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Chapter 42 in a Series

Ephesians-and-Colossians-SC-500Letters from prison postmarked Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon, dated between AD 61-63.  Paul wrote them when either under house arrest or in a Roman prison. These particular two letters complement each other. Ephesians emphasizes the church as the body of Christ while Colossians describes Jesus as the head of all things.

Ephesians can be compared to the book of John due to the same higher spiritual theme. Paul encourages changing the spiritual center of gravity from being in the world to being of the world, as acting as a citizen of the heaven while being in the world.  I had a prof once say, “The world around us is at enmity with God and is the tide in which we swim.”  The letter’s intended recipients were the Ephesus Church started by Priscilla and Aquila and pastored first by Paul then Timothy.

We have all known of people who are so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good.  Ephesians takes that on showing that, in obedience (chapters 4-6), we can become more earthly good.  To that extreme, many ignore “theology” and instead want only to discuss things that are “practical.” Studying theology can at times take the religion out of you, yet it’s important to know our history and the many layers to it. In Ephesians, Paul argues theology is practical to learn.  To live life, in an applied way for God’s will, we must first, however, understand who we are in Christ doctrinally.

Take for example Paul’s message to the unbelieving crowds that prompted voluntary book burning on the topics like magic, resulting in loss of sales of idols when people replaced their former beliefs with Jesus.  In his message to them, he redirects them to visualize a soldier’s armor as an alternative for examples in equipping.  Each piece of armor provides for us spiritually: prayer, righteousness, salvation, truth, faith, God’s Word, and the Gospel of peace.  This armor combats spiritual warfare, the invisible (and visible) war that rages around us.  Prayer and petition is the key to unlock the power of this armor (Eph. 6:18).    The area of warfare to attack includes the heart, mind, relationships,  around the undermining of family values, and pursuing life’s callings.  When the conflict arises, metaphorically be reminded to put on this armament to defer the slings and arrows.  It is not lost on me that some may say, well magic and praying to idols isn’t any different than this armament.  It is if you note the other is temporal and the seven components of armor listed are everlasting.  This armor, however, is not one that our personality hides behind, it is one to be used, in our vulnerability.

In this letter, Paul gives specific teachings on how to live in the local church, in the world, and the home.  The chapter and verse (Eph. 3:14-19) show Paul’s thesis, presenting itself differently in this letter compared to his others:

“For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven  and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith ; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love  of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.”

The poem When I Say I am a Christian by civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou  is a good definition:

 When I say I am a Christian I’m not shouting I’m clean livin’. I’m whispering I was lost; Now I’m found and forgiven.

When I say I am a Christian, I do not speak of this with pride. I’m confessing

that I stumble and need Christ to be my guide.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not trying to be strong. I’m professing that I’m weak and need His strength to carry on.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not braggin’ of success. I’m admitting I have failed and need God to clean my mess.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not claiming to be perfect, my flaws are far too visible but, God believes I am worth it.’

When I say I am a Christian, I still feel the sting of pain. I have my share of

heartaches, so I call upon His name.

When I say I am a Christian, I’m not holier than thou; I’m just a simple sinner who received God’s good grace, somehow!

Ephesians defines Jesus as the head of the body (another name for the church) and the Holy Spirit as its lifeblood.  Spiritual gifts are also brought up in Ephesians. Paul speaks of the mystery of the church as the “Bride of Christ” with Him being the groom.

He includes a lot of pronouncements: “Walk in a manner worthy of the calling”, “Be imitators of God”, or when referring to marriage as the relationship  In marriage, he says a husband should love his wife…just as Christ did and gave himself up for her (Eph. 5:25) or a husband is to love their wife “as their body even as himself” (verses 28, 33).    If couples took these verses to heart, I imagine they would enter into marriage altogether differently.

Paul writes to the Colossians at a more intimate level, going deeper to strengthen their maturity in Christ in their faith and hope (Col. 1:28).

This letter’s overall theme is the sufficiency of Christ. Paul mentions their minister Epaphras’s concern for his friends in Colossae (located then in the region of Turkey) in the verse, “He (Epaphras) is always wrestling in prayer  for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” (Col. 4:12). This letter’s relevance for today gives witness to the completeness, finality, and adequacy of Jesus and His divine nature incarnate.

Truth:   It never goes out of date.  There is absolute truth.  One of my professor’s standard responses when someone says that is “Oh and is that a truth?”  God reveals the truth.  It is not constructed or invented or reshaped by individuals or communities.    Postmodern theologians who fully embrace contradictory paradox do so at the expense of the law of non-contradiction and thus the very idea of real truth.  The law of noncontradiction is a thing cannot at the same time both be and not be of a specified kind. Paradoxes are interesting to think until they morph in “antinomies” (being against the law) then they get scared and it’s a slippery slope to something false.   God is omniscient and unchanging. He is never wrong. He cannot be cruel, lie or break his promises.  He is sovereign, in control even if we don’t understand. God’s ways and thoughts are not our ways and thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9),  defining human comprehension.  If there is no absolute truth then what is mankind’s standard of measure, where does it come from?  Douglas Groothuis says, “There is no partial truth (yet) the gradualism in mingling the world’s ideas of today (i.e., the sanctity of life or marriage defined by God) gets negotiated.  I shudder to think when I have repeated trite language and phrases uttered today that undermines what is the truth (i.e., ‘It’s all relative.’).”  The Apostle Paul knows that when we do not understand our faith, the Gospel is watered down into a thin soup accommodating all the current cultural norms.

Who Jesus is, reveals a radical concept of salvation by grace apart from works.  To help them with the transition of faith, the then Jewish Christian held onto practices of orthopraxy adding requirements to this new faith.  Unfortunately, these added things were worldly. The examples of good deeds, occultism, and horoscopes do not show us God’s ways. Paul emphasizes that Jesus paves the way for absolute standards.  It is sad we cannot look at Christianity as a family, a way of life, and a relationship.  The latest research shows thirty-three thousand denominations in 238 countries, and that’s just Christianity.  This reflects the soul-searching of humanity to fill their spiritual yearnings.  God wants this relationship with us.  Relationships cannot happen when we go off by ourselves, doing our spiritual thing while on a hike or seeing a sunset. This relationship with God also involves the relationships with others.  It’s not a solo trip.

Often, we don’t approach truth objectively without first wanting to know what’s in it for me.  A consumerist mentality allows each person to choose his or her brand of truth just as he or she might choose a particular make of car or toothpaste, according to preferences and perceived needs. Each person then acts by that standard.   The world tells us one religion is as good as another. If seeking out spirituality leads into the wilderness (of our mind) to face dangers most would rather avoid then it isn’t a route many would volunteer to take.

The late comedian Bob Hope joked, “I do (charity/entertainment) benefits for all religions—I’d hate to blow the hereafter on a technicality.”   Is that what we are doing spiritually?

Spiritualists compare the different faiths to be represented by a rainbow; all have love in common with each other, a quaint sentiment not true particularly when violence is evoked in the name of religion.   All religions do have one thing in common when it comes down to it; they are manmade with only one based on the worship of the true God. There are many inspirational spiritualists (many of whom are quoted in this book); but there is only one faith that claims God, who is eternal, creator of all things, lives outside the cosmos, transcendent yet immanent in His relationship with believers proving He is not some myth. Mythical gods do not continually communicate throughout time with those in creation.  Ironically, paradoxical writer G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) points out if there were no God, there would be no atheists ( in essence, they recognized the God that they ignore, to undergird what their belief).

Biblically speaking, religion and spirituality should be united, with the results leading to prayer and works for the glory of God.  True religion is godly; empty religion only has “a form of godliness but denying its power.” (2Tim. 3:5).  A definition of spirituality can be sorted out in Scripture.   In Romans 12:1-2, Paul writes, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, given God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Build a log fire, and inevitably one of the log’s embers rolls away from the source of the flame. When isolated, it loses its spark and dies out.  Put the ember back into the fire, and it is restored.

Similarly, this happens when not in fellowship with a church.  We are not called to be a lone-ranger believer, a DIY (do-it-yourself) Christian machine.  Self-prescribed spirituality has been around whenever people have sought out ways to be self-evolved and independent.  I had an encounter on this topic when a teenage friend of my son’s asked why we should attend church.  I shared the analogy above in a little more detail, but I am afraid it fell on deaf ears.  I think he felt he was his own source of combustion to get things done and his spiritual pilgrimage did not include fellowshipping with like-minded individuals or someone who might be able to teach him more about God.

Frederick Buechner says, “You can survive on your own; you can grow strong on your own; you can prevail on your own, but you cannot become human on your own.”

I see being privately spiritual but not involved in a religious setting as a slippery slope. Without realizing it, we could comfortably slip into the self-centered American cultural norm, smack dab in the bland of people who find ancient religions dull meanwhile finding themselves utterly fascinating.  The slope gets slippier when there is no accountability (found in a worship community) to God’s truth. There are limits to a self-made religion.

I’m partial to religious tradition.  It seems to follow along with my pleasure for antiques, particularly when they stand the test of time.  The newest appliance or technology intrigues me, but in the end, it is antiques, second-hand furniture, physical books that give me comfort and I give a fair share of to my physical space.  When singing from hymnals, I look at the credits at the bottom of the page to discover when the music and lyrics were written.  It encourages me that this song has been sung throughout the ages.  I love the beauty in taking communion (that mystical symbolism of Jesus) of the wafer and common cup with the thought I am drinking from the same common cup as the saints gone by and in hopes am sharing this cup with my children, transcendently when we are not together.

Pastor and author Paul David Tripp reminds us that community worship is designed to jog your memory that there are more important matters in life than your plan, pain, or pleasure: it is instead for the glory of God.   Corporate worship is designed to take our eyes off our self by filling them with the beauty of the grace and glory of God (through the ages).  I have had dry spells, not attending church or Bible study group.  I have found when left to my own devices; there is a limit to my spiritual judgment and discernment that seeks to meet my needs first.  Meanwhile, I avoid the greater thing of hearing alternate views that may not conform to what I want to hear when devoid of the challenge or dialogue.  Going solo leads to spiritual self-deception. It leads to pride and self-righteousness.  It is not holy when so self-absorbed gazing into your belly button.  God engaged in and was with the community.

The church community is not perfect because people are not perfect, but there is more right than wrong when approached with grace and mercy.

 

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Chapter 41 in a Series

galatiansHave you ever gotten one of those colored envelopes in the mail indicating urgent correspondence or immediate response needed?  This Galatians letter could have been in such an envelope.  The beginning of this letter does not have the usual greeting or salutations as other letters from Paul.  He gets right to the point with a pressing message.  Galatians’s theme is we are saved by faith and not by the works of the law, yet still, those works were being advocated by nearly converted Christian Jews as the way to God. Galatians is the first book written by Paul (if placed in chronological order of NT writings, it was the second one written by James).  It is easy to see signs of Paul’s previous zeal (previously used against Christians) now turned in the right direction.

God appoints Paul to write his letter to the Galatians during his first missionary journey to Asia Minor. He writes it to reestablish the truth when people (known as Judaizers) sought to evoke Mosaic Law requirements onto the Christian faith.   Paul urgently began this missive to the Galatians defending justification through faith and not by works or law. It doesn’t begin with his usual salutations.

At the end of the letter, Paul closes on the same topic of justification , an act of grace through faith,  not something to be lived out in a sinful lifestyle.  Christians are freed from the bondage to our sinful nature; we now have the path of holiness open to us through Christ.  There are six hundred plus oral by-laws added to the Ten Commandments. Later it is increased further with the Pharisees adding even more specific mandates on how to live a Holy life. Most of these additions were added after the destruction of the first temple in  587 BC.  It was the culmination of correct conduct, both ethical and liturgical, as opposed to faith or grace of orthopraxy that began to permeate Judaism.  A strain of this orthopraxy was inherited onto Christianity.

