proceeding according to one’s gift

Saul clothed David with his armor; he put a bronze helmet on his head and clothed him with a coat of mail. David strapped Saul’s sword over the armor, and he tried in vain to walk, for he was not used to them. Then David said to Saul, “I cannot walk with these, for I am not used to them.” So David removed them. Then he took his staff in his hand and chose five smooth stones from the wadi and put them in his shepherd’s bag, in the pouch; his sling was in his hand, and he drew near to the Philistine.

1 Samuel 17:38-40; NRSVue

The first big event after David was anointed by Samuel to replace Saul as king of Israel is the account of David slaying Goliath. Maybe it’s still a mainstay with many children Bible story books, but not sure how parents should approach that passage today. It seemed innocent enough when I was growing up, but I wonder if it shouldn’t be included in the passages for more mature audiences. Of course, how such stories are told can make a big difference, too.

The point I want to take from this account is the simple fact that David couldn’t proceed the way Saul wanted him to in taking on the giant. David was a shepherd who knew how to wield a slingshot with stones to protect the sheep from predators, having become quite adept at such. To fight the way the Israelite army did was outside of his parameter; he had never been trained for such. Later he would be very much accustomed to normal warfare, and in fact because of the bloodshed in doing so, would not be allowed to build the temple. Though he was allowed to make important preparations, the actual building of it would be left to his son.

The point here is that David did what he was accustomed to. And we need to take that home for ourselves. What might work for others, may not work well for us. That’s not to say that we can’t learn new and better ways of doing things. But our gift is as different in operation as we ourselves are. We should never think that we have to do it exactly like someone else does, whose gift we admire. No. We should be happy to proceed in our own gift, how we do it, and let that develop. Maybe in David’s case, and probably quite likely, what he learned in protecting the sheep was somehow utilized in his later practice of warfare which may have helped set him apart, and perhaps could have influenced the mighty men as they were called in David’s fighting entourage. We don’t know since Scripture doesn’t say.

The point though is that we should be happy to use whatever simple gift we have in the simple way we do it. God gives such gifts and God is in them. We don’t want to do it differently, since when we do, we’re no longer operating in that God-given gift, so that God is no longer in what we’re doing, at least not in the same way. Something to prayerfully think about and try to apply. In and through Jesus.

how are we “more than victorious” (or “more than conquerors”) in this life?

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than victorious through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39; NRSVue

ὑπερνικάω is a heightened form of being victorious, meaning “we are winning a most glorious victory” (BAGD). Although the old translation: “we are more than conquerors” might suggest more strenuous activity on our part, the more accurate rendering still indicates that we’re very much active. We are participants of God’s victory in Christ. But just how?

Romans 8 from where our passage is taken is one of the greatest chapters of the Bible. We read at its very beginning that there’s now no condemnation in Christ Jesus because of the new law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus which has set us free from the law of sin and death. And what the law given on Mt. Sinai could not do since it was weakened by the flesh, Christ did by coming the likeness of sinful flesh to deal with sin by his death. And that because of this spiritual reality in which we “in Christ” live, we no longer have to give into the flesh, since after all, we’re no longer “in the flesh” but “in the Spirit” if Christ dwells in us. That we’re to set our minds not on the flesh, what it wants, but on the Spirit, what the Spirit wants. And that actually becomes what we want, even while in this life we sometimes think and live contrary to that.

And what precedes the above passage would be good to note here:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son but gave him up for all of us, how will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ who died, or rather, who was raised, who is also at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us.

Romans 8:31b-34; NRSVue

The gospel is essentially given to us in the first four books of the New Testament: the gospel according to Matthew, the gospel according to Mark, the gospel according to Luke and the gospel according to John. Gospel is the English translation of εὐαγγέλιον which means “good news.” In Jesus and his coming is the good news for the world. Of course, it’s through Jesus’s incarnation in God becoming flesh, completely human. In his life, miracles, teaching: all about and within God’s kingdom present in him, then in his death for sins and his resurrection to give us new and eternal life. With the promise of his return when what has begun now, making all things new, will at long last be completed.

