the blessing of being insignificant and worse

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you! For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.

I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.

1 Corinthians 4:8-17

The Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthian church are remarkable. Those believers were wowed by leaders infiltrating the church who were impressive in worldly ways. And they even compared the true Christian leaders, lining up with this or that one, indicating they were spiritually immature.

I find it a blessing to settle into the notion, indeed reality, that “in Christ” we are quite insignificant as far as the world is concerned. And insofar as the spirit of the age, and worldliness is still a part of us, we can find what we do and are about, quite insignificant.

We might well imagine and think: Of course, Paul was on a special, not to mention, quite dangerous mission. Naturally he was going to be despised. But even that account alone is kind of a head-scratcher. He along with his team were brutally mistreated, hungry and thirsty, in rags, homeless. Wow. The health and wealth gospel surely just took a hit. Paul was indeed the example of what sacrifice is involved in being on mission as Christ’s servant for the gospel. But his word to the Corinthian Christians is that they were to imitate him.

It is a different day and age, but God’s kingdom and the world, as in the world’s system is at heart the same. We may think what we have to do is relatively insignificant, and often not appreciated. And we may struggle ourselves in accepting it, let alone appreciating it. But if that’s the case, then we’re in good company, with no less than the Apostle Paul in his following of Christ.

What if we do have success in the eyes of the world? Does that exclude us from the possibility of imitating Paul’s following of Christ? Not at all. It may be in some ways more challenging, but when we do take any stand for Christ and for righteousness and justice, we can be sure to encounter trouble. We are in a position of blessing those who are putting their lives on the line for the gospel. And there’s no reason why in doing so, that we can’t put our lives on the line for Christ, as well.

This is an encouragement for me, because I see myself precisely as one in a corner, whose life little matters. But that’s a lie of Satan. It does matter, in and because of Christ. Not because of myself, or who I am, but only because of him. Christ makes all the difference. Just as he did in Paul’s life and ministry. In our’s as well, yes, in the lowly, unnoticed, and under appreciated places.

 

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let Christians be Christians

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

James 4:1-12

James is a great go-to book for the present day. We have to be careful when we do, about making applications to any present day situation. First of all, as James says elsewhere, we have to keep looking at ourselves squarely in the mirror of God’s word, and keep looking, instead of thinking we have some sort of great application for everyone else.

That said, I think we can together acknowledge our need and our propensity to depend on and be devoted to the world rather than on God. And even find our identity somewhere in the world system, when through Jesus, our identity is in him and God’s kingdom come in him.

I take it that “friend of the world” from James doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make friends with people of the world, nor does it mean we’re not present and active in doing good works. What it does looks like will differ among us depending on our gifts and calling, and our understanding of the nature and extent in which we can be involved. For some Christians, they will be involved in the political process, some even running for political office. Other Christians will not even vote, but will try to be good neighbors, and help in ways they can. And everything in between.

The call here is that we as Christians must simply be Christians. If we’re anything else, all those things must be secondary. For example as a citizen of the United States I would like to understand so as better appreciate the founding of this nation from the ground up in its early decades and beyond. But when it’s all said and done, and I know better than to think that’s not an ongoing endeavor, but always and in the end, the bottom line is that we who name the name of Christ as our Lord, are above and beyond anything else, simply Christians.

That should mark our thinking, words and actions. If the first thing that comes to mind when people think of us is that we’re Republicans, Democrats, progressives, conservatives, or even moderates, whatever, then we should well wonder just what kind of witness in the world we have. And to the extent we’re part of this world order, we’ll partake of its fruit. Note the passage above. Cutting others down who don’t see the light that we think we have is a sad example.

This is difficult, and it’s not like any of us is perfect in it. But this should be our goal. To be Christian, to let our light shine before others, that they may see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven. In and through Jesus.

the heart of the battle

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Near the end of a letter which marks what God is doing on the earth through the gospel and the church, and the impact that’s to make in our lives and witness, we have this word: we’re in no less than a spiritual battle, all the way around.

It’s easy for us to get mired into other things, even other battles, be they political in different ways, and those of our own making perhaps connected to “the pride of life.” It’s not like all those things are necessarily out of bounds, though they may be for a time, so that we can step back, and regain our bearings.

The real crux of the matter which underlies everything else is spiritual. And not in the way of the early popular Frank Peretti writings, which I think he improved on later. To reflect Scripture, and real life, it’s more complex than that. But a reaction might be to remove the spiritual element entirely, particularly the thought of the demonic and satanic, relegating such to some bygone time when people didn’t know better. Like C. S. Lewis wrote, the devil would like us to either deny his existence altogether, or see him behind everything, probably preferring the former.