Many of these became null and void when Jesus enters the scene (an example is keeping the Sabbath holy along as a day of rest with thirty-nine separate categories of what is considered “work” being added by the Pharisees, going so far as regulating the distance one could walk referred to as the Sabbath day journey).   The pendulum seemed to swing between getting lost in the extremes of either legalism to earn our salvation or a devil-may-care attitude about our sin.

Galatians 6:2 is a reminder when it comes to sharing burdens with others.   I often forget or am hesitant to share my problems with others excusing myself for not wanting to bring people down when I am low-spirited or afraid.  This verse says to carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, we are following Christ’s teachings. There is a Swedish proverb: shared joy is double the joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow.

I had a Pharisee-like moment following a Sunday morning in church when my older three children were more unruly than usual during worship.  When we got home, and before lunch, I went over my displeasure (and them ignoring my cues given during church to behave) of their antics.  I required they write a contract of sorts on appropriate behavior in worship services.  Basically, the three contracts said the exact thing (they were in cahoots in copying each other except for the spelling). Each signed their contract promising to behave. Here is a sample of that contract written by the youngest on the antics of my three stooges:

“I will

Lay out my close and try them on

Not watch tv before church

Find something quit to do before church

Go to bathroom before church

Get program and look at order of worship

Mark the hims

Sing or mouth songs

Close eyes or read prayers

Sit up right

Cover my mouth when you yawn

Don’t touch or play with each other

Keep close on, keep shoes on”

The contract (or was it the idea of not getting lunch) worked for a while, proving legalism does not always work to keep behavior in check unless heartfelt.

Paul lists the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) to encourage us. Not coincidental these are not listed as “Thou shalt nots” like the Ten Commandments. The Beatitudes and the Fruit of the Spirit are both simple statements of truth.

The Fruit of the Spirit is found in love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  This describes the growth a Christian cultivates over the course of their life. The list is a contrast to the one previously mentioned “deeds of the flesh” found just before these verses.  Paul’s words in Galatians are to pursue a life of holiness, not in your strength but in the knowledge of God’s empowering grace in your life.

The steps toward holiness are unattainable apart from the Spirit.  We are not at that level of self-evolution. We do not naturally embody that kind of good.  Our nature is we are damned and determined on getting what we desire with the best of intentions getting twisted by this inner drive. God wants us to behave differently and since we can’t, the Spirit grows, cleanses us from within resulting in good coming out from us.  The Fruit of the Spirit, unlike the Spiritual gifts, manifests over time, not in any consecutive order and differently per each person’s temperament as their Christian walk goes deeper.

When I proposed a graduate thesis topic on spiritual gifts and an implementation program for the church, I got some push back from the academic advisers.  They tried to point my thesis more toward the Fruit of the Spirit which everyone can attain instead of the spiritual gifts where only a few gifts are bequeathed to each person. I could not conceive of a program to implement the Fruit of the Spirit into an organization where I could use the gifts. The Fruit of the Spirit is more of a personal organic thing.  No one has all the spiritual gifts except for Jesus. Spiritual gifts are always a part of us, often dormant lest we do not use them.  They are not personality traits, which are dynamic in life, changing either willingly or forcibly depending on the impact life’s circumstances have presented.  Personality and temperament do, though, impact how our spiritual gifts play out. For example, an introverted or extroverted disposition responds differently yet has the same gift of service.  To further compound the dynamic, trauma changes our personality. The biggest challenge with spiritual gifts is people start to covet one gift over the other, seeing one as holier or better than the other.   Now I see what the profs were trying to encourage if only in this age of a desire for experiential conversions or feelings by believers, there was more emphasis put on the Fruit of the Spirit instead of spiritual gifts?

I think through the help of the Holy Spirit and its fruit (like self-control), and not gut instinct as psychologist’s advocate, we intuitively know when something is wrong even if we may not adhere to the guidance.  C. S. Lewis adds to this with “Moral law tells us what tune to play. Our instincts are merely the keys.”

Once, my mind exploded with a crazy thought when reading Galatians. If laws are imprinted on our hearts and minds (cf. Rom. 2:14-15, Heb. 10:16), then intuitively we would know the correct way according to any given moment.  Would not it be something then if the same general laws evoked on humanity were imprinted? I quickly thought about speed limits on our highways.  I have driven on Colorado back roads where there was no traffic, where I could see as far as the eye could see.  There was no oncoming, incoming, or traffic behind me.  Could not I just make the judgment call to go a little faster than the posted speed limit?  Of course, I was not taking into consideration what would happen while doing a higher speed if I had a tire blow out.  Or, for that matter on one occasion when a flying turkey came out of nowhere, hit my windshield, cracking it plus taking the passenger side-view mirror out when he slid off the car (fortunately I was going the post speed limit when that flying basketball met my windshield).  Sharing this story breaks up some of the more gravitas entries yet validates that without law there would be chaos.

What surfaces in my intellectual web is whether a person is morally good without God?  Yes, people can choose to act morally correct, live decent lives, but it ends up being wholly subjective and non-binding.  It risks being done momentarily and inconsistently. Tomorrow they can act completely. There is no moral foundation or commitment to it other than feeling good about oneself (maybe even superior), patting yourself on the back when making ultimate sacrifices in behavior by self-effort. Why else do people boast when they give a twenty-dollar handout to a homeless person panhandling at the highway intersection? Why do something good?  Is it because it is the right thing to do or because it feels true to you?  Who says it is right? Is that twenty dollar handout enabling someone to score more illegal drugs or is it going toward food?   Plato argues God is the source of moral value.  Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky concludes: “If there is no immortality, then all things are permitted.”

 

 

Chapter 40 in a Series

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If the warning theme of the Old Testament was idolatry, then false teaching would be the central warning in the New Testament.  Paul cautions and gives counsel to such warnings, defending the truth to the many creative ways people distorted Jesus and His message, particularly from those who did not have eyewitness accounts of Jesus and his teachings.  Paul had an eyewitness account of Jesus who revealed Himself on the road to Damascus, diminishing all doubt in the apostle’s mind that the Messiah had come.

Paul embarks on his legendary mission journeys which fall into three trips between AD 46 to 57.  He travels to Asia Minor and Greece eventually ending up in Rome in AD 60.  Total travel miles calculated at 10,282 miles takes about 1285 eight-hours a day to walk.  Paul, of course, stopped, rested, visited and planted churches.  His ministry spanned a little more than thirty years of his life.

In this letter, Paul is in Ephesus during his third missionary journey, responding to a disturbing report of quarreling within the Corinthian Church challenging his apostolic authority from the false apostles who moved onto the scene.  The report came from Chloe, a prominent church member, and Titus.

It has been said that the best part of the church is the fellowship of the people, and the worse part of Church is in the fellowship of people.  The recurring biblical theme continues:  God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chooses the lowly things of this world, the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1Cor. 1:27-29).

Paul planted this church in Corinth. The church ministry was beginning to corrode with misconduct on a variety of fronts in a city of that era with encroaching cultural lifestyle without thought to the consequences.  Monogamy and chastity were not upheld, particularly with the new converts.  Paul provides a written model for church conduct and how to handle the worldview pushing its way into the church.  Paul’s ultimate response can be found in his immortal verse on love, which is a classic cited at weddings today.  He reminds us (paraphrasing) that love is patient, kind, does not envy nor boasts, is not proud, is not rude, is not self-seeking and does not easily anger nor keep score.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth, always protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres.  Love never fails…. And now these three remain, faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (1Cor. 13: 4-13). He also reminds believers of the coming advent of Jesus (1Cor. 15:20-24) with words concerning lives lived not worthy of a Christian.

St. Mother Teresa suggests a way to love each other, “Do not think that love, to be genuine, has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired.”

What better way to deal with “people” challenges than through love?   Once dealing with a difficult person, I consciously made a decision chose the route of love through my communication.  If given a choice I would not have chosen to associate with her, however, sometimes, that option is not always feasible.  When I  initiated conversation with her, I got into the habit of praying for her beforehand.  Admittedly after the conversation, I would remind myself (emphatically) that I (and Jesus!)  cared about her.  I used to put a post-it note in front of me on the wall I was facing while on the phone with her with the command: “Love Donna!”.  In praying for someone I perceived unlovable, I asked Jesus to love Donna through me. Serendipitously, my heart did begin to soften, and working with her became easier.  Prayer does not change others; it changes the person who is praying and how they see the world.  The mystic and Muslim poet Rumi said, “I wanted to change the world.  Today I am wiser, so I am changing myself.”

If you could see God today, who or what would you see?  St. Augustine further asks, “What sort of face does love have? What shape is it? What size? What hands and feet does it have? No one can say. And yet it does have feet, those feet that carry people to church and walks in faith and not just in talk. It does have hands, that reach out to the poor.  It has eyes, those through which we consider and respond to the needy: ‘Blessed is the person,’ it is said, ‘who considers the needy and the poor.’”

The word love is an elastic word stretched to mean many things (i.e. “I love red shoes!”). The ancient Greeks added to the discussion of love with their seven terms (agape, philia, storge, Ludus, storage, pragma,  philautia and eros) to defining its types.

Agape love is the unconditional one that sees beyond the outer surface and accepts the recipient for whom they are, regardless of flaws, shortcomings, or faults.  It is the love God has for us.

Philia love is an affectionate yet platonic love. It is a committed and deliberately chosen kind of love.  It’s the one we hold for siblings. I would go so far to say even for our pets.

Storge is defined as the love between parent and child.   This love can extend easily into Agape with its aspect of unconditional love.  It too is a form of philia love, with traits that include acceptance and empathy.

Ludus love is a playful one like between children, young lovers and even fun-loving adults (like strangers dancing together).  Pragma love is the longstanding or mature love that develops between long-married couples.  Philautia is the love of self.  This type of love can go one of two ways: to narcissism or to a healthier balanced version of self-love like taking care of yourself.

Eros is typically associated with a passionate and intense love that arouses romantic notions. Eros misdirected is lust, love pointed in the wrong direction. Plato expands on the definition of eros to include the appreciation for the beauty within (not just the physical or outside) of a person, to a sensitive appreciation other beautiful things. This includes an appreciation for music, art, being in nature, the art of creating, or watching random acts of kindness. Eros acknowledges the beauty of things.  Plato suggests that this sensually (gratification found through all the senses) based love can reach a spiritual plane of existence of finding a truth that leads to transcendence.  Who hasn’t gotten lost in the wonder of a sunrise or sunset, a flower, a beautiful painting, or music?  Nature is one of the ways of general revelation, along with common grace as mentioned in the last chapter, where God reveals himself and provides for everyone. It’s his orderly provision of sun and rain, for plants, food, and eventually for mankind.

The eros love experience when transcending to something beautiful is satisfying.  It helps expIains how those who are called to it take vows of celibacy.  They experience eros love just like everyone else.   Eros is commonly thought of as erotic love because that reference is more popular and attention-grabbing.

When it all comes down to it, a life without love for mankind is a waste.  Rumi asks, “Should I look for spiritual love or material or physical love?  Don’t ask yourself this question.  Discrimination leads to discrimination.  Love doesn’t need any name, category, or definition.  Love is the world itself.”

