Sermon on the Mount: Golden Rule

One of the things I love about scripture is there is always more than what we see at face value–there are layers and layers to discover, and new lenses through which to see. It never gets old.

Our passage this week is Matthew 7:1-12. The last verse is one that, even people who don’t follow Jesus know well: So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. (NIV)

We’ll come back to the little word “so”, which is sometimes translated “therefore”–but I want to spend a moment on the last clause–this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Remember that Jesus is teaching on a hillside. His audience is Jewish–the Law and the Prophets are what their belief system is founded upon. In this entire sermon, Jesus has been teaching them that rather than the “dos” and “don’ts” they’ve subjected themselves to in their faith, there is a different way. It began with the beatitudes, and moved through being salt and light, “you’ve heard it said, but I say to you…” statements and more–each one addressing the transformation of the heart and the valuing of others. There are 12 verses in this week’s portion of chapter 7. “The Golden Rule” is in verse 12 and we’re beginning there, because while Pastor John was preaching, the Law and Prophets phrase leapt out to me. Why? Because this isn’t the only time Jesus said these words.

In this very sermon, right after the salt and light portion, and right before the “you’ve heard it said” statements, Jesus told his audience: Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. (5:17).

And in Matthew 22, we learn …an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (36-40)

Jesus has come to fulfill the law and the prophets. He teaches us that all the law and the prophets are fulfilled in the greatest commandments and the Golden Rule: “Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you. (TPT), Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you...or as J.B. Phillips wrote in his translation, treat other people exactly as you would like to be treated by them.

Love God, love people, treat others well–this is the fruit of being connected to Jesus–the fruit of the Spirit filled life. It’s what faith lived out on planet earth looks like…this is how we become the answer to the prayer, “may your kingdom come and your will be done on earth…”

With that as our foundation, and backing up to a verse from last week’s sermon, Matthew 6:33–seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and God will take care of the rest…, let’s look at Matthew 7:1-11.

I don’t think I’m going to write a lot of commentary…I’m just going to put the commandment to love and the Golden Rule next to the verses.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?  You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces. Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Okay, This one might need a little commentary because this dog and swine thing seems so bizarre in the middle of this beautiful sermon. Jesus has just taught us not to judge and nitpick another’s shortcomings–is he now telling us to decide who is a dog, who is a pig, and withhold sacred things from them? Would that make any sense in light of the rest of what he’s teaching? No. So…what could this mean that’s not that?

I read a number of thoughts around this, and some don’t take the context into account, but others say that Jesus is not teaching us to judge, but to be discerning. One said “Do not persist in offering what is sacred or of value to those who have no appreciation for it,…” (Expository Files, April 2000) Pastor John said be careful about how you convey the precious to others. He went on to remind us that if we see others as “dogs” and “pigs” we’ll treat them like “dogs” and “pigs”, they’ll reciprocate and the precious will get trampled. When I think of it that way, and think of it in light of not judging others, and in treating others the way I want to be treated, this makes sense to me.

I work in a secular environment with at risk teenagers. The best way for me to share my relationship with Jesus at work is to love people and treat them well. Then, because of the relationship we’ve established over time, some of them will trust me enough to share “the hard”. I can tell them that I believe in Jesus and I pray for them. Sometimes that leads to deeper conversations–sometimes not, but I’ve not yet had anyone ask me not to pray for them. Sometimes it even leads to tears. Those moments are sacred, but they’re not forced. People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness. It’s all about time and discernment. A pushy approach to matters of faith does create hostility. I’m a Jesus-follower and I cringe at pushy gospel presentations. Pushing a message on people is not the same as sharing life with people, and our pearls will get trampled because we’ve not treated others as we want to be treated.

So, always love. Always treat others with kindness. And be discerning in how, what, and when to share the sacred.

The discernment insight leads right into the next verses: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

And then: Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

The IVP Bible Commentary explains that “Jesus adapts a standard Jewish argument here called qal vahomer: arguing from the lesser to the greater (if the lesser is true, how much more the greater). Fish and bread were basic staples, integral to the diet of most of Jesus’ hearers; they do not stand for the fineries of the wealthy.” Good parents give good, life sustaining things to their children, not things that will harm them; how much more is that true of God–who always loves us, and always treats us as he wants to be treated… SO (therefore), in EVERYTHING, do to others what you would have them do to you.

All the Law and Prophets hang on this.

We love God by loving others. 18th century theologian John Wesley summed this passage up by saying, “The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

I think that’s Jesus’ point.

–Luanne

I thought I had an idea of what I would be adding to the blog this week… Until I read Luanne’s masterfully woven words. She captured so beautifully the main points of this passage and connected them to everything we’ve been learning over the last five months. What I find so interesting is how, as we dig into these words from Jesus week after week, we find that everything he taught circles back to what it means to be one who lives out the love of God according to the kingdom Jesus brought to earth.

We could dig into any one of the verses from this week’s passage and take it apart word by word; we could talk about what it means to judge and to be judged by God in the manner we judge… Or, we could do exactly what Pastor John and Luanne did: filter every bit of it through the main point, holding onto what Jesus really desired his listeners to understand. Luanne identified above what that main point is: Love your neighbor as yourself, and do to others what you would have them do to you.

