pure religion

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Religion and relationship in scripture actually go together. From the time when people started to invoke or call on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4:26), right up to the present time when we gather in buildings, and partake of Holy Communion, we participate in a kind of religious service led by someone with a liturgy all its own, even if not liturgical in its emphasis. And we’re told in the Old/First Testament that to know God means to help those in need, perhaps getting more precisely in line with the point James is making here:

“Does it make you a king
    to have more and more cedar?
Did not your father have food and drink?
    He did what was right and just,
    so all went well with him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy,
    and so all went well.
Is that not what it means to know me?”
    declares the Lord.
“But your eyes and your heart
    are set only on dishonest gain,
on shedding innocent blood
    and on oppression and extortion.”

Jeremiah 22:15-17

James echoes something of both the Old Testament wisdom, and here, of the prophets. To know God is to begin to know something of the heart of God. And God’s heart goes out to the poor and displaced. Those who profess to know and worship God must begin to have the same heart for others. Otherwise their profession of faith is empty. Specifically here in caring for widows and orphans in their distress, which can include and group in the same category today.

James, as he does in this short letter, especially in our chapter 3, really focuses on the tongue, our speech, and learning to hold it in check. If anyone considers themselves religious, James says, but fails to keep a tight rein on their tongue, their religion is suspect at best, in fact in God’s eyes, worthless. And they deceive themselves. We often can say all the right things, but fail to follow through with action. And James will get to that in this letter. But that’s not the point here. Rather it’s about a loose tongue which more often than not is quite destructive. And the rest of the letter, particularly chapter 3 informs what James is referring to here.

We should be known as Christians for what we do in helping those in need, not in what we’re saying, particularly when it comes to issues which can end up being critical and disrespectful of others. And make no mistake, such speech can be right on the tip of our tongues. That’s why James says here that we’re to keep a tight rein on our tongues. We have to bridle as in controlling our tongues, and not let them have their way in words which ultimately will be helpful to no one. And even deceptive to us, perhaps in the sense of putting us on the wrong track when we think we’re in the right, though often we should know better.

And to keep ourselves from being unstained or unpolluted by the world. We have to be aware and beware in this regard. We need to develop a humble ability to see through what the world holds dear, mostly by developing a stronger commitment to keep a single eye and heart on what God holds as important for us, individually and together. In and through Jesus.

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being willing to take second fiddle and serve

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Luke 22

I have never seen this connection before, and I like how the NIV in its paragraph divisions, brings all of this together in one paragraph. During the Last Supper, of all places, after Jesus told them that one of them was about to betray him, they began to argue with each other over which of them was considered to be greatest.

Jesus pointed to himself as the one who took the place assigned to servants; the more important, or considered greater people, sitting at the tables, being served. But that, because they had stood by him in his trials, he would give them a kingdom in which they’ll sit down and eat and drink, as well as sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

The ways of the world easily rub off on us. We need to take care that we neither lord it over others, or expect them to serve us. Instead we need to appeal to them, and serve them. We especially need to be sensitive to those who have been hurt, and who might easily misunderstand our actions and words. But we also need to be open to the need for rough edges to be taken off of us.

I’m afraid that the world sometimes rubs off more on us, than our way in Christ rubbing off on the people of the world. We end up imitating what we admire. We need to learn to see the beauty of Jesus, and come to value that. And then see everything else in that light. Certainly that’s the way of humility and service. And in God’s grace by the Spirit, Jesus himself can live in us and help us. In fact, because of that, we can become more like him.

That is the key, but at the same time we need to be aware, and when need be repent and become like the little children of the Father in the kingdom, loving and serving each other, and the world, in God’s love, in and through Jesus.

comparing one’s self with others

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.

2 Corinthians 10

2 Corinthians 10-13 was an expose by the Apostle Paul, of false teachers, false apostles. Paul himself did not measure up to their standards. For one thing, he was weak, when they were strong. Paul’s refute of them is classic, and more than memorable words. We must take them to heart.

I don’t have enough patience with those who put down this or that servant of God as not measuring up to their standard. Usually such people have a propensity to look down on others, as if they themselves are above them. They need to humble themselves.

Paul went right after them, not mincing words. The gospel was surely at stake, since these false apostles were attacking the messenger, Paul. But also what was at stake is what it means to follow Christ, and be a true servant of Christ.

A true servant of Christ helps others to focus on Christ and the gospel, and not on themselves, or how great they are. We are servants of Christ, and of God’s word, and through that, of others (2 Corinthians 4).

The right focus is to celebrate the Lord’s working in everyone who belongs to him in whatever form that might take. The most ordinary may be more imbued with the Lord’s voice and power, than the one who has a celebrity status. Our focus needs to be on Christ and the gospel, and on God’s word. And out of that, be thankful for the many gifts God gives. Real spiritual, Spirit-directed discernment will often find the Lord’s voice, presence and power in people who don’t measure up according to worldly standards.