As those in Christ, we’re in a spiritual battle no less. And it’s a battle for the gospel and the difference it can make in the world. But each of us are individually, as well as collectively involved in that. We’re either strong in the Lord, taking up the full armor of God, and standing firm, or we’re not. Our provision is Jesus Christ and the gospel.

We would do well to memorize and mediate on this passage, quoted above. And we apply it in large part by remaining daily in the word: Scripture, and in prayer. If we’re looking for some place and experience that’s pleasant, than we best look elsewhere. It’s not like the Lord doesn’t give us rest along the way, but that he’s also with us through the darkest valley (Psalm 23).

To the extent that we Christians understand the spiritual battle we’re in, and prayerfully act on that, we’ll see God move in ways that are helpful for people, and societies. Yes, for ourselves. Whether we like it or not, that’s the reality in which we live. And as we accept that, and act according to God’s word, we are a witness to the world of the needed difference in our own lives and churches Christ makes. In and through Jesus.

what difference are we Christians suppose to make?

I wonder how we Christians who don’t always agree on political issues, nevertheless might be a mediating, healing, even redemptive influence on a nation being torn apart. I am reminded of Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29). They were to settle down and seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which they were exiled, to pray for it. It was going to be temporary for sure, seventy years.

That reminds me of us Christians here in the United States, or in any nation in the world, for that matter. We are temporary here, yes citizens of these nations, but our primary citizenship is in heaven. We don’t exist for the good of any nation or government. But we do wish the best for them, for God’s blessing so that people might be blessed. Government and the state does have a God-given place in this world (Romans 13).

I think the more we take all the words of Scripture seriously, especially those directed to the church, the more we might be helpful in the current impasse and worse. The gospel, God’s good news from God actually does the work, we don’t. We are witnesses to it in how we live in deed and word. First of all by our lives, even if we say nothing more at all.

…make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

1 Thessalonians 4:11-12

Note the passage (click link) is in the context of an emphasis on love for each other, so that Christians strictly speaking are not independent, but dependent on God, and interdependent (not codependent) on each other. We Christians are in this together. Even when we don’t agree politically. We might be poles apart that way. And unlike me, you may not see climate change as something serious to consider, and we may disagree on a whole host of issues, even including the history of the United States.

In spite of all of that, just how can we be the mediating, healing, and even redemptive presence needed, if we think there’s value in that. If there was value in captive Israel being a blessing to Babylon, then surely there is for us now.

Getting back to Jeremiah’s letter to those exiles, we need to listen to what it might be telling us today:

…seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.

Jeremiah 29:7

Prayer. If there’s nothing else we do, we should pray. Even shut our mouths and instead, pray. Not that there’s never a time to speak, as well as be silent (Ecclesiastes 3:7b). But there’s nothing better we can do than pray. When we do, we’ll find ourselves somehow in God’s working, what God alone can do. What we do apart from prayer and dependence on God will do more harm than whatever good it might do. We can be sure of that, as well.

And so on the eve of Independence Day here in the United States, let’s consider carefully just how we might be a blessing in the midst of a mess which is certainly well beyond us. Above all holding on to the faith of the gospel, lights to the world (Philippians 2:14-16) in and through Jesus.

 

while the world is falling apart…

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”

The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Psalm 46

We live in a time of cultural seismic change. In society, including the church, certainly in politics. And if you’re not on board, then you’re not welcome.

Christians need to hold steady, just as the psalm tells us. Not be taking sides in the culture war, or whatever war is going on out there. But standing steady in the faith, come what may. On the truth of the gospel, and as found in Scripture.

We need to appeal to reason, but no matter what we say, we will face opposition. Of course we need to listen well, too. We can learn from those who oppose us, since they might have some truth in what they’re saying. After all, we have our blind spots too.

When it’s all said and done, we still hold steady to the truth as it is in Jesus and in Scripture. And we stake our lives on that, and nothing else. Confident in the God who has made himself known in and through Jesus.

divisive issues and the Christian witness

The cultural divide in the United States seems to be expanding with little or no hope for any meaningful bridging of the gap. Not that Christians should regard that as a chief concern since our calling is to be a witness of Jesus by the way we live, what we do and say. We live in the present time in a kind of exilic state, citizens of heaven, but “resident aliens” on earth, yet praying and hoping for the good of the nations in which we reside (Jeremiah 29), certainly more than a tall task in some places, yet part of our calling.

