why pray? what difference does it make?

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

James 4:2b-3

Prayer is interesting. Religious leaders, even (I say from my tradition and background) Christian pastors often are notorious for acknowledging that they pray little at all. But then you can find just any person in the pews or out somewhere else who have made prayer a habit. You get these religious leaders praying over government leaders as if they’re prayers have unusual power. Etc. Interesting, the collage that can come from the idea of prayer, really from all over the world.

I am a believer in all kinds of prayer: formal, informal, spontaneous, set. I love it when prayer is just a natural expression of my heart by the Spirit, but most of the time, that’s simply not the case. Oftentimes for me prayer is appealing to God, but in a way which is kind of like trying to feel my way toward what might be good to pray. I like prayer books, and in the back of our hymnal, Voices Together, there’s a morning and evening office to help us praise, give thanks, confess our sins, and pray for ourselves and others, along with a number of other prayers. All of that is good, and can potentially develop us to more and more become people of prayer both together in community and for each of us as we go about our lives.

James makes it plain that all the infighting and problems in community were related both to the cravings at war in them, and the failure to pray to God. Along with false prayers in that they were done not for the real good God wants to give, but to fulfill their own self-centered wishes not moored in love for God and for others as one’s self (click link above to see context, and if you do, note the rendering of The Message). It’s not at all like we shouldn’t cry out to God about our own troubles and problems, because indeed we should. Notice so many of the psalms. But we do so as people intent on finding God’s own good answer, according to God’s will, truly for our good and the good of all around us.

James’s words are both an encouragement to us, as well as a challenge. Pray, pray, and keep on praying. And don’t forget that a vital part of prayer is seeking to listen to God. To find God’s will, not our own. To live in God’s goodness, a goodness meant for others along with ourselves. Blessed to be a blessing. In and through Jesus.

we need each other

And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

In our individualistic culture in which everyone is supposed to look out for and take care of themselves, the idea that we need each other, that we’re our brother and sister’s keeper is all but lost on us. That is not something enmeshed in my white, western culture, at least not where I’ve lived. In fact, I’m pretty certain we don’t believe this at all. We rarely even pay lip service to it. How many times have I heard the thought that the best church is out in nature somewhere by one’s self? And when people do gather together for church, it’s often just to get something out of the message for one’s self, maybe say hi to the few along the way or just the greeters, then head back home.

But Scripture calls us to something else, something we not only fail to practice, but that we’re not acclimated to in the first place, out of our comfort zone for sure. A commitment to each other in Jesus which plays itself out in regularly meeting together, and being ready at least potentially in our spirits to give and to receive. God actually wants to help us through each other no less. Not just directly, but through others.

If we’re followers of Christ and thus Christians not in name only, then we can’t escape God’s call to us to come together since after all we’re one body in Christ. There may be unusual times such as the past year with COVID-19 when we can’t gather in person in the same way as before. But technology did allow us to meet virtually. Yes, not a great substitute for meeting in person, but better than nothing, and some of us we’re able to talk face to face with people we otherwise never would have. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. At the same time, mercifully, such times are only temporary. We need to find the good in them and that can come out of them, and go on.

But we need to be committed to what alas seems more than a stretch to many: gathering together to worship, pray, and just be with each other. In that dynamic Jesus is present yes in and through each other, and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t need that.

leave no one behind

See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God…

Hebrews 12:15b

Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity.

Hebrews 12:15b; MSG

I wonder if we as Christians where I live and have lived for some time now really think and act like the writer to the Hebrews wants believers and the church to do. To leave no one behind.

Of course we can’t make anyone do anything. We’re in such great need ourselves, that to suppose we can somehow control others even for their good, is not even a good thought. What self-control we experience for ourselves is only a fruit of the Spirit.

That we’re all in need of God’s grace is exactly the point made in this passage (click above links for context). Much is involved in that, but in essence it’s about being present in love with each other, the love of God by the Spirit in Jesus. It’s being present for each other both in giving and receiving.

It seems to me that Eugene Peterson’s rendering is so helpful here, given the pastoral wisdom he had.

Work at getting along with each other and with God. Otherwise you’ll never get so much as a glimpse of God. Make sure no one gets left out of God’s generosity. Keep a sharp eye out for weeds of bitter discontent. A thistle or two gone to seed can ruin a whole garden in no time. Watch out for the Esau syndrome: trading away God’s lifelong gift in order to satisfy a short-term appetite. You well know how Esau later regretted that impulsive act and wanted God’s blessing—but by then it was too late, tears or no tears.

Hebrews 12:14-17; MSG

It’s all about being in this together. We can’t make it, or at least certainly cannot make it as well or well enough on our own.