In so doing, we seek to be true followers of Christ Jesus. In and through him, and the gospel.

 

what it means to follow King Jesus in a political world

Unlike those in Bible times, we live in a democratic society, which complicates our reading and application of scripture. If you read nothing more, read this, which is an excellent application of scripture in light of that.

When it comes to the politics of this world, I think we in Jesus need to apply the politics of Jesus, and the politics of the kingdom, and while that will surely impact our position on any issue, for example the refugee issue, it’s not as simple as either lining up with one party or candidate, or opposing another party or candidate. And in the end, though it may well affect the way we vote (or not vote, and if we vote at all), it ends up being solely about one thing for us: living for Jesus and for the gospel.

I do pay some attention to the politics of this world, and especially so, since I live in a democracy in which I can participate directly and indirectly in the process. While I think Christians can become unduly entangled in a mess when it comes to politics, I also think there might be some good we can do, especially as advocates for the poor, oppressed, and helpless. And we may want policies which help our families, all well and good, but we need to beware of making it all about us, what we want, what is best for us.

To understand what it means to follow King Jesus, we surely need to practice what John R. W. Stott advocated in his book, Between Two Worlds. He lived before the digital revolution, so he wrote of having the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in another. The problem in any age, but it seems particularly acute today, is the reality that the digital and news of the day can easily swallow up most all of our time, so that we end up being very little in the Bible at all. And after all, haven’t many of us read it through (or heard it read) at least a number of times?

But to follow King Jesus here and now, we need an interactive relationship both with scripture and with the world in which we live. But we must think of it, if we’re to follow King Jesus, not in terms of what the world wants, but what Jesus wants. And the root of that must be in the revelation we find in scripture of Jesus, and the good news in him. And we live that out from and within our communion as the church.

We must beware of getting caught up and entangled in either the Christian right or left, or the political right or left. Instead, we’re to follow Jesus. And in that communion, that fellowship, we are united to those who may see differently when it comes to the politics of this world, but with whom we’re united in the common goal of following Jesus, and obeying him, as well as living from and witnessing to the gospel, the good news in him.

That must be our goal, even our heart, and nothing less.

a thought on Revelation

I just finished going slowly through the book of Revelation. It is quite heavy, but appropriate, when we consider just how heavy the world is, if we pay any attention to the news at all. It is not exactly nice, as appropriate for a bedtime story for children. Yet it addresses real evil, and brings in the true and final salvation for the healing and flourishing of all.

When reading through this book, it’s not like we should just see it as metaphorical, and not really happening. I don’t believe world events will happen precisely as given in the book, because the book is chalk full of symbols, and symbolic imagery. Awesome, world-changing and shaping events will take place, and evil will at a point be purged, but we need to avoid what is surely the crass literalism of the “left behind” approach.

One is struck with just how strongly the Revelation shakes out to be a fulfillment in the sense of ending of the entire Bible, of the First (“Old”) Testament, as well as the Final (“New”) Testament. No one should think they are a faithful Bible reader and student if they don’t take the entire Bible seriously from Genesis through Revelation, of course including everything in between. Some things might not appeal to us, we might not get it, but we need to hang in there, and try to understand, and keep working at it over the long haul, little by little.

Revelation reminds us of many biblical themes, like salvation in the final sense, the kingdom of the world as in the world system, persecution of those who hold to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, the kingdom of God in King Jesus, the goal of all creation with strong parallels to Genesis, etc.

It is a hard book to read, probably for me  because it hits up against my Modernist Enlightenment influenced sensibilities, and one might even say, Anabaptist tendencies rooted in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The latter takes evil seriously, and simply takes the way of the Lamb in opposing it. The former cringes at the thought of actual evil (“we can educate it away”), and even more against the notion of judgment. And there’s the broken down systems of justice in our world today, perhaps adding to a cynical view of traditional approaches. Therefore, though a heavy read, Revelation is surely a much needed read for us today.

So if there’s a next time for me to go over Revelation, I hope by God’s grace to be more ready, and hopefully will be able to take more in, so that along with others, we can in faith faithfully endure through Jesus to the very end.

avoiding hate (and hurt)- politics

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show itby their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambitionin your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3

There are few things more troubling than Facebook posts (and probably Twitter is just as bad). A majority of them are about US politics, and specifically about the President and his policies. With some blows against the last President (along with a few praises). If anyone thinks this is better and easier in real life, face to face, they sadly should think again. It seems like the politics of this world is inhabited by a spirit which is malevolent and dark indeed. And certainly not by the Spirit of Christ.