And with that said, it’s up to us whether or not we’re going to answer the call of Christ. I believe that call is on every human’s life: past, present and future, but that’s another topic, and really quite above my head. Though really when you’re considering anything spiritual and specifically pertaining to Christ and the gospel, it is all above us, but God wants to help us begin to understand and live in it. But first we must answer God’s call in Christ. And it’s simply, as we see in the gospel accounts, a call to follow Christ. That means following Christ as our rabbi whom we not only learn truth from in his teaching, but whom we seek to imitate and become more and more like over time, a lifetime endeavor to be sure. And of course, that’s based on his coming, not only his death and resurrection, but the whole works. He became one of us, living in the same dirt and grind and mess in which we live, and then taking the worst of humanity on himself, both the acts and the results of such acts, all the rapes and murders and everything in violation of love to God and neighbor that has ever been done, every single act of ours and all humanity past, present and future. Yes, Christ took all that on himself at the cross, but did so for the joy set before him, enduring the cross, scorning its shame. For the love of the Father, for the love of the world, all in God’s love for the world, for all of us sinners.

Now to get to the main point: How are we overwhelmingly victorious in this life? It’s simply through following Christ through thick and thin, preferably all together as church, the one body, his body. We follow him in all of life, doing what Christ has told us to do: loving our enemies, blessing those who curse us, praying for and doing good to those who despise us, even turning the other cheek after we’ve been struck, never physically resisting evil, although fleeing and avoiding that is usually a good thing, and I would do what I could to prevent someone from harming another, never killing them. But we’re to seek to overcome evil with good, hate with love. Never taking up the sword, since we’re not in a struggle against humans, but against spiritual entities which do affect human rulers, and also do what they can to hinder us and our desire and endeavor to live in the reality of the good news in Jesus.

When Jesus told his disciples to get a sword if they didn’t have any, they told him, Lord look, here are two swords. And Jesus replied that two was enough. Remember when he sent the disciples out two by two previously, he told them specifically what to take, and the sword was not included. Very soon afterwards Peter takes one of those swords and slashes off one of the ears of a servant of the high priest. Jesus immediately rebukes Peter and tells him to put down the sword, that all who take the sword will perish by the sword, and that after all, he must do God’s will. Soon after that Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom as King of the Jews were of or from this world, then his servants would fight, but no, his kingdom is from another place. So how we’re victorious has nothing to do with the world’s way of being victorious. It’s never physical, but always spiritual. Yet carried on in physical bodies in down to earth ways. Like feeding your enemies, giving them something to drink, and in so doing, heaping burning coals on their head, which I take to figuratively meaning they are ashamed.

Through the worst life and those opposed to us has to offer, as we continue on faithfully following our Lord as his faithful and called, following the Lamb wherever he goes, “we are more than victorious,” overwhelming so. That is the victory in which we live, the victory of our Lord which at the heart of it is taking the way of the cross. Becoming like Jesus in his death. But at the heart of that, coming to really know Jesus. That is after all what following Jesus is all about. It’s not merely knowing something in our heads, or thinking we know something. It is hearing the call and responding. It is heart to heart, involving a full commitment of ourselves to Christ. And that with others; we’re not to be on this journey alone. We want to help others come along, and we want to learn from each other, especially from others who have been on this journey longer. In doing so, we’re all being blessed by Christ, who has gone through it entirely, but is now ever present in our midst as well as in us individually and collectively by the Spirit.

And the last promise: nothing, nothing, nothing at all, including when we feel unloved and rejected and are tempted to despair, maybe even fall into that. Nothing at all can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is a love personal to us, but which is also meant for each other, and out of that for the world, including all of our enemies. God’s love in Jesus meant to do the same for all as for us: Making enemies friends through Christ as we respond to Christ’s call to us with repentance and faith.

Yes, we are more than victorious, more than that, through him who loved us.

together we are one

Our soul waits for the Lord;
he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him,
because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you.