Love God with our whole heart. Love our neighbors (which, we remember, includes all others) as we love ourselves. Seek first the kingdom–find over and over again that when we seek, we find Jesus–and live according to the ways of that kingdom that Jesus modeled. As we seek the upside-down kingdom and are molded into the image of Jesus, our King, that kingdom comes alive in us and we carry it to the world around us.

These are the concepts we continue to land on as we study the sermon from Jesus. It matters that we understand the main points, and beyond simply understanding, that we allow ourselves to be changed by them as we embody the words and ways of the One we follow. It matters so much. Why? Luanne explained exactly why with these words:

People will not respond to Jesus with hostility if they’ve already met him through our kindness.

As I read through her portion, that line caused me to pause. The words came off the page and everything in my heart responded, Yes and amenThis is the whole point, friends. We can know the scriptures, be able to define the Greek roots of words, hold our own in theological debates, stun people with our head knowledge of Jewish culture and the customs of that time. But nobody is going to come to Jesus because of our well-designed arguments. It is his kindness that leads to repentance–to the willingness to see things a different way, change our minds, and begin a journey with Jesus–not pushy, clumsy appeals to say yes to the gospel, not defending our faith against the ways of the world, not mean, ugly judgments of how hell-bent “they” are if they don’t listen to “us.” It’s his kindness that draws people. It’s his life growing roots in us that produces good fruit for us to offer the world around us. That’s how people meet Jesus and fall in love with him–the same way we did.

Love your neighbor as yourself, and do… The only other thing I want to highlight is the way Jesus presented the “Golden Rule.” As Pastor John emphasized in his sermon, Jesus did not focus on the negative, on what not to do. He didn’t say “Whatever you hate, whatever makes you angry, whatever you don’t like–don’t do that to others.” No. He said, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This directive does not allow us to be apathetic rule-followers. We don’t get to say, “I didn’t treat them badly,” and think we’re living in obedience, because Jesus didn’t tell us what not to do. He told us to do. To go do good. That’s what love does.

And… as we do good to others, as we love, we find that we move forward, we grow. Moving toward others according to Jesus’ ways of love grows our capacity to love more, which makes us more like him. It’s how the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. Simply choosing to not do bad, to not be unloving, will not birth the kingdom within us or around us. What speaks a better word to the world around us is our embodiment of the heart of Jesus. “For when you demonstrate the same love I have for you by loving one another, everyone will know that you’re my true followers.” (John 13:35) And what does love look like? Let’s refresh our memories…

Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving… (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a, TPT, emphasis mine)

Love never stops loving… Love keeps moving, keeps doing good to others.

As I paused a moment ago, the prayer of St. Francis came to mind…

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is dispair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
 

As I ponder this prayer in light of what we are discussing this week, I can’t help but consider the word instrument. Its roots go back to a Latin verb that means “equip.” I love that, because this prayer then reads in my mind: Lord, equip me to do your peace; equip me to sow love, pardon, faith, hope, light and joy. And when I think of an instrument–whether in the musical sense, or as a specialized tool used for an intricate, delicate process–it strikes me how useless an instrument is if it’s not set into motion. It may be beautiful sitting stagnant in place, and certainly does no harm by simply staying put. But it only puts good into the world when it is played, when it is utilized. The kingdom cannot come by us simply choosing not to do bad to one another. We must actively do good and choose love, which is always active and moving.

Luanne closed her portion with these words from John Wesley:

“The whole is comprised in one word, Imitate the God of love.”

She thinks that’s Jesus’ point in this passage. I agree with her. Imitate the God of love by doing what is loving to one another. This is how all people will know we belong to Jesus. And when people meet Jesus through our kindness, through our love, they just might want to be part of his kingdom coming on earth, too. It’s pretty hard to resist a love that chooses to go and do good to all. It’s pretty hard to resist the real Jesus. Let’s not give anyone a reason to think otherwise…

–Laura

A life of love shine and submit

When You Fast…

When you fast, don’t look like those who pretend to be spiritual. They want everyone to know they’re fasting, so they appear in public looking miserable, gloomy, and disheveled. Believe me, they’ve already received their reward in full. When you fast, don’t let it be obvious, but instead, wash your face and groom yourself and realize that your Father in the secret place is the one who is watching all that you do in secret and will continue to reward you openly.” (Mt. 6:16-18 TPT)

When you give to the needy…

When you pray

When you fast

Giving, praying, fasting–three pillars–equal weight–each necessary for Kingdom people–each to be done privately; not for show–each delightful to God’s heart.

This week, in our Sermon on the Mount series, fasting is the subject. I don’t know about you, but in my church upbringing, there was not a great emphasis placed on fasting. I’d heard of it but it was not part of my faith practice. Interestingly though, it was part of my dad’s faith practice and he was my pastor. Maybe I just checked out when the subject came up because I didn’t understand what fasting was about and I didn’t really want to fast. Who knows? However, Jesus makes it clear that fasting is part of following. Fasting is part of being formed into the image of Christ. Fasting is being an imitator of Christ.

As we’ve pointed out, all of the “when you” statements of Jesus, (giving, praying and fasting) were practices in the early church.

In the Antioch church we learn that while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”  So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13: 2-3). 

In Acts 14 we learn Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

Throughout the history of God’s people, we see that fasting was a given.