And let this be especially true for those who are marginalized whom our Lord would welcome with open arms. Be it anyone of the LGBTQ+ community, the poor, those ethnicities and immigrants who struggle in a system which does not make room for them or even worse. We especially need to be attentive to all such, to have God’s help through the Spirit and with each other to be aware. Acknowledging that we too need the Lord’s help in this ministry of Christ’s body, ourselves.

This is the heart the Lord wants us to have for each other. The heart God has for each one of us, for everyone. In and through Jesus.

the black sheep along with the black or “every human” Christ (Messiah)

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested[a] as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

I love depictions of images of Christ on stained glass windows, perhaps as the good shepherd carrying a little lamb with sheep trustingly following, or as Christ knocking on a door, along with other pictures. Usually what is depicted is a white Caucasian with mostly medieval or late medieval, a later culture imagery. That may have served in some ways well for its time, and to some extent even today. But it leaves behind so much of Scripture which Jesus is said to fulfill. Add to that, it also leaves behind many of us along with many of our struggles which simply are not taken into account within what we might call the privileged experience of so many of the rest of us.

This is not to attack those of us who love or have loved such pictures, probably having old Bible story books for children filled with such. But intended rather to give us a head’s up to more, what is beyond that, all that’s included in the great salvation Jesus brings.

We read in the above passages that Jesus went through all of the testing and temptations which befall all of us as a human family, being fully human himself. He knew what it was like to be marginalized as a Jew from Nazareth with Galilean, Gentile influence, as one of those who was not considered a fully pure descendant of Abraham. To live on the edges where he was not seen as legitimate since many did not understand his birth. Likely he lived with his needs met most of the time, but he did not live in the lap of luxury. And the way he taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” suggests a daily dependence on God, rather than having all of that more than taken care of by one’s own efforts.

Jesus and the good news he brought has more than resonated not only to all in the slavery of sin, but to all who are in any kind of bondage imposed at all. The salvation the Lord brings won’t be complete and final in human experience until he returns, but it includes now care for the human experience in it entirety. Not just thinking one cares about them if they can get them to have assurance of eternal life for after this life. But caring for them in every way just as Jesus does. Being in this together as Christ’s body so that we care for each other in practical, down to earth ways, as well as through prayer. And to everyone else in the world, including our enemies. With a particular eye out for those marginalized, looked down and often falsely frowned upon. Realizing too that really we’re all in need of God’s mercy and grace. Remembering too that what we might often take for granted is something others can’t imagine.

So we need new images of Jesus given to us by the Spirit for the real world. Yes in painting but especially in lives, lives together in this world. The Jesus who wants to live that both for us, and in and through us individually, and especially as his body. In large part why we’re here. In and through Jesus.

what new world is opening up for us today?

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Acts 2:36-42

When Jesus came, he opened up an entirely new world for any who might listen and be open. Israel was moved by story, and Jesus and the story he brings by his life and teaching, death and resurrection, really does upset the apple cart. It essentially turns the world as understood by the people of his time, specifically Jesus’ own people, Jewish, it turns their world upside down. Instead of a Messiah who would conquer by conquest, or by God thundering out of the sky to destroy the enemy, this Messiah would be condemned and nailed to a cross, the sure sign to them that he was no Messiah at all. On top of that, under God’s curse no less (Deuteronomy 21:23). But we know the end of the story. On the third day God raised Jesus to life. Then after forty days of appearing to his disciples and other believers, he ascends into heaven at the right hand of the Father. And through him, the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit is poured out on the day of Pentecost. Then Peter speaks, pointing to a fulfillment of Scripture with a story which you can find hints of in the Hebrew Bible, but nevertheless is new. And an entirely new world is completely opened up, now within the apostles grasp because of the coming of the Spirit. And Peter articulates that.

The reaction from faithful Jews present who were living according to the story of Judaism in which they were raised, and we can say for all intents and purposes were largely faithful to God, or at least their understanding of God and God’s will is nothing short of shock and stop. They are ready for change, an adjustment of course which would be abrupt and radical. The story in which they had been raised was now seen to be incomplete. The story of Jesus brought a sense of fulfillment, but also even displacement of the story which they had understood, in which they had been raised. This doesn’t mean for a second that the story in the Hebrew Bible was not important for its place and time, nor that it no longer had anything to teach God’s people. It just meant that what it pointed to was fulfilled in Jesus. In God becoming human in Jesus in complete identification with humanity, so that humans could be identified with Jesus and find the new story which he brings, in which they’re forever to live, beginning even now, the only story that never ends.