Agape love is the kind Paul describes in the 1Corinthians letter as one to aspire. The other kinds of love will blend their way into the many facets of love throughout the different seasons of a married relationship, making the rapport and developing a bonding developed beyond our imaginations.  It is not surprising how many people think, in the most common use of the word eros, that when this kind of love tapers off (often initially experienced in the stages of courtship or during the honeymoon) that the love is gone. It is not. Love exists in many hues and shades, transcends into the other types of love, then back again, reaching toward agape love towards the other.

A follow-up letter to the Corinth churches speaks to the same problems that continue to grow greater than what was experienced in other early churches.  He writes in hopes of offering a remedy for the church.  The advice is so sound it has become timeless for other churches who may find themselves in the same situation.

Specifically, 2Corinthians addresses the false self-ascribed apostles who are becoming widespread.  One category of false teaching was this depiction of the Divine Man or Super apostle that place more emphasis on charisma than on the message of Jesus.  More self-glorification than Jesus’s glorification. Parts of this letter, found in chapters 10-13, refer to Paul’s “painful letter” (2Cor. 2:3–4, 7:8).  Scholars think there were four letters written to the Corinthians but only two preserved (1Cor. 2:1-5, 5:9-13). It’s presumed the contents are in defense of his ministry and credibility.  Theological commentary on the painful letter topic is speculated to addressing sexual immorality between a son and a stepmother in the church.

Paul’s ministry was not remotely associated with leisure travel as he was persecuted, tortured, imprison and probably in perpetual physical pain.  Legend has it he was short (does this make him quick as well as quick-witted?) hooked nose (sign of royalty?), his eyebrows met in the middle (a unibrow in vogue?), balding, and bowed legged (creating a firm stance of conviction?), and very muscular according to a document found in AD 150.  This description is given by Titus to described Paul so another could identify him for a first meeting. Paul was not what today standards would call attractive, although for them he had attributes (listed in the parentheses) that were redeeming when compared to other Roman leaders.  I can easily imagine, though, how the “Super Apostles” mocked and tore him down.

Question: What if Paul did not have a physical pain in his side as conjectured previously but instead these false prophets were the “thorn in his side” (today’s version of calling someone “a pain in the neck”)?  It is another twist of thought or a trajectory of interpretation, about Paul’s lingering thorn.  He asks God to remove false prophets, but God refuses.  Paul knows God is sovereign and in control even in his sufferings.  Paul states, “Therefore I am well content…for in Christ when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2Cor. 12:10).

Sooner or later, there will be people trouble in the church body with petty infighting or power struggles. The relationships in the church’s life should be above what is found in the real world.  The church is to be a sanctuary, more than just the name of the room in a church, but a place to go that shelters while equipping believers for ministry to the world.  Churches have in-house squabbles that often spill outside its doors and onto media headlines.

Another place we can find ourselves in is the Christian or church bubble.  As much as I would prefer to associate with like-minded (particularly morally) people, we are not called to stay inside this bubble as the OT Hebrews tried to unsuccessfully do when they were called to be God’s chosen ones.  I admit I can see the attraction of living separately from the world at times.  Yet a challenge arises from being too comfortable in life it becomes a stumbling block to personal growth (sanctification),  it robs us of our strength and dependence on God.  A friend, in a successful career within a para-church organization, decided to apply for employment to another company that was in secular business.  She reasoned that everyone she worked with was saved, all her associations were in this Christian bubble. She felt she was in a mutual affirmation society. She felt she had gotten too comfortable.  She decided to step out in the mission field of secular corporate America to make an impact on God.  She ended up hosting a Bible study during lunch hours at the new company and volunteered to do an in-house newsletter on the multiple studies that grew and the community service that came out of it.

Words attributed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer include “Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the cross He was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause, He has come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So, the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes.”

What does the homogeneous of people showing up in the church pews say?  Does everyone look the same? What is the majority age of attendees?   Or is the population of the pews such that there is no sign of the downtrodden and marginalized found in our communities?   What does this say about our comfort level?  A hindrance in worship communities can come from fear of experiencing too much change or growth too fast.

Struggles strengthen faith muscles because it turns us to God.  Contemporary musician, Laura Story lyrics in her song Blessings asks, “What if the trials in life is mercy in disguise?” To be at your wit’s end when attempting to be that self-made person, to know you have come to the end of yourself; leaves nowhere else to turn except to Him. It is one of the ways God makes Himself real.   In this process, the Holy Spirit becomes more alive within us, and we sense Him teaching, guiding, and shaping us. Occasionally, Pastor used to say while preaching something that was hard to hear that if he was stepping on anyone’s toes, it may be because their toes were in the way.

A period of special growth occurred when I struggled with my church.  I was transitioning out of a volunteer leadership role I was vested in, mentally and spiritually.  Unaware of the continuing growth or solutions going on behind the scenes once I left that role, I started to grumble after worship services on the way home from church about what was wrong with this or that.  Not a lot but enough that my kids took up my grumbling gauntlet and did likewise.  As the saying goes, “out of the mouths of babes,” I heard myself.  I knew I either we had to shut up with the negativism and give things time to work itself out or confront the situation.  One thing we did was periodically visit other churches worship services on Sunday morning.

One Sunday, my youngest was indignant about not being in our home church.  When I reminded her to participate in the service at this church, as she normally would, her response was a glare.  I tried again asking why she was not participating in the worship.  She quickly said, “Because God isn’t here. He’s in our church.”  I had the presence of mind to refrain from laughing because I knew she missed her friends, familiarity, and format of our home church.

If that was not enough of a hint during this period, we were volunteering as hosts for speakers at a camp in Colorado.  This camp became an annual family ministry for about eight years with our family made up of a half dozen serving during the summers and winter holidays. One of the role requirements in this context was to attend to and meet the needs of the weekly guest speaker.  At dinner one night, we inappropriately complained about our church situation to the speaker in attempts to make conversation.  This speaker agreed with us and told us we were right in our opinion and for church shopping.  He instructed us to leave our church and find the perfect one.  He then added when we do find it to please let him know.

Meanwhile, back home, the Sunday morning grumbling hadn’t ceased. To try and rectify this, I took the message of Matthew 18:15 to heart.  Instead of talking about some action in a negative light, let us talk to them directly. As a family, we scheduled an appointment with the pastor.

Slowly, each one of the children backed out, shying away from going to that appointment and confronting the pastor, so it ended up just being their parents.  I told Pastor I felt there were those in the church getting too critical of what we were or were not doing.  The backstory was an innocent mistake of over-scheduling our participation in different worship services on the same day (lecturing in one, singing with the choir in another, and then acolyting in another service).  When our family showed up late that fateful Sunday overlooking the earlier commitment, I was teasingly reprimanded about missing one of our obligations.  I was embarrassed.  To cover up my mortification, I asked if it was communion Sunday.  When told yes, I said, “Good.” I was going to go through twice for what I was thinking.  What I wanted was more understanding of why it happened, not a reprimand.  There was enough blame to go around about who was responsible for the overbooking and not catching it.

At the scheduled appointment, the pastor graciously explained that he thought the real angst was in our transitioning out of our volunteer church leadership positions.  Nature abhors a vacuum and the empty space eventually fills up with something.  Because we took a break and did not fill it, negativity set in because we did not fill that gap of time.  Before, I saw the hard work behind the scenes and now could no longer see the progress behind those doors.  Pastor acknowledged not being able to see what it took to get our rowdy bunch out the door all at the same time, which only happened on Sunday morning.  The other mornings during the week we each had different daily departing schedules which made things somewhat easier.

He then made an interesting proposal based on a cognitive psychology theory: for the following six weeks all of us, himself included, would deliberately be more supportive, understanding and kind to each other on Sunday morning.  He acknowledged it would feel fake at first, but then we would develop a habit, would not recognize we are doing it then it would become a natural part of us.  From this episode in my life, I learned a lot.  It is better to confront an issue privately with a commitment to work through instead of perpetuating an issue by making one-sided accusations and conveying the wrong message about the fellowship of the church.

It is a personal decision to find the right church to attend and there are many extenuating circumstances in those decisions. One aspect of that decision shouldn’t be that a church meets all our individual needs. We may think we are church shopping, looking for the right church.  Meanwhile, God has already selected the worship community we should attend.  Believers are ambassadors for Christ (2Cor. 5:20) and represent that to the world as well as within the walls of the church.

 

Chapter 39 in a series

 

romans

 

To begin reading this bundle of the next unit of eleven letters, with Thessalonians, Corinthians and Timothy technically considered one yet are listed into two missives are the correspondences from Paul, with Romans, being the first. This bundle of letters could be tied in a ribbon imprinted with the words “theological framework” of the whole of Paul’s collected works.   It shows how Paul clung to his Jewish roots and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible after his conversion experience on the road to Damascus when he came to the understanding that Jesus was the fulfillment of the awaited Messiah.

Paul wrote his letters between AD 52 to 67.  He writings were copied and circulated amongst the churches.  This era, and before, was known for their teaching through a strong oral tradition because due to a pre-literally society. It was not uncommon for the rabbi’s and Pharisees of the day to have memorized the Hebrew Bible for teaching purposes.  Oral storytelling is one theory on how the Synoptic Gospel was first spread before they were recorded when the first-generation eyewitnesses died off, many martyred.  Paul would have been well acquainted with these letters, him having Pharisee training, referring to them in his writings.

These letters are listed in the Bible according to their length, not by the date authored.  For the most part, the letters were written to unify the Christian churches. This one was probably his fourth letter written and it is from his desk in Corinth, Greece, in AD 57, during Nero ‘s (a character right up there with Adolf Hitler) first-year reign before the peak of Roman persecution of the Christian church seven years later. Nero and his government’s shadow are in the background of most of Paul’s letters.  Priscilla was the letter carrier to the Roman churches and believers where her home was.

Seventeenth-century English Puritan Thomas Draxe claimed Roman’s as the “quintessence and perfectional of saving doctrine.”  It certainly was for Martin Luther who nailed it (his 95 theses)  when he posted his argument and forever change the course of history with the Protestant Reformation.  The Apostle Paul travels as a missionary (apostle means to be sent out) with his journey consuming almost half his life before being martyred, when he was sixty years old, by Nero ’s henchmen. Most of Paul’s correspondences are either addressed to congregations he founded or to his mentees (Timothy, Titus, Philemon).

“If the Word of God has not reached a remote part of the world if there are some who never gets a chance to hear about Jesus, would that person be condemned?” so asked one of my sons while he was in college. I related to his question, remembering when at his age, my incomprehension of how someone in a closed society (of government-controlled flow of information) of how the populace could not grasp basic human rights.

The context of our conversation was about elect or predestination (the divine foreordaining of the eventual fate of an individual’s soul) and universalism (all human eventually will be saved regardless if they committed to believing in Christ).  When I think of predestination, my thoughts go to the great men and women in religious history, as well as those now, who are most notably fated by God to be about His work.  Meanwhile, God wants all to be saved.  John 3:36 is clear: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.”  His atoning death is for everyone one of us but there is not universal acceptance of this atonement due to man’s free will and responsibility thereby a lack of universal redemption.

It’s been speculated (by John V. Taylor, author of The Christlike God) that “common grace” is something God extends to believers and nonbelievers.  This grace doesn’t necessarily grant salvation cart blanche but God is still working in the lives of many to complete his will.  The nonbeliever interprets this grace differently than the believer.”  Common grace is different but similar to natural or general revelation.

One of the best explanations on this topic is given by Tim Keller in an interview response to how good people should be saved, not just Christians.