In the Old Testament:

The entire nation of Israel fasted on the Day of Atonement as they humbled themselves, repented of their sins, and sought God’s forgiveness. (Lev. 23: 27-28)

Moses fasted (twice) for forty days on Mt. Sinai while he was receiving divine revelation from God. (Ex. 34:28; Dt. 9:9-10:10)

Daniel fasted for twenty-one days and at the end of that time received a revelation from God regarding Israel’s future. (Dan. 10)

Hannah, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, King Jehosaphat, David, and others are said to have fasted personally and/or led the nation in a fast.

In the New Testament:

The Prophet Anna never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.  She recognized the infant Jesus and she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. (Lk. 2:37-38)

Jesus fasted forty days before he entered public ministry (Mt 4: 1-11).

The early church fasted.

And, it’s clear in this week’s passage, that Jesus is not asking us to fast, but is giving us guidelines to follow when we fast.

So what happened? Where did fasting go?

According to the C. S. Lewis Institute:  In the early church, fasting was highly valued. Those who could do so fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays until 3 p.m. But in the fourth century, with the rise of Constantine and the end of persecution, the church changed dramatically. Worldliness and institutionalism increased markedly, bringing an emphasis on form, ritual, and liturgy. Fasting became more legalistic and, for many, works-oriented. 

Centuries after the reign of Constantine,  we find ourselves rather anemic when it comes to fasting. We don’t understand it and it’s not part of our regular spiritual practice, and I’m afraid that many times when we do enter a fast, it’s because we want God’s attention and want him to do something for us–in other words, the fast becomes “me” focused rather than God-focused.

What if we were able to shift our focus a bit and come to see fasting as one of the ways that we love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Pastor John reminded us that fasting is removing anything from our lives that has shifted our focus away from God, and making God our priority. Fasting is maybe the greatest way to realign our lives and remind ourselves that God is our priority.

So what do we do? How do we recalibrate?  Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, wrote: I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ… their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things… (Ph. 3: 18-19)

First, we must recognize what earthly things have captured our attention. Is it food, social media, the news, binge-watching TV shows, exercise, energy-boosting substances, addictive substances? What do we seek for comfort? What is it that we think we can’t live without? What habits have captured our heart, soul, mind, and strength?

Are any of these things providing deep soul satisfaction? Are any of them leading to spiritual growth and a deep spiritual life–a deep connection with God?

If we look at the result of many biblical fasts, vision for leadership, for ministry, hearing the voice of God, recognizing God, connecting with God, returning to God, missionary vision, church leadership vision, intimacy with God, unity, and God’s desires being fulfilled were the result of God-focused fasts. Do we want that?

In the C. S. Lewis Institute quote above, we learn that part of what happened to the spiritual discipline of fasting is that worldliness and institutionalism entered the church. They’ve never left and have been detrimental. Another thing that I believe has been detrimental to the church is the emphasis on individualism. We’ve forgotten that God is creating a kingdom, a people, a community, a global movement, a global church. His desire is that we experience abundant life right here on planet earth and love others into his realm.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth…

 You are God’s chosen treasure—priests who are kings, a spiritual “nation” set apart as God’s devoted ones. He called you out of darkness to experience his marvelous light, and now he claims you as his very own. He did this so that you would broadcast his glorious wonders throughout the world. (1 Pt. 2:9 TPT)

Each of the three pillars Jesus addresses has to do with kingdom building and our heart attitude, (as does the entire Sermon on the Mount). Intimacy with God matters. A “secret” life with God matters. It is in the secret place that God can do his deepest work in us. We are transformed in the secret place. It is in making God our priority that we learn to love him with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s in the secret place that we become more than church-attenders, we become kingdom-people. It’s not about legalism. It’s not about trying to manipulate God to conform to our will. It’s not about looking spiritual to others. It’s not about going through the motions. It’s about our hearts; it’s about us; it’s about others; it’s about God’s heart and God’s desire for all humankind–and yes, our Father, who sees in secret will reward us.

As I close, let’s check our hearts as we ponder excerpts from Isaiah 58. Let’s allow the Lord to mess in our business a little bit. Even when it’s uncomfortable, His desire is for our good.

Daily they seem to seek me, pretending that they delight to know my ways, as though they were a nation that does what is right and had not rejected the law of their God. They ask me to show them the right way, acting as though they are eager to be close to me. They say, ‘Why is it that when we fasted, you did not see it? We starved ourselves and you didn’t seem to notice.’

“Because on the day you fasted you were seeking only your own desires, and you continue to exploit your workers. During your fasts, you quarrel and fight with others…

Do you think I’m impressed with that kind of fast? Is it just a day to starve your bodies, make others think you’re humble, and lie down in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call that a fast?

“This is the kind of fast that I desire:
Remove the heavy chains of oppression!
Stop exploiting your workers!
Set free the crushed and mistreated!
Break off every yoke of bondage!
Share your food with the hungry!
Provide for the homeless
and bring them into your home!
Clothe the naked!
Don’t turn your back on your own flesh and blood!
Then my favor will bathe you in sunlight until you are like the dawn bursting through a dark night.

 

Let’s give. Let’s pray. Let’s fast. Let’s recalibrate and let go of earthly things by making God our focus and priority. Let’s meet God in the secret place and allow God to love the world through us as he changes us in that place.

