be frequently tormented in his thoughts, and clearly in his dreams. And yes torment is a good word to capture this experience. I don’t so much dread it, myself, as simply hate going through it. Going through it is a good way to describe what it’s like for me. For Paul it may have been more chronic, ongoing, something present with him all the time. I tend to think so. My weakness which gives rise to this activity in my life is certainly as close to me as the next thought, which could hit me at any time when all was well, or okay before.

It’s the experience part which frankly I hate. Life is hard enough in itself, without having to feel miserable, yes tormented inside. But it seems in part what at least some of us who are believers in Christ will be up against in this life.

The necessity of hanging in there by faith, and knowing that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness is key here. We realize that God is at work in this malady, even when the source of it is from the evil one, the demonic. The world and the flesh in the sense of unredeemed humanity and creation included.

To come back to this passage, and yes, the entire book of 2 Corinthians, but especially this passage is always helpful for me. To remember that the Lord in love is at work in our lives in a way that helps us live as he did, in weakness, even the weakness of the cross (see the end of 2 Corinthians). Not where we want to go, except that there we find the Lord’s power at work in our own lives, and through us into the lives of others.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say to some degree along with Paul that I have learned to embrace my weaknesses at least much more since in them I find Christ’s grace and power, and learn to be strengthened in that awareness and reality. In and through Jesus.

holding on to wisdom

“Now then, my children, listen to me;
    blessed are those who keep my ways.
Listen to my instruction and be wise;
    do not disregard it.
Blessed are those who listen to me,
    watching daily at my doors,
    waiting at my doorway.
For those who find me find life
    and receive favor from the Lord.
But those who fail to find me harm themselves;
    all who hate me love death.”

Proverbs 8:32-36

Lady wisdom speaks to us in Proverbs, in words which we all desperately need. Too often though, we simply think because we read the words, and agree with it in our head, that all is okay. But those words, and that truth must seep into our hearts, and change our lives. And that takes time.

Wisdom is desperately needed all the way around. From the beginning in the reverential fear of God, to the end, and all times in between. We will fail sometimes in following wisdom, and reap something of the consequences, but even then we need wisdom from God to know what to do, and what not to do. Trust in God is paramount, which means depending on both God’s word and God’s Spirit. And being interdependent on God’s people.

We need to seek and embrace wisdom for all it’s worth. This needs to be a passion in our lives. And we’ll find our way to it through utter dependence on God in the midst of real life. Not in a vacuum somewhere off in an ivory tower. God wants to teach us wisdom right where we live, in real life. After all, that’s what wisdom is for.

We need to keep at it, not thinking we will arrive, but in pursuit of it our entire lifetime. Believing that God will faithfully and generously provide it to us as we ask for it as needed (James 1). And finding it most of all in Jesus, who is wisdom from God to us, even in the way of the cross (1 Corinthians 1). For all of us, yes, everyone, in and through Jesus.

the grandeur of the cross

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Mark 15:39

Yes it was ugly, horrible, horrific. Shocking to say the least for followers of Jesus during that time. But there is a certain beauty and grandeur in the cross, in how Jesus carried himself on it in the fullness of his humanity and deity, in the completion of his suffering. There is a marked greatness in the cross, by which we mean Jesus’s crucifixion and death which he suffered for us and for the world. Which is why I can see crucifixes as being apt, although the tradition I was raised in and am a part of has the empty cross as the sign that Jesus is now the resurrected Savior and Lord.

You can read the passage for yourself, and let it set in: the beauty and grandeur of the cross in the reality of what Jesus suffered for us on that day.

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus,was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews.

They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Mark 15:21-41

the call to prayer

Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Simon,” he said to Peter, “are you asleep? Couldn’t you keep watch for one hour? Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Mark 14:37-38

The occasion was Gethsemane, and our Lord was in desperate straits. He took his three closest disciples with him, and then went off alone to pray. He had told them to keep watch, but he expected them to pray as he was praying. Instead they fell asleep.

What Jesus did that night has some mystery to it, but it was the final wrestling in prayer before he gave his life over in the will of the Father to receive the cup of judgment he was to drink at the cross in his suffering and death. He had walked steadily toward this inevitable hour, having set his face like a flint, it says, to do so. But now it had, as it were, rushed upon him, like waters breaking in to put one in danger of drowning.

Our Lord’s habit was to regularly pray, spending much time with the Father in solitude. He was again alone with the Father, but this time with his three closest disciples not far away. He surely wanted them to note what he was going through, to learn from his example, to try to begin to emulate it themselves you would think, from what the above text says. It was certainly an occasion for teaching them, and all of us.

Sometimes for me, I wish it was less often, it seems like life is caving in in a number of ways. I can panic and take matters into my own hands, which I’ve been good at over the years. Or I can learn to do what Jesus told the disciples, and by extension, tells us even today to do. Watch and pray. So that I won’t enter into temptation to give in to what’s wrong. Because while the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak.

For me I see all such inwardly challenging times as a call to prayer. Even an opportunity for that. Not that I feel like praying, though I want to train my mind and heart in that direction. Praying for myself and for others, and continuing in prayer, seeing it as spiritual warfare, which surely was the case for our Lord at Gethsemane. And when I go through periods of time like that, I want to be devoted to prayer all the more.