“The problem (with universalism) is that Christians do not believe anyone can be saved by being good.  If you don’t come to God through faith in what Christ has done, you are approaching it by your own goodness. If access to God is through the grace of Jesus, and anyone can receive eternal life instantly (it) creates a different problem with fairness. It means God wouldn’t really care about injustice and evil. The Bible is clear about two things- that salvation must be through grace and faith in Christ and that God is always fair and just in all his dealings…both those things can be true together…If we have a God big enough to serve who is called God, then we have a God big enough to reconcile both justice and love.”

God reveals Himself by his nature (Rom. 1:20) and in the hearts of people (Eccl. 3:11).      When people reject the knowledge of God’s gift of grace, they end up believing in anything and worship a “god” of their own creation (usually similar to self with all the human thoughts and emotions) to give credit where credit isn’t due.  St. Augustine wrote if you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t like, it’s not the Gospel you believe in but yourself.

It is almost foolish to debate the fairness of God’s condemnation of someone who never had the opportunity to hear the Gospel of Christ yet there are major theology’s built on each opinion. People are responsible to God for what God has already revealed to them.  Granted that information may be not as available as it is to Western or more developed societies, but the yearning for it is there within humans.   Both of the shared Testaments speak of God meeting this need for those who seek Him out (cf. Ps. 14:2, Acts 17:27).

Paul was called by God to bring this message of Christ to the Gentile world and to help establish worship communities, to be known as churches. Yet Paul would first go to the synagogue to share the good news when he visited towns during his missionary journeys.  Rome was considered the capital of the Gentiles.  It represented and was the center of the world much like Egypt was in Moses’s day. Part of Paul’s task was showing the difference between Gospel of Jesus and the Law of Moses.  His most noted statement made is that man is justified by faith in Christ and not by works.  We are now a  people that cannot ask the law to do something where only grace can suffice. Humanity’s pursuit of God does not stop with salvation, it continues in daily sanctification with a responsibility (working toward holiness bit by bit) in an ongoing spiritual journey while on earth.  In the course of life, it has a way of shaving us down to the point we become our real true selves in the sight of God.

Jesus is the justifier for all people, past, present, and future. In chapter 14:9, Paul said, “Jesus died and rose again for both the living and the dead.”

Some of his letter writing was probably therapeutic for Paul.  In Romans, the author shares his personal difficulties in this daily sanctification to include how sufferings eventually lead to hope (chapter 5: 3-5). There is the mind twister scripture 7:15-17, “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.  And if I do what I do not want to do I agree that the law is good…. I desire to do what is good but cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; the evil  I do not want to do, this I keep doing.”

Like Paul, many find writing or journaling helpful.  For me, it turned out to be part of a remedial therapy kit. Journaling is one of my favorite fodders for self-knowledge.  It helps to identify with myself, it clears up my mental palate, and it gives my inner monologue a place to go outside of my head.  During some certain periods, I journal my prayers when I find my mind is wandering too much off the topic at hand.  I feel and think deeply which is probably my version of meditation, pondering on an idea versus emptying my mind of thoughts.

Meditation is normally thought as being existential with it often associated with emptying the mind. I am a little leery of emptying my mind, fearing if I leave a vacuum or void, what fills it and from where?  I have had to figure out how to control an aspect of my busy mind’s constant barrage of thoughts.  If mediating in the traditional sense I would think “Um?” instead of Om (a focus word or sound).  People approach prayers in many ways through mediation, use, and understanding of symbols, incense or candles, colors, music…I knew a lady who liked to pray in sunbeams shining through her windows. One approach is not better than another.

Paul includes, “Now if I do what I don’t want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is a sin living in me that does it.”  verse He realizes daily sanctification by his own efforts is unachievable; it can only be done through the Spirit that quickens and lives in him.

A great comparison on this continuous journey in sanctification is this analogy between jazz music and Church by a South African musician. Calvyn C. Du Toit breaks down the performance aspects of jazz as it can relate to the Church.  He says the use of jazz notes are suspended or unfinished chords that lean towards completion but never quite realizing it; “Jazz music is the music of heaven; it just never ends!” Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz, says (paraphrased) he didn’t like jazz because the music doesn’t resolve…kinda God didn’t resolve until he watched someone who loved it (and Him). Which is like the Church and her knowledge of God.  When listening to jazz, there isn’t always complete closure at the end of a musical piece.  The song A Love Supreme by jazz legend John Coltrane is a testament to that.  His four-part suite is a musical piece broken down into tracks: “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance,” and “Psalms.”  Listening to Coltrane’s compositions isn’t the same as listening to ordinary jazz.  This album is intended to be Coltrane’s spiritual statement, broadly representative of a personal struggle for purity, and he said it was composed in his sincere gratitude to God for his talent and instrument as attributed rather than himself.

Du Toit says jazz improvisation blows life into its music theory, making history of the moment.  Who of us is not improvising what we are to do next in life?   He explains jazz has an inner tension that creates a space where old traditions of music composition become more vital, where the silent gaps in the music tell of still more to come. We do not fully grasp (nor can we) everything, but we can appreciate each other’s uniqueness and contribution when combining other’s contributions to further us along in our walk.

Another analogy to Church is that jazz musicians play at each other and not to a crowd.  The ensemble eventually draws us into the music. That may sound a little counter-intuitive to outreach, but music has a way of doing that.

In an Advent series published one Christmas season, by Dr. John Mark Reynolds, further, expounds on this music example by comparing it to spiritual gifts when he addresses the topic of individualism. “People forget that we are all part of God’s people as individuals. He loves us as a people, but also as individuals. He came to set up a Kingdom and to save souls. He rules the cosmos, but also the throne of our hearts. We are each to have a song in the great Church choir. This is not a matter of harmony, but more a motet: where billions of God’s children raise their voices in independent lines of music that God the great conductor blends into a unity. This great polyphony (the style of simultaneously playing a number of different parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other) means that no individual is fundamentally superior to another, each person has a voice in God’s polyphony. There is a message in the whole choir singing together: the whole being greater than the sum of equal parts. Jesus possesses all the gifts (Rom. 12:6-8, 1Cor. 12:8-10).

Polyphony is one of the key textures of jazz.  It is when two or more melodies play simultaneously, with neither one sounding like the main tune but it all beautifully comes together.  It is jazz improvisation at its best.  The book of Romans is written in tension with itself but like in polyphony it comes all together with the statement at the beginning of the letter and then at its theme repeated at the end, “I am not ashamed.  

A family member’s favorite quote is “Life is an open book.  Don’t close it till it’s done.”   God always writes a better story for you than you could author for yourself.  Paul says (1Tim. 6:12) to keep on fighting the good fight.

 

Chapter 38 in the Series

 

acts 2

So, what happened to take this ragbag bunch of followers who were timid, dimwitted at times and unreliable to have such a transformation in attitude about Jesus to such a point to die for him?  It was the resurrection.  Can you imagine the impact on the original followers when they saw a postmortem Jesus, not as an aberration or translucent ghost, but in living flesh to different people at different times?   And to actually see his wounds?  I, for some reason, previously put more emphasis on the coming of the Holy Spirit to account for their transformation.  The abiding Holy Spirit is important, but that was not their only turning point into the powerful witnesses the disciples became.  Things have never been the same since.

And things Jesus’s resurrection, in a bodily form, was an unknown thing, unimaginable up to this time.  The idea of a resurrection was previously thought of as in spirit only form only.  The resurrection is the foundation of the Gospel message (2Cor. 15).  C.S. Lewis said (in Mere Christianity), that when considering Jesus there are a few choices.  He is either a liar, Lord or lunatic.

Luke continues his narrative in a second book entitled of “Acts of the Apostles,” which is addressed to Theophilus. The name Theophilus means “lover of God,” and scholars often question with no firm answers who he was other than perhaps a benefactor.  I wonder if it might be limiting to think of Theophilus not as one individual but instead as anyone who possesses the attributes of being “lover of God” to encompass wanting to know more about Jesus and how to go about continuing his work.  The book of Acts is about the apostles particularly the two lead characters: Peter (Simon) and a Saul who became a Paul and the beginnings of the Christian movement. The book of Acts is the chronology of the ministry and complete travels that inform the travels, places, and people of the following letters.

This book is considered a historical narrative on the planting and Christian outreach.    The word Christian is first used in Acts 11:26 but didn’t catch on until the late in the first century. It began in the piety of Judaism.  All the writers of the NT (except for Luke) were Jewish (not to forget to mention Jesus) who saw Christ as the Messiah that was predicted to come.

Kudos to Dr. Luke for penning the first works of church history commencing after the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20).  It’s a story of the lead characters proclaiming and spreading the Gospel geographically from Jerusalem into the rest of the Roman Empire.  Since it ends with Paul in a Roman prison, before his death in around AD 66., this book predates the writing before then. It begins in Jerusalem and is predominately for the transition of the Jewish Church.  It ends in Rome with it then inclusive to the Gentiles and the world at large.

There is a transition in the title of a disciple to an apostle.  An apostle is a person who is a catalyst or pioneer for a purpose or mission whereas being a disciple emphasizes the person’s relationship and following of a teacher.  In the Old Testament books foretelling of Jesus’s coming is found.  After the Good News is announced in the Gospel, there is a shift to the future promises of Jesus’s return found in throughout the New Testament books.  This is foretold in Acts 1:10-11 and in 15:16-18.

We all are familiar with people who are Peter like who think out loud or don’t know what they are thinking unless they are talking, are impetuous, and have a contagious excitement about life. Peter’s story takes up the first half of this book.   The redeemed Peter’s credibility grows in the books of Acts as he deals with the new idea of church and its inclusion of all people. There are many lessons about the structure and how to grow the church.

My approach in ministry is best described by this poem discovered when I finished graduate school: I Stand at the Door by Sam Shoemaker (priest and a significant influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous or AA).  The essence of the poem is found in keywords to stand at the door, neither too far in, nor stay too far out.  It’s a door, men are groping, feeling for yet can’t find when they are looking for God.  The narrator can show them the door to go through, encouraging them to go as deep into the house of God as they can then call out to the rest of the world about that one taste of God where nothing else can wonderfully compare to its wonder.  The storyteller is aware that personalities get in the way, leaving us afraid lest His house devour us. He wants people to go to church and pray they won’t forget, no matter how long they’ve been there, how it was before they got there.  To not forget the people outside the door who are looking for it.  That is where I want to prayerfully stand in my personal ministry. Whyte, in his poem Everything is Waiting for You, wrote about other doors that have always been there to frighten and invite.

Fred Buechner  captures the essence of what I desire to do: “What I had always hoped was that, since I come so much from the same kind of world as those people who don’t touch Christianity with a ten-foot pole also come from, maybe I could be a bridge, one of their own who had gone over to the other side, saying things in a language they would understand.”

Remember the quote by Warren comparing the use of the Gutenberg press and Google?  Here’s another perspective, in 1496, the Bible was read to the public at Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The people wanted to hear the Word of God in their language that within six months twenty thousand packed in the church, and at least that many outside were straining to hear it. Fast-forward four hundred years or so and on Easter Sunday 1800, only six people received holy communion at the Cathedral. Today, that cathedral remains the main church in London and on a typical Sunday 2003 morning worship attendance was only around two hundred people, mostly tourists.  It seemed to have turned into a historical landmark.  But she is still standing and is a testimony to the faithful.

I happen to enjoy the ambiance and sacredness of symbolic artifacts, religious stain glass or icons of churches that have stood the test of time. Others see it as an archaic old building, no longer relevant, if not, hip and contemporary.  I see it as a reminder.  There is a place for both kinds of churches.