–Luanne

Vision for leadership

Vision for ministry

Hearing the voice of God

Recognizing God

Connecting with God

Returning to God

Missionary vision

Church leadership vision

Intimacy with God,

Unity

God’s desires being fulfilled

These are what Luanne listed as the results of God-focused fasts in scripture. Then she asked us a simple question,

“Do we want that?”

Our answers will reveal the condition of our hearts, and whether we actually want to live according to kingdom values… or whether we just like saying that we do.

What is it that you want? What do I want? What do we, collectively, want? What do we think we need? What do we believe we can’t live without? Can we answer these questions honestly? If we can’t answer honestly with our words, the way we live our lives will answer for us. The way we pray… What we give our money to… If, how, and why we fast… these will reveal our hearts and our priorities. Period. Even if we try to appear holy in these areas, our motives will be found out. God knows, of course, but the people around us will find us out, too, if they haven’t already.

If we give begrudgingly, or out of a place of obligation; if our giving is not a passionate response to Jesus’ life within us, an embodiment of his kingdom in our day-to-day lives, it will be evident. If we pray in showy ways with a goal of being seen and applauded for our holiness, and we don’t connect with God in a personal way, our own extravagant but empty prayers will betray us. And if we fast to be seen and acknowledged, to barter with or coerce God to do what we want, if we make it about ourselves rather that prioritizing God’s place in our lives, our fasting is nothing more than an attempt at a transaction, an exchange of services.

1 Corinthians 13:1-3 is filling my mind as I type. I wasn’t planning to go there, but I think I see where this is heading, so please come along with me…

 If I were to speak with eloquence in earth’s many languages, and in the heavenly tongues of angels, yet I didn’t express myself with love, my words would be reduced to the hollow sound of nothing more than a clanging cymbal. And if I were to have the gift of prophecy with a profound understanding of God’s hidden secrets, and if I possessed unending supernatural knowledge, and if I had the greatest gift of faith that could move mountains, but have never learned to love, then I am nothing. And if I were to be so generous as to give away everything I owned to feed the poor, and to offer my body to be burned as a martyr, without the pure motive of love, I would gain nothing of value…

This passage speaks to getting it all right on the outside. Speaking in the tongues of angels, having access to supernatural knowledge and the very secrets of God, living with mountain-moving faith, giving everything for those in need, dying as a martyr–even these extreme displays of faithfulness and commitment are utterly meaningless if our heart motives are not grounded in the self-emptying love of Jesus.

I don’t know how that hits you, but for me, this passage is hard. It’s humbling. It’s a serious heart-check.

I think it’s exactly why fasting–the kind that Jesus desires–is an essential part of our journey with God.

If I had access to the stores of God’s supernatural knowledge, if I were granted understanding of spiritual profundities, if I gave everything I have for the poor–I would probably think my priorities were in order. But here’s the thing… Even the very best things can fill God’s place in our hearts and lives. And it can happen in subtle ways, ways we aren’t even aware of until we set aside some time to get honest with ourselves and choose to take a step back from whatever has been distracting us.

The distractions can be so hard to identify when they seem like good things, when they look like good fruit. But good fruit grows when our roots are planted in the soil of the kingdom and when our branches are both nourished and pruned by the Gardener. Then and only then can we live out the kind of fast that Isaiah 58 outlines. Chains are loosed, injustice is reversed, the hungry are fed, the broken are restored, the lonely are loved, the world is set right only when we ourselves become an outpouring of the kingdom life that Jesus speaks of in the sermon on the mount. There is no other way for Shalom, for restoration, for wholeness to come.

Fasting, in our most basic understanding is abstaining from food. In the Greek, that is the definition. The earliest definition I found in the Hebrew for the word “fast”, the primitive root, means to cover over, or shut the mouth. Working with that definition, ponder something with me…

When we fast, we are abstaining from food, our source of nourishment. We do this to prioritize God. What if we took it even more literally? What if we look at fasting as abstaining from food in order to feast on the flesh of Jesus? Not in some gross, cannibalistic way. But so that his flesh, his being, his way of being in the world, becomes our flesh as we feed on him and all that he is?

Oswald Chambers said,

“God does not expect us to imitate Jesus Christ; He expects us to allow the life of Jesus to be manifested in our mortal flesh.” (emphasis mine)

From Henri Nouwen,

“. . . We are the living Christ in the world. Jesus, who is God-made-flesh, continues to reveal himself in our own flesh. Indeed, true salvation is becoming Christ.”

And Mother Teresa spoke these words:

“Our lives are woven with Jesus in the Eucharist. In Holy Communion we have Christ under the appearance of bread; in our work we find him under the appearance of flesh and blood. It is the same Christ. ‘I was hungry, I was naked, I was sick, I was homeless.'”

Jesus in the Eucharist, Jesus as our primary source of nourishment–this is how we, as kingdom-people, embody the One we follow.

What if when we fast, we ask Jesus to do this? To come into our very flesh, that he might be made manifest within us? What if we ask Emmanuel, God with us, to become our flesh as we nourish on all that he is, so that we become the embodiment of Jesus and his kingdom on this earth? What if we reorient our minds and hearts around Jesus’ robust theology of the kingdom–and fast from all lesser things that grab for our attention? Our prayers will change. Our giving will look different. Our relationship with God will be transformed. Because this is what happens when the kingdom of the heavens collides with earth.