For me this is most helpful. We don’t live according to any of the world’s norms, nor even the norms of God’s people of old except where those correspond with the new vision Jesus brings. We see everything along with all of life in terms of Jesus. And that brings nothing less than the beginning of an entirely new world opening up to us. One we get to be participants in as followers together of Jesus. That doesn’t mean that all is great or easy afterward, that we’ll have it all together, as we see clearly from the New Testament. It does mean that there’s an inevitable movement of the Spirit through the church to bring God’s light and love into the world in and through a cross-shaped, love-for-all life. The beginning of so much to come even in this life. In and through Jesus.

Correction in Saturday’s post, Jesus’ freedom proclamation (Juneteenth in the United States): “May the Lord help us, and lead us to see how we white folks can help people of color to live as equals among us, most importantly how people of color can help us in this.”

Three books I referred to which influenced this post, all highly recommended: Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible by Willie James Jennings. Acts by Beverly Roberts Gaventa. The Story Luke Tells: Luke’s Unique Witness to the Gospel by Justo L. González.

 

unrealistic expectations

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

The world rightfully expects something more from those who profess the name of Christ as “Christians.” Unfortunately there is mostly disappointment, too often for more than understandable reasons. And really, if anyone knows any of us through and through, then likely there will be disappointment. But expectations can be mistaken, too. After all, what exactly would the world expect of Christians? The same thing they wanted from Christ? That he would be their Bread-King and take care of all their wants, and make life work they way they thought it should (John 6:15 contrast with John 6:41)?

The New Oxford Annotated Bible makes an interesting observation: “This understanding of ‘perfection’ is closely linked with the love commandment (19.19)” (1790).

“If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these;[a] what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money[b] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Matthew 19:17b-21

It’s important that we stay grounded in expectations that are not only realistic for us in this life, but don’t miss the point. Life is about loving God and loving our neighbor, which means every human being on earth, if I understand Jesus’ teaching correctly. We need to be quick to make things right when we do wrong, which at heart is always a violation of such love. But our goal in life should be to simply so love, in the way of Jesus.

Love will take on many shapes and colors, and again won’t always be recognized or appreciated by the world. Certainly that was true of our Master, and will be all the more the case with us, his uneven, imperfect followers. But people need to see the difference in us. Yes, even you and I, with all our limitations, imperfections, and need I say, shortcomings. What must override everything else in our lives is a love for others which comes out of our love for God. Ever growing, of course always grounded in God’s grace to us. And shaped like a cross with the growing likeness of Jesus imprinted on it. By the Spirit. In and through Jesus.

mind set and the Spirit

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

Romans 8:5-6

What do we fill our minds with will affect our outlook on life, our very life itself. And the choices and difference here is flesh and Spirit. When we gravitate toward the things of the flesh, we will not only be influenced by that, but the flesh can take over. By flesh here, what’s really meant is all that’s not of the Spirit. The world system along with the principalities and powers which are part of that are in that mix. The Spirit involves all that is of God revealed in Christ.

What is emphasized here is perhaps both practice and disposition. We set our minds on what is of God and become acclimated to that. Or else we let ourselves drift into the thoughts and ways of the flesh, that which is in opposition to God.

If we have the Spirit through Christ, then we can set our minds on the things of the Spirit. And actually when you consider this passage (click above link), it is really something of a description of those who are in Christ and thus in the Spirit and live with a mindset given by the Spirit, and those who are in the flesh without the Spirit and therefore live with a mindset of the flesh (see NET footnotes).

A number of scholars believe that this chapter is getting at what the rest of the book addresses as a problem within the church made up of house churches in Rome. They weren’t always getting along, dividing over disputable issues in which Christians can differ. So even though this passage in Romans 8 seems to draw a stark line, it’s not like we as followers of Christ can’t falter and live apart from the Spirit. That is as plain as day in the letter of 1 Corinthians, but plain enough here too, I think.

The Spirit makes the needed difference. But it seems clear enough to me that this is not automatic, but something we’re to practice, to both set our minds on the things of the Spirit as well as on the Spirit. Regardless of what our experience is, we keep on doing that. In and through Jesus.

a life which corresponds to the “no condemnation” given to us “in Christ Jesus”

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.

So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:1-17

First of all, we need to hold on to the truth that “in Christ Jesus” there’s “now no condemnation.” This passage makes it clear why. It’s because of Christ and specifically Christ’s death. Sin is condemned in the flesh, it’s dealt with (see NRSV footnote there for other possible rendering: “and as a sin offering”). We see from the rest of this book, and from other parts of the New Testament that it’s through Christ’s death.