There are inreach and outreach ministries when working with God’s people.  Inreach is helping those who are already situated inside the walls of the church to become part of a larger family (internal ministry) whereas outreach (external ministry) involves welcoming people into the church to allow the Holy Spirit to work in their life.  In both cases, it takes followup and follow through to help attendees find their place and way in the church.   A church is healthiest when the most important thing, Jesus’s message, is conveyed. There are two types of people transformers and translators in the church.  The first while trying to attract others are susceptible to changing the message or dummying done topics like sin, judgment, and doctrine.  Translators maintain conveying the biblical message.  Basically, the word of God should speak and humans who change, not vice versa.  If a transformation is needed it is for man, not the message.   The transformers styles of worship come and go, most are based on feelings and the experimental aspect of faith.   God’s message is transient and carries through time, the same message.  That may sound boring but its not when the message is grasped and why we should go to church to worship God.

Every generation has their version of the Henny Penny warning “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” with their forecast of fears about the future when the change disrupts our comfort level. Currently, the post-Christianity worldview is that no longer is Christian faith going to be dominant, nor has it the same assumed values and culture as we once knew. The doom-and-gloom people cite the decline, if not the death,  of the Church.  I do not think so.  Church may be changing, but this change is more an evolution. If the substance (Jesus as the Son of God and His sacrificial death on the cross) of the topic stays the same, the Church will then continue to survive.

Paul’s writings initially came across to me sounding misogynistic, yet he was a close traveling friend and confidant with Luke.  How could two more different men have a friendship?  They had common traits of intellect and ability to communicate well.   And they were brothers in Christ.  Obviously, Paul’s previous background with the intent of killing and abolishing Christianity, prior to his conversion, when he was almost thirty years old, on the road to Damascus redirected his personality.  Paul is a wonderful example of using his God-given talents, the force and fire of his mind coupled with the tenderness of his heart, for good instead of evil.

I, initially, along with some other female friends, struggled reading Paul.  He is blunt, outspoken, bold, at time heroic, aggressive, warlike, a bull in an ecclesiastical china shop; yet I also see Paul’s attributes of tenderness with a delicate, gentle manner in his zeal.  I slow myself down now, to remember that when he says that sounds like he limits women in ministry, is to recall how also he sensitively admits his personal struggles.  I also note his many acknowledgments of women in ministry.  It makes sense Paul would recognize the contribution women were making to the early church ministry alongside his like-minded friend Luke.

A classmate during graduate school also struggled with this.  She was an attorney, single, in her late forties who was striving to achieve enlightenment of Bodhisattvahood (Buddhists go through four levels or stages of enlightenment to reach this level) before she converted to Christianity.  Her testimony is inspiring. For her to advance in the steps to enlightenment, she was told to study a prominent religious figure.  She picked Jesus to study.  During her research, she also befriended Anne Graham Lotz, first, via the Internet, then email and meet her in person.  The rest is His story: my friend, a former Buddhist, converted like so many others who set out to study Jesus.  Many of the latter’s motivation was to disprove who He is.  As she continued to explore and study the Bible, she struggled with Paul’s mandates about women teaching men, taking what he said to apply to every situation.  Understanding the context of how Paul says things is important in understanding his message.

Paul recognizes and commends the work of such women as Phoebe, Chloe and Rufus’s mother.  In Romans, he mentions Priscilla and Junia, He acknowledges Mary, Julia, and Lydia of Phillipi; and in Philippians, he doesn’t forget to mention two women who worked alongside other fellow workers.  Not only did these women open their homes (the original house churches), but they supported Paul and others from their financial means in his mission.  Jesus forbids any hierarchy in Christian relationships:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.” While “lord it over” implies abusive leadership, his words “exercise authority” have no connotation of abuse of authority.   Jesus continued, “This woman is worth far more than any animal you have. This woman is not an animal; she is a ‘daughter of Abraham’ ” (Lk. 13:15-16).

Paul does not demean or defame the glory of God in women (Gal. 3:28).  He does not forbid them to serve within the church or place a higher value on a man than a woman. God reveals his idea of what is biblical manhood and biblical womanhood in the Bible (cf. Eph. 5:21-23, 1Tim. 2:9-15, Tts. 1:5-9).  I am not talking about the milieu of sports, media, politics, business, academia, and entertainment.  In the Bible, there are much higher standards for the man. If a man abuses his role as husband, he clearly lacks an understanding of the gospel in how it relates to marriage. Marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and His bride. I read once that the traditions found in the Bible themselves are not oppressive, it’s the interpretations that are.

Another credit to Paul is that he is recorded in one of the two of the greatest encounters between man and God: Moses meeting Him at the burning bush and Paul meeting the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus.

Paul refers in his writings to a “thorn in his side” (2Cor. 12:7-8). I always wonder if the “thorn” was a sharp pain resulting from his enlightenment on the road to Damascus.  When looking at the physical symptoms (particularly the initial onslaught of blindness) that he encountered, it could be interpreted as the onset of symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS).  I had a military friend’s wife who developed MS and she had similar initial blindness that went away after three days.

What with Paul’s strong, forceful personality he felt that this thorn was a reminder in humility.  Paul would accomplish a lot in his life, but he didn’t get everything he wanted.  One of those things was for God to not take his pain away. It’s an interesting way to see pain, not as punishment but for the sake of staying humbled. He saw it as an opportunity to remember to enjoy the strength and rest God did give him.

No one likes to live in pain particularly when it is invisible or indiscernible to others unless you consider the alternative of being paralyzed with no sensation in those limbs.  When others can’t observe ongoing physical pain, consequently by not seeing it, they don’t recognize how it can affect the sufferer’s actions and words.

It’s not just the invisible physical pain that is difficult to perceive. Once when my children’s father was working through some frustrating issues with his secretary, I had to remind him she was going through a divorce during that time.

I was sensitive to that secretary’s personal struggle, and then later experienced it personally, a grief where anything and everything that could hurt felt amplified.  I was in a job I loved. But in my wounded state, I started to imagine being attacked for my decisions and work. I caught myself arguing with colleagues.  In the back of my mind, I could not help but think “please give me a break, I am having a hard time here!”  But I did not say anything. Instead, I left that position thinking I was doing more harm than good.  I read somewhere that if you can tell your story and it doesn’t make you cry then you’ve completely healed.  There is no timetable as to when the grief becomes tolerable, and you exist despite it.

Instead of removing Paul’s thorn, whatever it was, God gave Paul overwhelming grace with compensating strength.  It is an example of God’s “my power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9). I wonder if perhaps Paul’s pain influenced or impacted how he conveyed his ideas in a sometimes curt, blunt fashion?  Who of us has not been short with others in the manner of making requests, impatient when enduring periods of ongoing pain?

Paul, prior to his conversion, approved the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr for Jesus which must have put that much more determination in him to make right this redirection in ministry. The effects of the sudden flash of light on Paul, blinding him for three days left something akin to a baptismal spiritual watermark on him, lasting his lifetime.  It left him with flashes of insight from a divine abiding light he shared with future generations.

Chapter 37 in a Series

John_graphic400

This forty-third book of the Bible completes the biographical picture of Jesus with John’s describing Christ’s nature and origin.  The apostle John writes about the mystery of Jesus’s DNA, being both human and divine, from his eyewitness account.  His specific DNA is known simultaneously as the Son of Man and the Son of God.

John was one of the first apostles called by Jesus, with his brother James. They were nicked named Sons of Thunder by Him.  John was possibly the youngest of the twelve disciples. Referring to himself as Jesus’s beloved in the gospel,  He was the only disciple who eye-witnessed, in proximity to Jesus, his trial, and crucifixion.  When Jesus was dying, He told His mother at the foot of the cross, “Woman behold your son.” referring to John (who was a cousin  to Jesus through Mary’s sister Salome, wife of Zebedee, Mk. 15:40, Matt. 20:20-21) would now look after her (Jn. 19:26).  He was the first to reach the resurrected Jesus’s tomb seeing the linen cloths left behind. John did not die a martyrs death.  He was the last of the twelve to die, his brother James was the first.

John obviously writes from a post-resurrection point of view but also wrote his gospel many years (along with his other four letters to include Revelation) after the synoptic ones. His gospel is more reflective of the majesty of Jesus looking back at the end of the first century from his eyewitness account. It complements and harmonizes with the Synoptic Gospels.   Over ninety percent of John’s content is not in the other Gospels, there is no nativity story here.  He begins however poetically about Jesus’s deity, the preexistence of the incarnate Christ since before time eternal. Where Matthew wrote to the Jews about Jesus being the messianic king, Mark wrote to the Romans about Jesus servant attitude, Luke wrote with emphasis on the son of man, John writes about Jesus as the son of God.   He introduces Jesus as the logos, the word of God.  John also introduces the thoughts of eternal life as both already and not yet (Jn. 5:24), which is what led me to think about the Kingdom of God here on earth mentioned in Luke 10:9 and Rev. 1:6 (see the reference to Announcing the Kingdom in the chapter entitled Joshua); already here but not yet finished. Some argue that another John wrote these things referring to John the elder.  Not much can be found about this other John.  I think the emphasis of the word elder is because it is the beloved, an elder John when he wrote his books.

The prolific author minister Max Lucado describes Jesus as the omnipotent who made himself breakable.  John presents Jesus’s deity and teaches more about the Holy Spirit He left behind when Jesus returned to God the Father than the Synoptic Gospels.   

He includes fewer parables or pithy statements than the other Gospel writers providing instead seven conversations that Jesus had.  For example, there is the contrast of between the discourse with Nicodemus and with the Samaritan woman. In both, Jesus talks about the Spirit – being born of the Spirit with Nicodemus, and the living water of the Spirit with the Samaritan woman. And in both, He speaks of eternal life.  The uneducated, unknown, outcast, notorious sinner understands and gets what Jesus is saying quicker than the educated Pharisee. But Nicodemus later comes fully into faith in Jesus later, even helping at the end with the burial arrangement. John gives a more detail description of his eyewitness account of the crucifixion scene.  John speaks of the Holy Spirit than any other Gospel writer.

Statements about Jesus cannot be watered down by saying say He was supernatural, god-like, or a divine being. He is God manifest in the flesh.  Most people acknowledge Jesus lived.  Unbelievers usually casually refer to Him as a teacher, prophet, miracle worker, or a kind, nice guy. He is more than that. Compare Christianity with other major religions. None can boast they originated as God incarnate.  Their founders are dead although I recognize they may have had some gifts of prophecy.  Jesus is the only one who can claim to and is confirmed by history to have been alive, died then resurrected.  Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam cannot touch that.

The last story of signs John shares was the raising of Lazarus from the dead,  this event was the tipping point for the Pharisees.  It was from this time forward (Jn. 11:43-53) that they were intent on killing Jesus.  The shortest verse in the bible is in John about Jesus:  He wept (11:35).

If there is one book in the Bible that is considered the most important to understand, it is the Gospel of John.  And if there is a book in the Bible to “get,” it is this one because once you can get a glimpse of what it means, everything in the Bible makes sense.   Often it is encouraged for new believers to begin with John’s Gospel then go to read Psalms.  That’s a lofty assignment, but John gives the essence of who Jesus is with the Psalms (recommended as the second book to read as a new believer) teaching how to worship and pray to this God incarnate. The audience written to in this book of John is not bound to any geographical area. Many think this book was written after the fall of Jerusalem.  John outlived all the other disciples and authored five books in the NT.

All this begs the question, why is this the first book recommended to people to read when they begin the Bible?   Part of that answer is the striking feature in its opening statement.  It is about identifying Jesus who was there before the beginning of all time.