I’ll ask Luanne’s question one more time…

Do we want that?

–Laura

Hungering For God (Matthew 6:16-18) — Saraland Christians

Sermon on the Mount: When You Give

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Mt 6:1-4) 

We’ve made it to Matthew 6 in our Sermon on the Mount series. Lest we forget that this is all one sermon from the mouth of Jesus, let’s briefly recap. In Matthew 5 we learn that Jesus saw the crowds, went up on the mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He began with The Beatitudes–the foundation upon which the rest of the sermon would stand.     N. T. Wright in his book God and the Pandemic writes: “…the Sermon on the Mount isn’t simply about ‘ethics’, as people often imagine…it’s about mission. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit…the meek…the mourners…the peacemakers…the hungry-for-justice people’ and so on. We all too easily assume that Jesus is saying ‘try hard to be like this, and if you can manage it you’ll be the sort of people I want in my kingdom’. But that’s not the point! The point is that God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.” (Emphasis mine)

Right after the Beatitudes, Jesus says that his followers, his disciples, his students, those learning from him, and being transformed into beatitude-type people will be salt and light in the world who will point to the Father and glorify him by the way they live.

Jesus then says he did not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill themand moves into his You have heard it said, but I say to you…” statements, each one highlighting a traditional interpretation of the Jewish law (murder, adultery, divorve, oaths, revenge, loving neighbors), and flipping each on its head. We see in Jesus’  interpretations the love he has for, and the value that he placeson human beings and how he wants us to love, terat, and value all others as well. He obliterates all interpretations of the law that would lead to the mistreatment of people.

After setting this foundation, Jesus begins addressing the “when you…” statements.

Pastor John shared with us that three action pillars in the Jewish faith were giving, praying, and fasting. It’s why Jesus used the word when; these were things devout Jews would have been doing. Interestingly enough, the early Christian church carried out these same actions:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer All the believers were together and had everything in common.  They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need…(Acts 2: 42, 44-45)

..in the church at Antioch, there were prophets and teachers… While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting… (Acts 13:1-2)

Giving, praying, fasting.

So Jesus, establishing his mission–the Kingdom of Heaven coming to earth–wants to address the heart motivation of his followers in regards to these actions that indicate we are Kingdom-of-God people who belong to him.

The Passion Translation of these verses in Matthew 6,  makes the heart issue very clear: Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father.

And today’s emphasis:

 So when you give to the poor, don’t announce it and make a show of it just to be seen by people, like the hypocrites in the streets and in the marketplace.  They’ve already received their reward!  But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.”

That’s super clear, right? When you give to the poor don’t toot your own horn, don’t give with duplicitous motives, give secretly and God will reward you.

Wait…what? Rewards?

This is where things can get tricky! This is where our western, capitalistic, individualistic mindset can take over and all of a sudden our heart motives get way off. As a result, depending on your faith tradition, this idea of rewards can go to one of two extremes. One extreme is to completely ignore this portion because it feels worldly to place any emphasis on rewards and we’re a little afraid of ourselves if we think about it too much. The other extreme is to make it all about rewards, usually thinking of personal rewards that oftentimes land in the individualistic material wealth realm–if I give to God he will prosper me and make me rich.

I remember an occasion during my childhood when I didn’t think my measly allowance was going to get me to my financial goals, so I put my entire allowance into the offering plate expecting to get a grand return on my investment. Guess what? It didn’t work out the way I planned–and since I’d wiped myself completely out, I did the very noble thing of stealing money out of my dad’s loose change box so I could buy items of value like candy bars. My heart motivation in giving my whole allowance was all about what I thought I’d get out of it. I could have cared less about the ministries and missions my allowance was contributing to; I just wanted more money for me.

And therein lies the problem of too much emphasis on the “me” in rewards.

Pastor John reminded us that the goal of giving, praying, and fasting was to establish and enhance community, not the individual self. When our reward mindset is focused on “what can I get out of this”, we miss the fact that God’s kingdom is all about community. The Jews of Jesus day understood that they were giving collectively in order to target the needs of the community. The early church believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.  Some churches are really good at giving this way; however, I’m afraid that the public reputation of the majority American church has exposed the opposite attitude–one of greed, of individualism, of a “me first”, “my rights”, “my personal prosperity” mindset, and one that looks very little like the community-focused, generous, all are welcome, all are cared for, inclusive kingdom of Jesus. 

Let’s check ourselves for a moment. How are we doing with this giving to the needy thing? How are we doing with the giving collectively thing? How are we doing with the generosity thing? How are we doing with the kingdom-based community thing? How are we doing with the heart motivation thing? (Just in case you wonder–I’m writing to myself too.)

Let’s return for a moment to the idea of God rewarding us. What do God’s rewards look like?  If we return to the beatitudes, each one contains a reward:

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

…they shall be comforted

…they shall inherit the earth

 …they shall be satisfied.

…they shall receive mercy

…they shall see God

…they shall be called children of God

…theirs is the kingdom of heaven

And the persecuted? …their reward is great in heaven

Let’s do a quick heart check. Do these rewards seem sufficient? Let’s sit with that for a moment and ask God to show us our own hearts.