And yet we can live in ways which don’t correspond, don’t line up with this. Otherwise Paul wouldn’t have wrote (or have written since he evidently had trouble with his eyesight) this. We are to live lives with the realization that we’re not condemned because of what Christ did. But what we do and especially in relationship with others must line up with that. Christ cleared the way for us to live with no condemnation, which we enter into by simple faith. But our lives must follow suit. All too easily we can be careless, or we might allow ourselves to feel condemned when we should not (1 John 3:18-22 and 1 John 4:7-21).

That means that our intent should be to always live lives which cannot be justly condemned. I’m never talking about sinless perfection, which is impossible in this life. Based on that, everyone of us would be condemned even after we put our faith in Christ. I’m talking about the tenor of our lives, including making right what wrongs we do along the way.

We should be both intent in resting in Christ, and God’s verdict of justification through faith along with the no condemnation that brings and we should seek to live lives which correspond to that, we might say here justification by works (James). Not that we earn it, but that our lives correspond to our profession of faith.

Paul makes it clear here that this is possible only through the Holy Spirit. If it’s by the flesh, meaning anything apart from the Spirit, then we’ll fail to realize the freedom which is given and meant for us as God’s children. Because of Christ we end up free as a bird to simply live in the new truth that we’re not condemned. We’re to live as children, children of our heavenly Father, no longer as slaves with a sentence hanging over us. That is taken care of in Christ. But only by the Spirit is that possible. And if we’re in Christ Jesus by faith, we have that Spirit.

Something I’m working on, but all too easily for myself, I feel condemnation for reasons that are at least questionable. So I want to understand better what it means to depend on the Spirit, to live with reference to everything by the Spirit, to learn to better recognize and as is stated in the above passage even put to death the deeds of the body, whatever that precisely might mean in my case. Could it sometimes mean silencing an overactive mind, open to the enemies lies? At any rate again, something I’m working on. In and through Jesus.

reading Scripture differently

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

Luke 24:25-27

They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Luke 24:32

There is no doubt that we need the Spirit of God, Christ himself to give us clarity and understanding when we’re reading Scripture. Otherwise we won’t get it the way God wants us to get it. Something of that was going on here, no doubt. But also Jesus was surely teaching his disciples what the church has learned at least in the best of its tradition to do: Read Scripture, specifically the Old Testament, but all of Scripture in light of Christ and the fulfillment he brings. Otherwise we’ll tend to see it primarily through our own cultural lens. First and foremost we must see all of Scripture through the revelation which Christ brings.

But add to this, we as Christians can differ in how we read Scripture in another basic way. We can fall into what I think is the error of practically seeing Scripture as an end in itself, and miss out to a significant extent on its main point: the gospel, the good news fulfilled in Christ. Some make such an important matter out of an inerrant view of Scripture that they think Scripture depends on that being the case. But what Scripture actually depends on is the truth and reality centered in Jesus, in the gospel, in the truth of the resurrection. All hinges on that. Of course there’s much we can and should glean from the parts of Scripture, without losing sight of the whole, and the point of it.

We also need to read Scripture in the light God gives us elsewhere: in science, culture, from wherever that light may come. That doesn’t nullify a word in Scripture one iota. But it does help us understand its own historical context. And to see how Scripture points us to something which is above and beyond such contexts, yet can still be played out within any setting.

What is most important for us is that we seek to remain in Scripture, intent in believing and obeying God, intent in following Christ with others through the gospel.

God’s Spirit pervades all of life

If it were [God’s] intention
and he withdrew his spirit[a] and breath,
all humanity would perish together
and humankind would return to the dust.

Job 34:14-15

On Pentecost Sunday we rightfully remember the strange and powerful coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost as recounted in Acts 2. What we need to remember with that, as told here in the book of Job, is that God’s Spirit actually pervades all of life. Without the Spirit there would be no life of any kind, be it both physical and spiritual. As we remember in Genesis, God made the man and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (Genesis 2:7).

We’re too often looking for the unusual, and it’s not as if that doesn’t happen. We see plainly from the pages of Scripture that it does. And if the eyes of our heart are open, we’ll see this in life, as well. But most of life is ordinary. And yet it is every bit as special as the extraordinary because God’s Spirit pervades all of life.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a special dispensing of God’s Spirit to all who believe in Christ, and to God’s church in Christ, for indeed there is. But it does mean that we might find God’s Spirit active in unexpected places. In a sense in all of life. And really in every part of our lives, the seemingly mundane and in our minds even unimportant, as well as those special times when either the Spirit breaks through to help us, or we feel so desperately in need of the Spirit. Yes, through all of life God’s spirit/Spirit is present. For the good of the earth. For everyone, and especially for all who are in Christ individually and together. For the blessing of all people, that they too might receive the fullness of life that is in Christ. In and through Jesus.