Psalm 33:20-22

We normally think of our faith in an individualistic way, and that’s both good and okay, but in our context carries with it plenty of not so good, as well. Even in church, we often see it as strictly an individual endeavor in which we’re trying to get the word from God which we need. Again good in itself, but we’re missing something.

I love how the above passage makes the point that the congregation has one soul and one heart, and how they’re all in it together.

Where two or three are gathered in his name, Christ is present. And not only to care for each individual, but to bind us all together. To be “in Christ” amounts to being a part of Christ’s body, the church. This is not something we do, but something we are through the Spirit. So whatever closeness we experience to Christ should mean a closeness to each other.

But alas, we’re so much in the frame of the individual, that this is all but lost, usually completely so. We touch base with other individuals if at all in our church gatherings. When really “in Christ” by the Spirit we’re on spirit, one heart, one soul in Christ. That includes all of our experience, from joy to sorrow, as well as the struggles we go through.

In Christ we’re all in this together. Impossible to leave anyone behind in this dynamic, since we’re all one body in him. Something which we need to honor in our gatherings as church. In and through Jesus.

God’s light breaking through

And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.

1 Corinthians 2:13

Usually we all plod along, often struggling to understand, but proceeding from what understanding we have.

Then there are those seasons, usually short times, maybe a bit each day but probably less often when God’s light just seems to flood us and help us see and seemingly understand better many things. When that window is open there seems almost no end to where we might go, what we might explore. Though God’s light is for life, not for our speculation or mere knowledge. Head knowledge by itself is not enough, though it is good to have.

But I’m soon back to where I almost always am. Struggling to understand, but looking to God for the insight only God can give. In and through Jesus.

the priority of the unity of the body of Christ, the church

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours

1 Corinthians 1:2

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

A priority which ought to mark every church is the desire for unity among all of God’s people in Christ, among all the churches. This is a difficult task since so many churches are given to an independent mindset with more or less the idea that only churches of their kind are truly Christian, or at least are the most sound and authentic to the Christian faith. That plays right into the hands of the spiritual enemy, actually coming from its hands as well.

A church is not worth its salt which fails to make unity within its own congregation a priority, and makes expression of the unity all have in Christ a priority as well. Decades back, ecumenical for me was a dirty word. Instead, we ought to downplay our differences as much as possible, and highlight our agreement, indeed our oneness in Christ. I would think on the ground that means churches should participate in ecumenical associations: Protestants with Catholics with Mennonites with Baptists with Pentecostals with the Orthodox and so on. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness along with sin, death and “the flesh” are out to divide and destroy. Christ by the Spirit is present to redeem, save and heal. We can hopefully learn to appreciate our differences as distinctives to be brought into the whole. Yes, we have our different theologies, and that often seems to make the push for unity strange at best, and certainly strained and sometimes it can make it seem worse than that. But we can learn much from each other if we can look past our differences. Without thinking we have to be in complete agreement. It is only in and through Christ that complete unity will be found, and completely so at his return. Until then we’re to seek to find unity where it may be found by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

Especially the first sentence of the last paragraph was written under the influence of Tim Gombis’s excellent book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry. My application of that, so that what is amiss here cannot be blamed on Tim.

work at praying

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.

Ephesians 6:18

This is in the classic spiritual warfare passage, but doing what that passage directs is not supposed to be just on special occasions or situations that call for it, but ongoing, regularly, we might say daily. And though it’s to be done “in the Spirit,” we can see from “keep alert” and “always persevere” that it requires work.

It would be nice if we could just step in and do it, and I think in a certain sense that can happen, God encouraging us as a result. But for this to become a practice of our lives day in and day out will require long term commitment, effort, and growth on our part. To have the intent is necessary, but it’s the follow through which often falls through.  We shouldn’t despair because that will happen, but see that as a wake up call to pray.