Before I wrap this blog post up, I want to highlight one more thing. There is what I believe to be a Holy Spirit movement stirring in the hearts of many of God’s people in this nation. As is the case with a lot of God’s movements, it seems to be stirring on the margins of society. Some segments of mainstream Christianity seem to be threatened by this stirring and are pushing back hard by dropping into a binary way of thinking and of fear-mongering. However, the movement is demonstrating a more Christ-like way, a more community-minded way, a more inclusive way, the way of shalom for the flourishing of all.

Christian author Jen Hatmaker writes: We are wired to care about what other people want and need. As socially influenced individuals, sharing the values and concerns of our neighbors creates social harmony. Embedded in our psyches is the sense that, when our neighbors are suffering, the whole community is at risk. We instinctively know what we all should be experiencing: justice, equality, safety, agency, belonging…it is why injustice cuts most of us so deeply. (Emphasis mine)

Where is the reward in caring like this?

Emory University carried out a study in which participants were given the chance to help someone while their brain activity was recorded. Helping others triggered portions of the brain that also turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure…helping others brings the same exact pleasure as personal gratification. Hmmm.

Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner in his article “The Compassionate Instinct” wrote, Not only do our brains reward us for compassionate behavior, the rest of our body does too. [in speaking of the autonomic nervous system fight, flight, or compassion responses he writes] When adults feel compassion for others, this emotion also creates very real physiological changes; their heart rates go down from baseline levels, which prepares them not to fight or flee but to approach and soothe. Additionally, nurturing behavior floods our bodies with oxytocin, a chemical reaction in the body that motivates us to be even more compassionate, an internal prize for kindness. 

Internal pleasure and calm for generosity and compassion is the chemical and neurological response that God hard-wired into our bodies when he knit us together in our mothers’ wombs. You all—that’s huge. We are created in the image of our generous, self-giving, compassionate, coming to us in our desperate need, loving God. When we allow God’s nature to flow through us by the power of the Holy Spirit, we see ourselves as part of His great compassionate community, giving of ourselves and our resources to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the world. We are not in it for ourselves. We are in it for the great mission of God–that the world (Greek= kosmos)–the earthly world and her inhabitants through Jesus, might be saved (Greek=healed, made whole) (Jn 3:17).

Examine your motives to make sure you’re not showing off when you do your good deeds, only to be admired by others; otherwise, you will lose the reward of your heavenly Father…But when you demonstrate generosity, do it with pure motives and without drawing attention to yourself. Give secretly and your Father, who sees all you do, will reward you openly.

As we generously and collectively give of ourselves and our resources, God rewards us with more compassion, more kindness, more others focus, more internal calm and peace, and more of his nature and character. The needs of the poor are met. The world sees Jesus through our actions. God is glorified by our “salt and light”,  and it all becomes a beautiful cycle of self-giving love.

the Sermon on the Mount…it’s about mission…God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort.

That, my friends, is how the world will be saved.

–Luanne

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You Have Heard It Said: Hate

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mt. 5:43-48)

You have heard that it was said.  Diving right in and thinking of today’s cultural climate, what things have we heard said? Are we blindly taking those things in as truth because they come from leaders or news sources or people whose thoughts align with ours? Do those things line up with what Jesus has said? Is what we have heard said leading us to be more like Jesus?

When God laid this Sermon on the Mount series on Pastor John’s heart we weren’t in the midst of a global pandemic. We weren’t being asked to wear masks and social distance, and it’s been years since we (as an entire culture) have been so blatantly exposed to what ongoing and systemic racism looks like. We’re learning whether or not our personal values lie more on the side of individualism and our rights, or on the common good even if I have to sacrifice a little–more on the side of “me first” or community. Pastor John was preparing for this series before all of this happened. He has remained faithful to preaching the series God laid on his heart–and wow–is it ever what we need to be wrestling with. If we will listen, if we will wrestle, if we will go deep, this could be the recalibration that the people of God so desperately need.

The words of Jesus in this week’s passage pack a punch.

You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ but I tell you, love your enemies…

Just like the other “you have heard it said’ statements we’ve studied, hating your enemy is what the Jewish people had been taught.  Where did this teaching come from? How did it begin? In Leviticus 19:18 the Israelites were instructed not to seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. They inferred, therefore, that they were supposed to love their own people–they could hate everyone else.

Jesus corrects this teaching not only in today’s passage but also in Luke 10 when he is asked by an expert in Jewish law what is required to inherit eternal life. Jesus asks the lawyer, What is written in the Law?… How do you read it? (v.26) . 

The Lawyer responds: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  (27)

Jesus tells him that he’s correct and encourages him to live that way. The Lawyer then asks Jesus–Who is my neighbor?  

Jesus answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan. To the Jewish people, there was no such thing as a good Samaritan. However, as we know from the parable, the beaten and robbed man was passed by and ignored by a priest and a Levite, yet he was lavishly ministered to by a compassionate Samaritan man. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? (36)

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (37)

The Good Samaritan was a radical, shocking example of who constitutes a neighbor, and Jesus was being very intentional. He speaks a similar way in this portion of his sermon to expose and lay bare the superior self-righteousness of the crowd by saying: If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Loving “your people” and hating everyone else is not the way the kingdom of heaven on earth is to function–AND it’s not the way God functions.