Of course there may be elected officials who keep a steady course which is honoring to God, but it seems to me that they would be an exception to the rule. There seems to be a pull that at least evokes heat rather than light. People most definitely take their politics personally. There is certainly good reason to take it seriously. There is surely evil to be found on every side. Even if we might see most of the evil on the other sides, and we do, we do well to step back and ask ourselves if engaging in such talk is either profitable to ourselves or others. One side hardly ever changes the other. And actually the best polemic questions both sides in the name of the one Lord of lords, and King of kings, and kingdom present in him.

There surely are times to speak out, but we want to make our appeal in a way which is helpful to all, a tall order, indeed. We more or less think there are issues now that we need to be aware of, and then tell others. Living in a democracy certainly lends itself to that kind of thinking. Apart from threatening others, we’re allowed to speak our minds here, with no lawful basis for retaliation.

The hard part is that there is a time to speak, and to do so will result in persecution, usually in being disliked. Hopefully a persecution for righteousness, as Jesus said. Although what I’m referring to here is not persecution at all, compared with what others have to go through, in other place. And Christians need to look beyond such differences by grace, embracing each other in spite of our disagreements.

We need to consider the entire chapter of James 3 on the tongue, just as I’ve posted before (click the link below and above). And I can’t do better than once again quote the above passage, this time in a different version:

Who in your community is understanding and wise? Let his example, which is marked by wisdom and gentleness, blaze a trail for others. If your heart is one that bleeds dark streams of jealousy and selfishness, do not be so proud that you ignore your depraved state. The wisdom of this world should never be mistaken for heavenly wisdom; it originates below in the earthly realms, with the demons. Any place where you find jealousy and selfish ambition, you will discover chaos and evil thriving under its rule. Heavenly wisdom centers on purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, and other good fruits untainted by hypocrisy. The seed that flowers into righteousness will always be planted in peace by those who embrace peace.

James 3 (VOICE)

think biblically

In the firestorm of today’s news, some of which is exceedingly sad, and perhaps all the more in the political climate of today, and any day, for that matter, we need to aspire to learning to think biblically.

Just to look at the Bible alone, as if we could do so, as it were, in a vaccum, which is impossible, but again, just to consider the Bible alone is challenging. I resort to what has been called a redemptive hermeneutic (hermeneutic essentially means interpretation), so that the Bible is a story which points to an ultimate conclusion, which is a fitting end to the beginning, but takes seriously everything in between. So that, while there’s harmony in the sense that the story follows a certain path, we find unexpected twists and turns along the way, even in the First Testament alone, but especially so in the Second, Final Testament, when Jesus fulfills all of scripture in ways which were not anticipated by those who lived during that time, or prior. But the seeds of which one can arguably clearly enough find in the First Testament.

From there, we have to consider present day thinking, where that came from, how it is entrenched in society, and in our own thinking. If we’re beginning to get the first goal of arriving to good Biblical thinking, true to that text and its fulfillment in Jesus, then we are ready to consider how we really think in everyday life, what our thinking actually is, which likely will be a reflection of the thinking of the world in which we live. And we have to critique that in the light of biblical thinking.

Where I live, the United States, our language and thinking is derived from the Modernist Enlightenment. Even how we think biblically is in large part impacted by that, so that we actually end up imposing the understanding of the age upon the text of scripture. Rather, we need to remain in the text of scripture, so that we can more and more think truly biblically, and be able to critique our present day thought.

Does that mean we expect the world to conform to biblical thinking? Certainly not. But we in Jesus are not to be conformed to this world, but rather, transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we might come to understand what is the good and perfect will of God (Romans 12:2). That is not something we’ll arrive to overnight, indeed it involves a lifelong process together with other believers.

I believe this is critical, mainly because I think we think in ways that are not so much informed and thus formed by the Bible, but more by society, with especially profound, and too often, I think, egregious/tragic results, especially seen in the political realm. Like everything else in life, this is surely a mixed bag. We do get some things more or less right even on this track, but are amiss in other things, I’m afraid. A big problem from our inheritance of the Modernist Enlightenment on which the United States was largely built, is the emphasis and insistence on individual rights. So that the rights of the individual, however that is manifested politically takes priority over everything else. While “rights” and the individual surely arguably have their place, we have to ask ourselves if that has the same place in scripture that it has in our world. And if not, then what informs it, or what context in scripture might we say it exists, its place.

This is not a proposal to imagine that biblical thinking can be imposed on the world, but to seek to be true to it ourselves, so that we can better live in it, through learning to think and therefore live according to what scripture teaches, and its fulfillment in Jesus, rather than what any political party of this world insists on. The new way of thinking and living in the grace and kingdom that is ours in Jesus.