It does seem like Jesus was challenged in his spirit, not wanting to drink this cup. Jesus was not willing himself, but he was indeed willing to do the will of the Father, come what may, no matter what. Jesus was weak in the flesh, in his humanity, though not having sin like we do. Jesus actually prayed like that because he needed to, so that he could bring God’s salvation to many, even to the world. If he needed to pray in that hour of trial, how much more do we need to, in the weakness of our flesh through which even our spirit can give way. So that we’ll not give in to our own will, but God’s will. In and through Jesus.

 

forsaken

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

Mark 15:33-34

Jesus prayed the psalms, twice on the cross. He felt forsaken by God, and in the mystery of God, maybe somehow this did happen. I believe that since it’s impossible to separate the Trinity, it was utterly impossible for Jesus to be separated from the Father. But somehow in his experience, that may have occurred. Not in reality. Though that a real abandonment occurred is still the most common understanding I hear in my circles.

There is no question that as to what Jesus had to go through, the cup he drank, the cup of judgment, that he indeed had to face it and go through it himself. Of course he was in the Father, and the Father was in him. But as far as his experience of that goes, it seems that he felt utterly alone. The Father suffered with him in this, but at the same time in the mystery of the Trinity, the Father is somehow distinct from the Son. They are separate persons in the one person of God. We are using human language along with our limited understanding to try to understand what is beyond us. And maybe something of the same might be said for what actually did happen on that cross in Jesus being made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.

I have felt abandoned, indeed rejected. I have seen people try to avoid me. It really hurts. Sometimes you can’t get it out of your mind. Whenever you see that person, that image often comes up. Or one can feel like they really have no friends. People can be friendly, but not really friends. I know better than that, that I have friends, that surely most all of us have some genuine friends at different levels. In my case certainly my wife is my best and closest friend. I can think of others, as well.

What Jesus experienced on that cross is indeed unique. It was for us, and for our sins that he indeed drank that cup of judgment. We are to take up our cross and follow, to become like him in his death, but we won’t ever do so as the Lamb of God did, to take away the sin of the world. We do so as those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Who live like Jesus, to be in the process of becoming like him, so that others might see him in us, and might be drawn to him. Jesus said that when he would be lifted up on the cross, he would draw all people to himself. He was abandoned to ultimately not be abandoned.

Now we look to Jesus and we look at him in terms of his suffering and death, in terms of the cross. We know that through that rejection which he suffered because of and for our sins, we ultimately have communion with him, with God, and with each other. That we are never left alone, that the Lord is present with us, just as he has promised. Even through his own experience of being alone in his suffering and death for us on the cross.

Peter’s denial

“You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written:

“‘I will strike the shepherd,
    and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”

Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.”

Mark 14:27-29

During what we call Holy Week, not long before Jesus’s crucifixion, we find one of the disciples, Judas, betraying his Lord and friend, and another who was more or less the leader of the Twelve, Peter, denying him even with curses. I think sometimes we just push Judas to the side as a reprobate, without understanding Jesus’s love for him, and disappointment in what he did. On the other hand, I think we also tend to minimize what Peter did in denying the Lord, chalking it up to just the weakness of the flesh. While that is indeed the case, and Peter failed to lead the way in praying in the garden of Gethsemane as the Lord told them to (Mark 14:32-42), what Peter did was indeed serious, a grievous sin in openly denying his Lord. Of course after the resurrection and ascension of the Lord, and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out, he would boldly proclaim his Lord in the face of strong opposition, even death. But in the story surrounding Holy Week, we’re certainly not there yet.

This was both a painful, yet important event for Peter’s sanctification in learning, awareness, and growth, just as it is for ours, as we look back on it, and probably experience something of the same in our own lives. Note how Peter probably saw himself, or was at least open to the thought that he was a cut above all the rest of the disciples. Pride. And of course we read in scripture that pride goes before destruction (Proverbs 16:18). Certainly this is an apt word for each one of us. Any of us are as capable of falling as anyone else (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). The moment we think we’ve arrived is the moment we’re in danger.

What was the difference between Judas and Peter? That’s a big subject, probably much to say from scripture and theology in trying to come up with some sort of answer for that. Simply here, after Peter’s failure, he had the grace of tears (Mark 14:66-72). But Judas seemed to be choked with self-condemnation, and the blame along with the destruction that can go with it. So that instead of a broken and contrite heart that could have led to repentance (Psalm 51), Judas succumbed to the enemy’s voice in rejecting the salvation that is always available in Jesus. Instead he heaped the blame on himself, taking matters in his own hands by tragically ending his life (Matthew 27:1-10).

We have all failed sometime along the way. We have either betrayed our Lord, denied him, or probably somehow both, at one point or another, perhaps a number of times. And maybe not overtly, but in more subtle, deceptive ways, so that we were failing to follow. Weeping while having a broken spirit, and contrite heart is good (again, note Psalm 51). Self-condemnation is not good. Only God is the judge, and God extends salvation to all who are under his just and righteous judgment. Of course on the terms that they would repent, just as Peter did. That possibility is open to us all.

And so, the great salvation of our Lord. Even to us deniers, who in our weakness and sin fail to follow at times. So that we might better understand, appreciate and experience what our Lord did for us on that cross.