I think this goes beyond lifting up others to God once a day, or maybe even more, though that’s good and needed. What we need to learn is what wrestling in prayer for someone and for all of God’s people looks like. If we’re ready to learn, God will surely teach us. I write this as a novice at best in this. But wanting to grow and find my way into some space in this way, some fixed place of significant, ongoing practice. In and through Jesus.

submitting only to Christ’s rule, not to human rule(s)

If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.

Colossians 2:20-23

There is a tradition among churches and denominations of certain rules or standards which are imposed on everyone. Sometimes this is not a set rule, but just something people have grown accustomed to, so that they practice it themselves, but don’t necessarily see it as binding on others. In other cases the church itself actually sets the rule, so that certain codes have to be upheld. Oftentimes these are dress codes, as well as rules about what one can and cannot do, like on the Sabbath Day (usually Sunday in Christian traditions) or on other days as well. Perhaps television is forbidden in some, or maybe certain media venues are forbidden. Or whatever.

And this can look quite holy. Certainly good intent can be behind it, but according to Paul it plays right into the enemy’s hand. Those who have trouble submitting, or who don’t quite meet such standards can be looked down on, division can set in, all matter of wrong can emerge: pride, judgmentalism, etc. Instead we have to acknowledge that we’ve died with Christ, that our identity is in him, and that we take our directions individually and together only from him.

That means we have to pay close attention to Christ’s teaching in the gospels, his example, and how that is followed through post-Pentecost and in the letters which follow. Christ is no longer with us in person as a human on earth, but he is very present with us by and in the Holy Spirit. So as church and from that as individuals we take our cues and directions only from Christ. Not from humans. Leaders who are attentive to this can help us in this way, but we all have to be committed only to this. This is where our spiritual life comes from informing and forming all of life. In and through Jesus.

just do your part

But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:15-16

I would like to take just a slightly different turn then what I think this passage might be precisely saying, but then add that this turn is I think an apt illustration of how this might actually take place in the living vibrant organism, the church.

When we gather on Sunday as Christ’s body in that specific time and place there are those who have their special roles. Some to lead in worship and liturgy, maybe another one or two to share something, one or more to read Scripture, another to give the message, perhaps lead in a discussion and give the benediction. And there’s the life together beyond the meeting time, though my focus here is when we gather.

There are times in any organism when some members might have to pick it up and do extra because another member is down or struggling for whatever reason. 

What we need to guard against, and what I want to emphasize here is that we need to be relaxed even if we are that one who is down and may not feel ready, indeed may not be up to or be led to contribute during the service at all. It is Christ by the Spirit who actually directs the service. None of us do, or at least we’re not supposed to. We direct only in a secondary sense under the direction of Christ.

That said, while we should prepare for our part when on assignment, we should relax into the attitude that we ultimately are never in charge. And that on those weeks where we feel more like the lame man who needs healing than the ones given authority to heal, we should simply accept that, find our place, and wait on the Lord during that service. Believing Christ is present and will help us. Not thinking at all it depends on us, because the moment we think that, the life giving flow and direction from the Spirit is replaced by something else.

Instead we simply find our place, content to do and be whatever Christ might have us do or be, even if that means nothing at all, except to receive what Christ might give us from another part of his body.

In and through Jesus.

the new existence of us “in Christ”

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

The new existence we have “in Christ” has nothing directly to do with our feelings and experience. If we can just let that settle in. And the point in Romans 8 is not about our position in Christ as at least one popular translation of Scripture would leave most of today’s readers think. The “no condemnation” of Romans 8 is about God doing through Christ’s coming and sacrifice for sin by his death, what the law could not do, so that we can be taken out of the law of sin and death, into the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, which brings instead of sin and death and the condemnation accompanying that, life and peace.

This is such a blessing. We are Spirit people, not flesh people. Oddly enough though, we can live like people of the flesh, a flat contradiction to who we are in Christ as God’s adopted children by the Spirit. But we don’t have to live there a second longer. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that old habits and ways are often not easy to get rid of. But God in Christ by the Spirit is there to help us. So that we can indeed put to death the old, and put on the new, spoken about in other places by Paul. Wonderful thoughts for us to reflect on, and live into. In and through Jesus.

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.