Jesus’s part in the plural pronouns “we” and “us” (of the triune God), is found in Genesis 1:26 and 3:22. John mentions this great mystery of the holy triunity before the beginning of Chronos time.  I think of the Trinity God as one who is the Deity, the incarnate in a human body, followed by the essence of a  spirit all in one. Not three separate entities in one but all part of one, a triunity of a trinity,  that have been together since before time as we know it.    In a chronological Bible, John 1:1-3 is listed as the first verse.  When I first perceived the mysticism of John’s writing,  it was more about the character and nature of God that captured my attention along with thoughts about time eternal. These thoughts on the wholly other worthiness of an eternal triune God can be incomprehensible for man, who is so human-centered.  John also wrote another book, Revelation, which also had visions like the old prophets.  This mysticism of his, in general, caught the attention of the Gnostics at the time which in turned embellished about having more insight into these things than others.  It was one of the reasons John’s writing was the last  Gospel to be included in the canon because of the scholarly scrutiny.

God is like no other even if we assign the highest human virtue to him, we still fall short of knowing who he is.  Sometimes I think we find God is in the gaps of two paradoxes about Him is as the closest we get to understanding his transcendent magnitude and omniscience.

I say, “To the first miracle,” as my favorite, go to wine toast.  The miracle is only found in John 2: 1-11, which involves Jesus turning water into wine.  He takes the empty water containers when it is discovered that the fermented juice was gone, has them filled with H2O then miraculously changes it into wine for a wedding.  Jesus is known for filling up empty containers, food baskets, jars, cups as well as an empty, unfulfilled human.

 

Chapter 36 in a series

lukeMore interpretations through song, art, poetry, drama, and modern worship liturgies get their inspiration from the book of Luke than any other Gospel.  His ability to describe the details of Jesus’s conception, birth story, infancy, and childhood brings the story to life. This book provides a prospect to share the gospel story more visually.

Written originally for the Greek Gentile audience, Luke is a man who creatively makes use of talents from his perspective as a doctor while writing these sacred words. He writes more about Jesus, His healings and the quality of Jesus’s love than any previous Gospel writer.  Luke is the only Gentile whose writings are included in the New Testament.  He was a learned, cultured man oriented toward research.  Luke, along with writing the book of Acts, makes the largest contribution to literature in the NT.  He hung out with Paul and, word for word wrote more than Paul, therefore there is an emphasis on Jewish Christianity (mentioning the temple, observed feasts, and festivals).  When the adolescent boy Jesus went to the temple to be about “the Father’s work”, getting separated from his parents, it was probably around the time of his bar mitzvah. Most of what he wrote was from others eyewitness accounts  (especially Peter’s) of others like what a reporter would do in writing a feature article (Lk. 1:1-4).  The story of Jesus’s second advent after His resurrection is shown in Luke 12:37.

I gravitated to this GospeI first.  I think it appealed to me because he includes those considered low status in this era and exalts them while those who are part of the establishment find themselves on the fringes of God’s saving grace.  Luke depicts more of Jesus’s parables about women at a time when only references to men were used, ten of which are only mentioned in this book.

Dr. Luke never references himself other than in “us” (he, Paul and occasionally Timothy) found in the book of Acts (16:10). In this book bearing his name (which means light giving), Luke’s portrays Jesus as a compassionate man of love toward the fringes of society who were thought of as last, or the least and the lost.

Luke also shares Jesus’s ancestral lineage, not just to Abraham as Matthew did, but to the beginning with Adam. It’s interesting to note that the Christain message (Romans 10:13) is not unambiguous to the Jews. Dig a little deeper and find in the Jewish Apocrypha (that which is not part of the canon but written roughly around the same time), describes the anointed one, the Messiah  (i.e. servant, shepherd, judge, king, son of man, etc).    Israel was told its story, not beginning with itself, but within the context of the entire human race in the first ten chapters of Genesis before Israel’s ancestral line which begins with  Abraham in Genesis 12.  In 1Corinthians 15:22, Paul wrote, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ, all will be made alive.”  In verse 45, he calls Jesus the “last final Adam.”

The Jews are the elect and chosen ones, but not all Jews (just like not all Gentiles)by God. That would be cheap grace.  The lists of these genealogies record those of the Jewish line who were the elect (sometimes names in a generation were skipped who weren’t considered so). And then there were the Jews who converted to Christianity.

Because more women appear in Luke, it’s been called the gospel for women.  As writer Dorothy Sayers said, “During this era, women were to be seen in public but not heard.  Not here, the women listed include Elizabeth and Mary who are first to receive the message of Christ’s coming.  Anna, the prophetess, in the temple, and Mary Magdalene the woman who anointed Jesus’s feet are mentioned.  Mary Magdalene holds the position of the first person the resurrected Jesus appears to and the first woman commissioned to tell the disciples what she had witnessed.   Many women who traveled with Jesus, supporting Him and the disciples out of their own financial pockets (Lk. 8:1-3).  Luke (1:46-55) is the only gospel that records Mary’s prayer (known as a song or the Magnificat) of praise and thanksgiving.

The doctor gives an account of the healing of the woman on the road who had been hemorrhaging that touched the hem of his robe, the centurion’s daughter raised from the dead, the crippled woman restored and then the one cured on the Sabbath.  There are parables of the women who gave their last two coins or their best oils to Jesus ministry and the one about the persistent Godly widow who wanted justice from a local judge.

Jazz  pianist Herbie Hancock shares a similar lesson in the transcript below while playing with legendary trumpeter Miles Davis (an audio is at the end of post):

“When you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad” is attributed to Miles Davis.  God knows the wrong notes we play.  Going to God is that next viable note. He can omnipotently orchestrate circumstances to turn impossible situations into possible ones when we co-partner with Him.

Today, I am more unapologetic about any similarities I have with Martha’s personality.     In the book of John, verse, 11 is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, Martha and Mary’s brother, from the dead.  Martha was her usual outspoken self when Jesus deliberately came late to her request for Him to heal Lazarus.  Later, she admitted, in her confession of faith  to Jesus, that she “believed he was the Christ, the Son of God who was to come into the world.”

She then, by faith, obeyed His order to remove Lazarus’ burial tombstone, after being sealed three days.  I discovered from this narrative that I was a more doer kind of a person versus someone who sits at Jesus’s feet.  He also uses doers to get His job done. Pleasantly, I am aware of coming full circle as I find myself “sitting” more at His feet, listening to Him and not quite so caught up in my taskers.

One of Luke’s purposes in focusing on the disenfranchised was to show how God was turning things upside down from the typical ways of thinking of that day.  He continues to do so today. The rich and complacent were rejected by Jesus while the poor and repentant accepted. As a historian, Luke shows examples of how prominent women were in the early church, along with examples of their faith, their role as disciples, and their compassionate role in the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

“So, in Christ Jesus, you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” writes Paul to the Galatians (3:26-28).  That verse is also known as the Magna Carta of Humanity.

Jesus tells the parable (found only in Luke at 15:11-32) of the prodigal son who asked and received an early inheritance only to squander it.  He returns home destitute, asking if he could work as one of his father’s slaves.  The father (representative of our Heavenly Father) accepts him with open arms. There is an older brother, who stayed at home, struggles with this unconditional acceptance and love.  Scholars believe the old brother is representative of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin of that era. A part of the definition of the prodigal is to be wastefully extravagant.

Over forty years ago, my surviving brother went AWOL (absent without leave).  He deserted after less than a year into his navy service commitment.  Before joining, he asked my mother to agree with him to leave high school three months’ shy of graduation to join up.  He was legally eighteen by then.  There isn’t much context I can share in the fog of the event as it happened a long time ago, and I had gotten married and moved to another state.

My mother informed me after he joined up that one of the things she told him if he screwed this up he couldn’t come home.   That sounds coarse, but I interpreted it (giving her the benefit of the doubt) to what I said similar to my son when he entered the National Guard to gain the education benefits for college.  I asked him to grasp, to be clear that once he joined military service, his duty was going to be service to country first. No longer could we (his parents) put a wing out over him to protect him should he get into any trouble while in the military.

On my brother’s part, he took Mom’s warning literally.  After about six months or so, he went AWOL. It happened during a period our country was not at war; he didn’t desert because of any hardship tour or harm anyone which are punishable offenses by the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice).  There is no statute of limitation as I understand it except for the mandated court-martial, at this late date.  When he chose to abandon his military obligation, he went into hiding.   I can only assume he has changed his identity.  My family has not seen or heard from him since approximately 1978.  So much time has lapsed that him finding the whereabouts of us, with our name changes due to marriages, relocations, and now family deaths make the task tougher for him to locate us.

When I went back to my high school reunion recently, I was stunned when a former classmate, whom I didn’t know my brother hung around with, told me my surviving brother was often questioned by the FBI about my other brother’s death.

I attribute some of my brother’s need to get away was because of the annual questioning on the anniversary date of the murder of our brother.  How far reaching a life tragedy can be for a family. Like the prodigal son, the wasteful extravagance was the cost of freedom my brother chose to live without his birth family much less the loss of his identity to stay under the radar of investigators.   My prayer is for a miracle that this brother is safe and will return to us someday.  By the seven-year absentia rule, legally he is considered dead which had to be noted on a death benefit claim.  That was hard to do, I’m not mentally or emotionally willing to believe that yet.

 

Chapter 35 in a Series

Mark

The Gospel of Mark is referred to as the memoirs of the Apostle Peter.  It is suggested to be the earliest Gospel written one, around AD 50 to the Gentiles in Rome.  The book’s theme is on the deeds of Jesus versus His teachings.

I once heard about someone who got to the end of this book and ask where’s the good news what with reading about all this suffering?  Mark is a passion narrative building up to the cross.  Jesus was crucified by a  conspiracy of mankind so never should it be thought that the Jews as Jesus killer (Isaiah 53:3-6).

Part of Jesus’s story is the motif of necessary suffering in our salvation.  That is the kind of messiah that came, a suffering servant, not a conquering political king.   Not many Christians go through that same kind of persecution, but all will personally go through a form of refining that is necessary as we grow closer (in our discipleship) to a holy God.  Sometimes that means stepping into situations that make us uncomfortable like cleaning up and caring for someone who is ill,  working in community kitchens for the homeless,  etc.

Mark’s gospel includes exorcisms.   After the trails of Jesus’s in the desert where he defeated Satan (Mark 1:12-13), God’s son is revealed in this book continually going after evil spirits in seven passages (1:23-24, 3:20-30, 5:1-20, 7:24-30 8:33, 9:14-2916:17-19).

The shortest Gospel written, Mark is thought to have been written later in his life while living in Italy.  It is thought his writings were drawn from the preaching’s of Peter’s eyewitness account recounted at the end of his ministry in Rome. In Mark 13:24-29, he quotes Jesus’s teachings about His return after the resurrection.  This section, called the Olivet discourse is referred as the little apocalypse, the end times told by Jesus.

Mark (also known as John Mark) uses the word immediately twelve times in this book, earning its reference as the gospel of immediacy. The audience, Romans, were people of action rather than thought. In his rapid-fire way, he tells the actions of Jesus. Mark was much younger than the other Gospel writers, probably a teen when the Lord was in Jerusalem. His mother was a follower of Jesus Christ (Acts 12:12).

Mark 9:2-4 tells when Jesus invited the closest of disciples, Peter, John, and James as witnesses, to come along with Him up to the mountaintop. There they saw Jesus’s meeting with the Old Testament leaders Moses and Elijah, miraculous transfigured together.  I also see this as a testimony to God keeping His word to Moses to enter the promised land of Canaan.  It was fulfilled in this transfiguration.

I resonate with Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” This is the book’s overall theme of Jesus serving others.  According to philosopher and Christian apologist Douglas Groothius what ties value to a person is the principle of servanthood,  “We value what we freely serve.”