Jesus points this out when he says: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  In other words, God is not picking favorites. God loves the whole world. Jesus came to save the whole world. His followers are to take God’s love and kingdom life to the whole world. 

Loving “our people”, thinking more highly of “our people” might be the way of the world, but it’s not the way of God. As a matter of fact, if we look at the kingdom on earth that Jesus was establishing, and if we look at the early church ushering in the kingdom, people from all different walks of life, ethnic backgrounds, social status, and other humanly separated categories were together as part of it. The Apostle Paul makes this clear and encourages us to unify around Jesus. Jesus invites everyone from everywhere to his table. In his own ministry, we see him with Jew, Gentile, women, men, Romans, Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, rich, poor, sick, healthy–everyone was welcome. What happened?

It is rare for today’s churches to look this diverse; however, I can think of one church in Queens, New York that looks this way. My husband and I attended a conference there a number of years ago. The church is in a very diverse part of Queens and had people from many different countries represented in their congregation. Pastor Pete Scazzero shared that for that type of church to work, each person has to be responsible to separate their culture (whether it be family culture or nationality) from the culture of Jesus. No one’s culture gets to trump another’s culture–they seek to unify around Jesus and the culture of his kingdom. Pastor Scazzero acknowledged that sometimes it’s messy, but isn’t the kingdom of heaven on earth worth the mess?  Isn’t learning to listen, seeking to understand, and loving one another worth some wrestling? Isn’t getting rid of labels and categories and treating all others as equals a worthy pursuit? Isn’t joining arms and working together for the flourishing of all humankind the way of being in the kingdom of God?

When Jesus says pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your Father in heaven.he nods back to two of the beatitudes from the first part of his sermon:

  1. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
  2.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

I read the beatitudes almost every morning during my prayer time and cringe at the persecuted part every time. Sadly, sometimes being a peacemaker is what leads to persecution. Peacemakers and peace-keepers are very different. Peace-keepers maintain a false appearance of peace on the surface. Peacemakers address hard issues–peacemakers go to the core of the matter, exposing what’s in the dark and bringing it to the light so that it can be seen and resolved. Peacemakers are oftentimes persecuted–just ask Jesus. But in the end, the peacemakers and the persecuted are called children of God and they live where God reigns.

Pastor John pointed out that Jesus says love your enemies, pray for them to be blessed, but we relish in the secret scorn we have for others. Ouch!  He said: It’s not enough to do just enough. That won’t change the world. Do more! Be different. Love more. Stop retaliating. Check your secret scorn. He reminded us that our social media presence and “likes” reveal a great deal about what matters to us. And he reminded us that the current cultural and global crisis is showing us our true character. Do we like what we see?

Think about it; who would your enemy be? Who receives your secret scorn? If Jesus were telling you the story of the good Samaritan who would shock you? The good Muslim? The good Democrat? The good Republican? The good African-American? The good white person? The good gay man? The good transgender woman? The good immigrant? The good _______________?

If we love only those who are like us, that’s what the whole world does. Jesus says–do more, love others like I love you. He teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy– everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Whew! Hard stuff!! 

And then Jesus says: Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. What?!! How?!!

Be–not do. God is perfectly who God is. Be perfectly who God created you to be living for the things that matter to God’s heart. Be whole. Be Christlike. Be Spirit-filled. Be for the flourishing of all. Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. 

–Luanne

I will start where Luanne left off and we’ll work our way backwards a bit. She left us with the words, Be perfect, which looks exactly like “God is love” to the world. “

Sometimes, to see a more expansive picture of the things Jesus spoke about, it is helpful to look at more than one of the gospels… In Luke 6:36, we read: 

“Be merciful (responsive, compassionate, tender) just as your [heavenly] Father is merciful.” (AMP)

Brian Zahnd expounds on this verse, in a blog post titled Oh, Mercy. He writes,

“The Gospel writers use different words.

What Jesus in Matthew calls perfection, Jesus in Luke calls mercy.

This is significant and instructive. Luke’s use of “mercy” gives us an inspired commentary on Matthew’s “perfect.”

First of all, Matthew’s “perfect” is the Greek telos; i.e. goal.

Put the two together and you will understand what God is like and what our goal is to be.

God is perfect in mercy. This is what we are called to imitate.

The goal (telos) for the disciple of Jesus is to be merciful like God is merciful.

The perfection God is looking for is not the unattainable perfection of flawlessness—But the fully attainable perfection of extending mercy to those who are flawed.”

This perspective is corroborated in the story of the Good Samaritan that Luanne wrote about above. After Jesus shared the story in response to the question Who is my neighbor?, he asked his own question to make sure the lawyer understood.

Jesus asked the lawyer, Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” 

To see everyone as a neighbor and no one as an enemy, to show mercy to the flawed, to love those who hate–this is what it means to be perfect as God is perfect. God sees none of his children as enemies. Not in the way we understand what an “enemy” is, anyway. God is Love. He loves perfectly. We were created in the image of God with the capacity to love beyond our humanity. On our own, our love has limits. But Jesus showed us a different way as he walked this earth fully God and fully human. Divinity is his nature and as we are filled with his spirit, we also have access to the divine being awakened with us. God cultivates the seeds planted within our hearts and grows us in the likeness of his Son. As God’s beloved children, the divine lives within us, empowering us to live and love beyond our limitations.