Those who say experience should override the intellect, or something of the like are themselves making an intellectual proposition. There ought to be a commitment to a reasoning process which includes civil conversation in debate over the issues. And that means all the issues.

The Christian appeal, as Dallas Willard pointed out somewhere in a much more substantial way is to the intellect. I don’t know how Scripture can have such a central, foundational place in the Christian tradition, and anyone think otherwise. After all it is the written words certainly appealing to us as humans through the intellect. That is, if we take it seriously.

I think today’s climate is toxic, not to mention divisive. Christians need to be present in complete humility, willing to learn, but also stating a case made through a disciplined commitment to the study of Scripture, and of life, which of course would include history and philosophy, and whatever else. We should gently and humbly make our case.

Our primary calling to the point that I would simply call it our calling is to the gospel. We are witnesses of it, either good or bad. Our lives either show or fail to show the light of God in Christ. That is what we ought to be known for. Even as we listen and speak out in testimony to the truth as we understand it, and as it stands in Jesus.

the war we’re in, the Christian and violence

There is the “culture war.” And we know of actual wars, right now honoring the last of the veterans of World War II. What about the Christian? What warfare can or even should we be part of?

Jesus taught the way of the cross, that we’re to love our enemies and pray for them, that we’re to bless those who curse us, and when struck, turn the other cheek, as well as go the extra mile. There’s no question that Jesus resolutely refused all physical warfare. The Messianic way fulfilled in him would not become embroiled either in the world’s wars, or in physical warfare at all.

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 and Ephesians 6:10-20 are the two passages which come to mind when speaking of spiritual warfare. One also thinks of Daniel’s praying, and the angelic and spiritual forces behind the scenes as he did. For the Christian the gospel meaning good news in Jesus is the armor and weapon we’re to use  in God’s mighty power to resist the enemy. And particularly for those called to proclaim, but for all of us as witnesses, we do indeed have authority in Christ to share the life changing word, above all in how we live, in word and deed. And this must be a part of what we’re about as Christians, regardless of anything else, certainly including all who serve in the state.

I know devout Christians have served in the military and police force. Of course that in itself does not prove the legitimacy of such. I was raised in a denomination that teaches Christians should not participate in such. And I am empathetic to that position, and to this day read a portion of the Sermon on the Mount (or the Sermon on the Plain) as part of my daily Bible reading.

One needs to step back and consider war in general, the just war theory proposed by Christians, actually derived from another thinker. And the evil in the world. It is said that peaceful efforts which refuse any violence actually change the tide, whereas using physical force only keeps the chain going of retaliation going, essentially taking vengeance when God tells us that we’re to leave that in his hands. And directly contradicting our Lord’s words when he said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is not what we’re to live by, but rather, love for our enemies.

There’s no question that we should love our enemies, and that we should be willing to give up our lives for Christ and the gospel. And that should be our heart and soul, that we love in the way of Jesus, even doing so in a way that might cost us our lives.

That said, my own position now is that as a last resort when there’s simply no other alternative, Christians can use weapons within the role of the state. I say this sadly, remembering the worthy witness and position of Martin Luther King, Jr. and believing that such a witness is not only needed, but indeed called for in the way of Christ and against evil. There’s no question that he faced death both as a threat to himself and his family. And of course in the end was assassinated.

For me it’s an open question with no answer which completely satisfies. But I have to side with Miroslav Volf, insofar as I actually understand his position, that given the brutal, incorrigible evil present in the world, which as a matter of course kills and rapes and brutalizes, that there is a place for force. And that such measures lie with the state (Romans 13), not that there’s a given outline of what the form of government is to be in Scripture. There isn’t.

For me there’s no easy answer to either defend Christians ever using violence as part of the state, or never using such under any circumstances. I just don’t know.

My position now is that we’re to take the way of the cross in following Jesus. That just like the Amish have received protection with thankfulness, we too can receive such from the state. And that we can serve in such positions in the state. But always with the hope to resolve all matters and conflicts peacefully, or with as minimal force as possible. And that where need be, we can and should conscientiously object when what the government is ordering us to do is unjust.

Above all, and always, we need to be those who are marked as belonging to Jesus, taking the way of the cross. That even if we do participate in the force of the state, that we do so with the same gentleness and meekness, that of the Lamb. Realizing that we’re in a broken existence within the already/not yet continuum when peace won’t occur until the Prince of Peace returns. In and through Jesus.