Counter to the advice from my pastor who said (I think tongue in cheek?) not to share this publicly. I have a personal interpretation, some would call it trajectory hermeneutics, about Peter’s denial of Jesus during the trial before He went to the cross.   I wonder if Peter did it because he saw it as a command from Jesus when Christ told him he was going to do it.  In Mark 14:30, Jesus foretold Peter that he would deny Christ (following His arrest), stating Peter would disown Him by the time the rooster crowed three times the next morning.  During the actual event, while Jesus was taken through the courtyard by the guards during his trial, Jesus turned to look at Peter after the predicted denial happened.  Peter made eye contact with Jesus, then, in remorse, turned away and cried bitterly. This is known as the repentance of Peter. It is a stark contrast to Judas who was not remorseful enough to repent over his betrayal to Jesus and instead killed himself.  Along with Jesus’s foretelling of Peter’s denial, He told His disciples they all would fall away.  The others initially (except for John) scattered to distance themselves from Jesus and the crucifixion.  My outlier premise is Peter’s denial was because Jesus told him to do it.  I do not think Peter wanted to deny Him, based on his subsequent remorse and shame. But by him doing so, it was a turning point in Peter’s life that Jesus knew he must go through.  Also, it probably saved Peter from persecution at that moment when he made the denial. Jesus telling Peter about his denial, as I see it, was more to test his obedience. Peter is known for his spontaneity, saying and doing what he wanted to do.  My view is not a traditional (nor acceptable) one about Peter’s denial, however, what I draw from this is that Jesus asks us to do things when we don’t want to, to ensure our growth.  In Luke 22:31-32, Jesus said Satan demanded to have Peter so he might sift him, but that Jesus was praying and his faith would not fail.  Peter wept bitterly afterward and repented.  Judas, on the other hand, didn’t repent and hung himself.

In her book, The Listener by Taylor Caldwell (one of many historical fictions she wrote about the apostles) reminds who and why Jesus came to earth. Published in 1960, the book tells a story about fifteen people from various backgrounds and situations. Each person goes into this specific public building to talk with someone called “the Listener.”  A spoiler alert: each scenario unfolds and they realize the empathic listener experienced the same human dilemma and emotion as each person related along. as the son of God.

I personify God in the process of developing my ongoing relationship with Him which some would challenge.  At the risk of this making him sound unloving, I do not lose sight that He is God and as God isn’t prone to emotions or feelings as I understand them.  He is God the one who is sovereign, majestic, spiritual, unchanging, good, orderly, all knowing, all powerful,  just, has an immensity outside of this world, is Holy, self-existing, eternal, transitive yet immanent.  There is nothing He cannot do. Attributes of the kind of God I want to worship. I recognize who He is, except that I will never completely grasp his magnitude and humbly draw near to Him.  Barth was talking about the Godhead of the Trinity.  When I pray to God, I have grouped the father, son and holy spirit together in their unity and Jesus makes it easy to be as personable in my prayers as He was personable to all believers.  My recollection of the stories about the closest thing I will get to a theophany (chapters on Exodus and Daniel) is an example of the difference.

For a while, I had extra copies of this book on hand to give to others, hoping the recipient would get this perspective of who Jesus was, of how we aren’t going through anything he hasn’t already experienced. It’s about how He was the Son of God and mortal man.

Chapter 34 in a Series

 

matthew 2Ready or not here, He comes!  The account of Jesus.  And nothing has been the same since.  The first four narratives, the Gospels per Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of the New Testament, are biographical profiles on Jesus, each written from the author’s accounts and perspective of first-century believers (remember all the N.T. authors come from Jewish backgrounds to include Jesus so much circular references between the shared Testaments are used) whose life had been made new by the His life, death, burial, and resurrection.

It’s interesting to note that the Christian message (Romans 10:13) is not unambiguous to the Jews. Dig a little deeper and find in the Jewish Apocrypha (that not part of canon not part of the Hebrew  Bible but written roughly around the same time), describes the anointed one, the Messiah  (i.e. servant, shepherd, judge, king, son of man, etc).    Israel was told its story, not beginning with itself, but within the context of the entire human race in the first ten chapters of Genesis before God’s ancestral line up to through Abraham in Genesis 12.  But the Jews, like  Christian believers today, are mostly oblivious of that today nor do they go looking for answers.

Jesus Christ is a compound name of the savior of the world.  Jesus is the son of man, with the name similar to the meaning of Josuha ( Jehovah saves) and Christ is Greek for the anointed one.

About one-third of Matthew and Mark, one-fourth of Luke and one-half of John Focus on the last hours of Jesus.  The first three Gospels are called synoptic, offering a comparison with each other.  All the Gospels have a literary relation to one another.  John is written more different than the first three Gospels.  Some argue the Gospels contradict each other, but taking into account of the personalities of the writers, their styles and who their audience is, the harmony comes forth.  Over half the words in all the Gospels are the words of Christ.

Matthew writes to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.  Technically the author (Matthew a.k.a Levi) gives his eyewitness account written specifically with the Jewish audience in mind.  His theme is to show the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies.  Technically the author is not mentioned except the reference to  Levi the tax collector whom Jesus later renames  Matthew.  The name means a gift of the Lord.  Matthew was not favored by many at the time because he was a Jew who worked as a Roman tax collector.

There is much debate (to get it right) about when the Gospels were written and for that matter the New Testament.  Except for the books by John, it is assumed the New Testament was written before AD 70  when the temple was destroyed in Jerusalem.  Scholarly scrutiny for scripture to be part of the canon of the New Testament include whether the writers had a direct association or eyewitness accounts with Jesus, it produced during His era, how widely used (at first orally) it was in the early church and if it conforms to the rules of faith.  It is suggested the book of Matthew was written after the book of Mark.  My guess is Matthew was placed first in this second part of the Bible to bridge the two eras together (O.T. and N.T), to show Jesus came as the fulfillment for the Jewish saving Messiah.  It has been four hundred years of silence since the book of Malachi, a time known as the intertestamental or second temple period.

Early philosopher (AD 328) and theologian St. Augustine is attributed as saying,  “In the Old Testament, the New is concealed, in the New, the Old is revealed.”

Jesus’s story is the hope of the universe which rests on his shoulders, a first-century Middle Eastern man, conceived by a teenage virgin, born in an obscure town, who hung out with the nonreligious and for the most part, was unimpressive to others until He spoke. Jesus’s adult life is spent with no predictable place to lay His head, and He died by crucifixion between two thugs on top of a trash heap. Basically, He would be what we call homeless. These details about Jesus’ life don’t exactly scream “the hope of the universe” or “savior of the world” when He started out his three-year ministry at thirty years old.  In Matthew 24:21-29, Jesus predicts His second coming after his resurrection.

Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, commonly known as the Beatitudes, is recorded in chapters 5 through 7.  It is spoken not only to the original twelve disciples but to others who came to hear Jesus speak.  The meaning of blessed, a word He used often, is blurred today because it’s definition is used differently in this era.  It is now used in such a way that it is disguised as if bragging versus used humbly (a topic to be taken up in a later chapter)as intended. The Sermon on the Mount is not about how to get into the kingdom of God (heaven ) but how we already have a step in the kingdom here in this life on earth when joining in on the mission of Christ. The sermon is a description of a Jesus like character with each beatitude or blessing presented in a progressive order of steps with the first: poverty of spirit.

Brooks, in his book The Road to Character, retells a story from a rabbi about the first Adam (in Genesis) being more focused on what his resume says about him versus another, a second Adam (in the Gospels), focused more on his eulogy.  It made me think of this conversation pattern that developed with a friend.  When sharing a story about someone, he made sure he sandwiched in that person’s accomplishments (found in a resume) as part of the discussion. I guess it was said so I could fully appreciate the importance or significance of that person by his credentials. I also think, the teller, was trying to impress his listeners with whose important shoulders he was rubbing up against.

The definition of disciples is comparable to being an apprentice.  Apprentices however usually chose their master or teacher, not the other way around as was the case with Jesus who chose them.  A fictitious mock evaluation committee was once circulated that makes the point on the differences of value versus what God sees.  This search committee came up with this report:

  • Peter is declared emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper.
  • Andrew has no qualities of leadership.
  • The two brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, place personal interest above company loyalty.
  • Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale.
  • Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau blacklists Matthew.
  • James and Thaddeus ( a.k.a. Jude) have radical learnings and register high scores on the manic-depressive scale.
  • One disciple, however, shows to be highly motivated and ambitious and innovative, has the ability, is resourceful, networks with people in high places and is business minded: Judas.

Comparing a resume to a eulogy, the Beatitudes tell me Jesus wasn’t interested if I stood with the great but instead if I sat with the broken.  St. Mother Teresa sat with the broken in India.  Then what better way to shine a light on her ministry than when she sat with world dignitaries and celebrities who held public esteem, titles, influence, and prominence who helped gain exposure from it.  Bill Bennot, church planner, said how we walk with the broken speaks louder that how we sit with the great.

John the Baptist was the last of his kind as a prophet, echoing the Old Testament warnings.   When the time came, he was hesitant to baptize Jesus knowing Jesus’s divine identity and authority.  Jesus didn’t need the rebirth through the cleansing of baptism. When John reminded him of this, he was told by Jesus that it must be done to fulfill scripture.  After the baptism, God said, with a symbolic dove similar to the one for new creation on Noah’s ark,  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).

God had said He was “well pleased” before Jesus’ ministry had yet to begin. He had not yet healed anyone, preached any sermons of note, did little accomplishment to be recorded in the Scriptures (notwithstanding his miraculous birth ). But still, God, the Father, expresses his approval.  It showed how the father God’s love and approval are not based on orthopraxy (correct ethical and liturgical practice as opposed to His grace).

The longest Jewish genealogy of Jesus, beginning with Abraham is in Matthew (Luke’s genealogy does too but his begins with Adam showing God’s message is for all of humanity related before Genesis 12).  This genealogy is an indicator he was writing to a Jewish audience showing the realization of the line coming from Abraham. Jesus’s family tree includes women (seldom mentioned in biblical genealogies): Judah, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.  They have been mentioned previously, their more redeeming parts, only alluding to their discretions.  Their backstory includes sex with a father in law who thought she was a prostitute; a Gentile who bore two sons out of incest, a Canaanite prostitute, and a Moabite lineage that began with from the incest between Lot and his daughter.  Jesus was not ashamed of His family tree nor did He hide it.

I have struggled with an underlying burden of shame and guilt, sometimes irrational guilt, of unworthiness.  Somewhere along the way, my guilt morphed into the most defining aspects of shame. My shame came from the actions of my birth family, the things they did and still do today to themselves and other members, and even the neglect of preserving the reputation of our family name has been particularly burdensome for me. I have a sense of shame of not having the kind of birth family that grows together, one that takes care of each other, shows love and support to and for each other.  There is no perfect family.  But I do admire the ones that stick together regardless instead of going their separate ways in adult life.  I feel the shame of my situation of being a divorced grandparent,  I had hoped to represent something different for my grandchildren.

I can almost pinpoint the exact moment shame raised its ugly head in my life.  It was when I received my first-grade report card.  I had just begun school, so my “first grades” were averaged out and was reflected in one grade which the teacher explained to parents.  I received the grade of C (for average).  My dad was disappointed and, quietly and calmly, while sitting on his lap, he let me know.

It was an impetus for me to eventually be the first female in my immediate family to get an undergraduate and master’s degree, the latter of which broke a glass ceiling for my girls.  Now my one of my children has outpaced me in their academic accomplishments and feats. Sadly, my experience of not measuring up to dad’s expectations since that day sitting on his lap is firmly fid in my memory. For years, I sought to overcome the stigma of being average. While Growing up it lead me to try and excel in school, to be the good girl, to win approval or any acknowledgment for accomplishments from others to fill my perceived disappointment f not measuring up.  This behavior followed me into my married and professional life.

Finally, I recognized what I was doing to myself and began to stop basing my success on other’s approval.   Shame for what it is, a feeling of worthlessness, after rejection, of being cast out. Guilt is concerned with doing something wrong whereas the definition of shame is believing that somehow you are bad by association.   It carries with it the sense that there is nothing to be done to purge its burdensome and toxic presence.  This shame usually raises its head when my relationships do not work out because the other decides I am not the “one” hence leaves.  I would spiral downward with other abandonment issues. There is also the confusion between shame and guilt in my thinking of it.  My self-incriminations at times, still haunt me, but as I grow older, I am learning to discipline those thoughts by differentiating between the wheat (guilt) from the chaff (shame).   If the first beatitude is about the poverty of spirit, I wonder if that doesn’t define shame?

The Beatitudes (only listed in the book of Matthew in its entirety) are a study in the paradox or mystery of Jesus’s teachings.  It depicts the epitome of an attitude of service and humility. Pastor Kyle Idleman says that, in the first Beatitude, “Jesus says there is a blessing that comes when you reach the end of yourself. That’s what it means to be poor in spirit. You reach a place where you are broken, and you do not have what it takes.”

Because of my previous flawed thinking, I thought my achievements were supposed to pave the way for approval.  Later, I became very sensitized in identifying my kids thinking the same thing to get parental attention.  I conveyed to them they were important and worthy because of who they were and not by their performance to win affection or gain attention.  My parental love came regardless of their outcomes.  There were some mixed messages sent out to them but hopefully, the love and acceptance overrule it and carries the day.  To bestow love or acceptance on someone’s success is an act of conditional love.

Chapter 33 in Series

malachi

Malachi, the final book of the Old Testament, helps to set the stage for the promised message of the Messiah and citing the city of Bethlehem as the birthplace of a ruler greater than King David. His advent. roughly 400 years from this time, is predicted in chapter 3.

Malachi reiterates familiar OT guidelines and warning on how to live despite the prevailing evil of those around the Israelites but with a different slant.  Like other Hebrew books, the title translation means “my messenger.”  God’s love is not much unlike how we express affection for others.  We do not win their affections or any reciprocal response by showing love instead it’s a deliberate show of love without any expectations attached love that comes from a place of personal desire to care and honor someone.

During one a period of life, I was applying for jobs at para-churches.  Part of the application process included faith statements  (1Pt. 3:15) to confirm I adhered to certain moral foundations consistent with a faith-based business.  Over dinner one night with a couple, I was asked how I could sign or agree with such statements just to get a job.  They thought it was invasive of privacy and none of the company’s business.  I saw how they didn’t extrapolate that by default whoever our employers are, if we work for them, then we are signing up for what that company believes.  I let the querying couple know it didn’t offend or bother me to provide a statement of faith, as I already believed in those things.

Malachi wanted the people to take and practice their faith more seriously.  In chapter 3 verse 10, it’s written, “Bring all your tithes into the storehouse that there may be food in my house.  Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven  and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” (Jn. 14:2)

There are those who take that verse in earnest, applying a satisfaction guarantee aspect to it.  Participants will sign a commitment to give 10 percent of their income or more to the church.   They say to test God and see if He does not hold true to His promises of blessings’ after three months.  If not, they can request their money back from the worship organization—no questions asked.  I am not of the temperament nor bold enough to test God. In Luke 4:12 and Deuteronomy 6:16, it says to not test the Lord. The Luke verse is when Jesus is talking to the devil while the evil one is trying to make a deal with Jesus.

Tithes not only include our money (which underwrites the running of a church, the salaries, supplies, and logistics), I see tithing also as time, talents (to include spiritual gifts with monetary ones) and our testimony as part of our tithe.

The Malachi verse mentioned is a key one in the prosperity of success gospel.  Prosperity gospel gets its’ name by the charlatans proclaiming God grants better health and wealth to those who contribute back to ministry work.  What adds to the confusion, is people picking and choosing scripture to apply as if custom ordering it to suit their life without verifying it with other verses or the context, it is written.  Malachi 3:10 is taken out of context when not taking into consideration the storage provisions for the running of the temples and to help the poor.  I interpret this verse more along the lines of forthtelling (a message for the current time) versus foretelling (a future prophecy).

The message of God, through Jesus, is available to everyone, everywhere.  What gets my dander up is when Scripture is presented in a light that doesn’t work for everyone. Specifically, prosperity gospel seems to be more attainable in the Western countries, particularly when the monetary guidelines of how much money to tithe is espoused. Second Corinthians 9:7 explains, “Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” It’s not to give under threat or to test God’s blessings.

Another interpretation of prosperity gospel can fall under the term of indulgences, abuses in the propaganda of influencing financial donations in exchange for a payoff of the investment with blessings in health, or success, etc.

America’s idea of private enterprise and entrepreneurialism does not work in other places of the world due to differing governing and economic process.  To try to contextualize blessings based on giving in second or third world countries seems out of reach for people when tied to the message of Christ.  Jesus was not rich in the way the world measures wealth.  His riches were the inner knowledge as the Son of God.  He became poor by voluntarily stepping into humanity as a man.  He seldom had carried provisions for the next days’ travels.  He advised His disciples to take nothing with them when He sent them out to spread the Good News (Mk. 6: 8-9).

Biblical Christianity does not promise material prosperity, minimize the consequences of sin, nor condone self-righteousness.   Some have compared scripture to the great “secret” of believing yourself into wealth and health.  It is another way of saying if you name it you can claim it by praying mantras such as “expand my tents” (1Chr. 4:10). There are many verses that indeed inspire and are capitalized on in prosperity teachings.  I have nothing against prosperity, financial riches or good health.  I kind of like those things.  Unfortunately, scripture is being used in a sub-biblical way to extrapolate these verses for self-edification.  The prosperity gospel has been typecast as a baptism in capitalism.  And unfortunately, the current mega-churches, with their televised services, and pastor’s published books often are the theme health and welfare pastors perpetuate this gospel.

In an article about St. Mother Teresa’s  teachings, she stated three types of poverty: material, spiritual and the virtue of poverty.  It says Christians are meant to take Christ as their pattern in all things.  They should consider God chose to be born (through the incarnate Jesus) abjectly poor, and that he remained completely detached from material things, owning nothing and seeking to own nothing. He is the ultimate paradox of what type of man would be to save the world.

Truth:  Some people are so poor, all they have is money.  Inappropriately quoted as being said by many different people, the point is still valid: man sacrifices his health to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

The work of His kingdom on earth is to bring about what God has already promised to do in the kingdom to come (heaven).  But it is not to attain the kind of affluence being advocated from prosperity pulpits, books or the world’s pursuit of self-reward and gratification beyond our desire for spiritual salvation.

As Malachi marks the end of the Old Testament all the while pointing to the New, he writes about grace and mercy more forceful than what’s already been done. He writes about another Elijah-like messenger proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah.

The simplest definition of mercy and grace I know is that mercy is what we do not get that we deserve and grace is we what we do get that we don’t deserve.

I can wrap my head and heart around the concept of mercy easier than grace. I don’t disregard grace and know it is going on in my life. Both divine gifts are a form of forgiveness but grace is harder to observe consciously.  Grace is accepting the unexpected, undeserved gift.  It is unmerited. It is very humbling to receive. You forget who the giver is.   It is God’s sufficiency or fullness in the life of a believer.  God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2Cor. 12:9).

We are saved by this grace of God. Simultaneously, we serve God and live the Christian life through this unearned grace.   It’s needed first for salvation. Without the grace of God, we cannot have eternal life. It is needed in the daily walk with God because undeniably we are weak and prone to stray.  Jesus told us that we can do nothing without Him  (Jn. 15:5).

Grace is so mysteriously profound that even though I know it is going on in my life, I cannot always identify it.  It is so undeserved; perhaps the closest thing I can compare it to is winning the lottery, although that is somewhat inadequate and ironic considering the above on prosperity teaching.

When returning from living abroad in Korea for two years, we resided in a long-term stay hotel while waiting for household goods to reach mainland America.  With the size of our family, we needed separate rooms and not just for our sanity.  Fire code stipulated four to be the maximum allowed in one room.  It ended up parents in one room and kids in another with a patch of ground between us.  My rule was the doors between our rooms were to be left open for the most part during the day while we were in our rooms. For some reason, open doors meant exposure, and I felt more confident that if the door was open that this prevented any kid mischief.

While at the hotel, one of my boys came running over excited after binging on television shows and their commercials.  Exasperatedly, he asked if I had heard of this lottery deal. Then he went on to explain what it was and his deep concern as to why haven’t I bought a ticket.  I smiled and gave him an explanation about the odds of winning, etc.  It helped calm him down, a bit.

If ever I won a lottery in my life, it would be the country and era of my birth and the family into which I was born.   When I was born, I was given this ticket by God to go anywhere I choose.

In another poem, Jeanne Lohmann:  puts it nicely in her poem At Birth, I Was Handed a Ticket.  The last stanza is about the end of life: “Nobody told me when I’ll have to get off this train, nobody handed me a schedule.  But I’d like to be ready when the conductor signals my stop.  I’d like to be willing to surrender my one-way ticket and go down the aisle to the opening door, take the steps leading to the ground, leave all my baggage behind.”

The metaphor of the emotional baggage we carry, if not repacked or gone through periodically, weighs us down, burdens us.  In my limited understanding in working with geriatrics, often the unpacked traumatic or confusing events are stuffed away unattended, unresolved, hauntingly creeping back with the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s. It seems to come on in a continual loop of a rerun movie within a mind that has decreased cognitive ability to resolve.

I am biased about my home country just as another believer in another place would probably say the same thing about their particular country.  Conversely, there are those born in this country who do not think it is be-all and end-all.  I would not change God’s ordained plan for my life or the who, what where, when, and how of it. The freedom I have and can choose from is an example.  Part of that choice is to choose whether to accept any prejudices against me because of my skin color, age, or gender.  Some people, equal to me in those areas mentioned that are vulnerable to prejudice, live in other places of the world, have a different context to live in than I. Here, in my country, even if the discrimination is happening, it can be overcome by refusing to accept it.  I often wondered why those living within the same environment (like a home) and raised in relatively the same ways turn out so different, i.e. twins where one is an achiever and the other isn’t?  The social sciences have lots of explanations for why some choose one path over another attributing to the varying degrees of levels of a person’s character, growth mindset, their soft skills, grit, resilience, executive functioning and agency within a person.  Fortunately, if not innate, all of these things can be learned from history and the Bible (King David, Jonathan, Esther, or Ruth),

I wrongly thought that those who are predestined folk (cf. Rom. 8:29-30, Eph. 1:4, 11) as the elected by God in the eternal past to do something really significant for Him (like Martin Luther, Billy Graham).  But predestination means all who are to be called by God. I am part of the fold of those whom God wants to be saved, me having come to the knowledge of the truth  (1Tim. 2:4).  I believe faith is through grace alone (Eph.  2:8-9).  In the scope of things, I am but a tiny part of the world, but my soul is as large as anyone else, and it will transcend me.  Guess you could say my heavenly adoption papers have been filedpted.

A verse (23:23) in Matthew is pertinent to Malachi.  It describes prosperity preaching: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!  You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But have neglected the most important matters of the law – justice, mercy, and faithfulness.  You should have practiced the latter, without neglect of the former.”