So, is Jesus really teaching that we have no enemies? Yes. I believe he is teaching exactly that. He is, once again, turning their understanding upside-down and deepening their capacity to live according to the ways of his kingdom. Luanne wrote:

He [Jesus] teaches us that there is no such thing as an enemy–everyone is a neighbor and we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

But wait… In Ephesians 6, Paul tells us plainly that we do have enemies, right? Yes. This is what he has to say on the matter:

For our fight is not against any physical enemy: it is against organisations and powers that are spiritual. We are up against the unseen power that controls this dark world, and spiritual agents from the very headquarters of evil.

(Ephesians 6:12, J.B. Phillips, emphasis mine)

Evil is real. It exists all around us. The spirit of evil–the spirit that is anti-Christ, that stands against the Spirit of God–infiltrates powers and structures in our world. But people are not our enemies. People–all people--are our neighbors. Jesus wants his listeners to really understand this concept because it sets his kingdom apart from any other. In his kingdom, there are no outsiders. There is no us versus them. There are only neighbors.

Remember the crowd he was speaking to… It was incredibly diverse.  The words he spoke weren’t hypothetical, or for some future moment or encounter they might have. No. The crowds Matthew wrote about were full of people who didn’t naturally mingle.

Again, Brian Zahnd, in one of his own sermons (Pastor Brian has a lot of great things to say about the sermon on the mount and the beatitudes; it’s one of his favorite things to talk about!), said this regarding the crowd:

“…The crowds, they came from Galilee, they came from from Decapolis, they came from Jerusalem, Judea… That tells us–if we know the history and the geography–that a mixed multitude of Jews and Gentiles were gathering to Jesus. All kinds of people… The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

To this crowd, Jesus said… Love those who are not your people. All they had to do to practically apply his words was look around. They were surrounded by “others” who were likely easy for them to hate. It was a mixed crowd, full of people who didn’t look like one another, think like one another, dress like one another, believe like one another. They were likely from all different income brackets. They did not all have the same culture, music, or food in common. They probably didn’t agree about politics, as they represented many different regions. But they were all attracted to Jesus and to this kingdom he kept talking about. So they gathered together and listened to hard teachings, teachings that challenge us today in the same ways they challenged his first hearers.

I want to reiterate the last line I quoted from Pastor Brian above:

“The whole spectrum of humanity was being attracted to Jesus…”

All kinds of people were attracted to Jesus and his kingdom when he walked the earth enfleshed in humanity. Friends, do you know how Jesus walks the earth today? Enfleshed in our humanity. We, the followers of Christ, are to embody his kingdom, all that he is. Are all kinds of people attracted to the Jesus they see in us? Do we live from the kingdom he brought to earth? Do we see all people as our neighbors, bearing the image of the Divine, same as us? Or do we live from a different kingdom, one that spews hate and violence, one that separates, divides, judges, and condemns? Do we understand that our only enemy is the spirit of evil, or do we make enemies of our flesh-and-blood neighbors? Is the whole spectrum of humanity attracted to the Jesus they see in us, those who call ourselves his followers? Is there a seat at the table for ALL? Or does our secret scorn lead us to arrogant exclusion that values some more highly than others?

These questions are hard. The ways of Jesus’ kingdom are demanding. Will we have the courage to let his words mess in our business and show us where we’ve made enemies of neighbors? Will we have the courage to then repent, to change our minds and then our actions, as Pastor Beau talked to us about last week? Will we let the Spirit lead us in the way of love? I pray that each of us as individuals and the Church as a whole will choose to answer “yes” to these questions. Because, here’s what’s true: The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way.

–Laura

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You Have Heard it Said: Part 3

Today’s passage is a doozy. It’s a common “clobber” passage used to judge others and exclude them from full fellowship in some churches. Even before you read this blog, please know that we are not a shaming church; we believe that God loves us all and shuns no one. Pastor John shared that these two verses in the Sermon on the Mount almost kept him from doing the entire series. Yet, like the rest of Jesus’ sermon, we are  looking at the full context, looking at the heart of Christ, and exploring the deeper meaning of his words.

Here we go:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” (Mt 5:31-32 ESV).

The Passion Translation words it like this: “It has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her legal divorce papers.’  However, I say to you, if anyone divorces his wife for any reason, except for infidelity, he causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

And the NIV like this: “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Before I go any further, I want to say that I believe God’s original intent for marriage is that it lasts, is fulfilling for both husband and wife, and a healthy reflection of God’s relationship with us.  However, all the way back in the Old Testament we see that marriage didn’t look like this. And, in these two verses, Jesus is addressing the men. Why? Because in that culture they had power, and they abused their power.

Culturally, in that day, a woman had no rights. She was considered property and horribly undervalued. It was rare for a woman to be able to make it on her own; her chances for gainful employment were slim to none. Yet, a man could decide at any time to dismiss his wife, and send her out to fend for herself. His reason could be as simple as she over-salted his food. She had no value, and a hard-hearted man would not have a whit of care about what happened to her.

Let’s briefly recap what we’ve learned up to this point in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus began with the beatitudes–the inner character that drives the outward behavior of Jesus’ followers. Then he says his followers will be like salt and light in the world–our depth of character and our presence making a positive, kingdom of heaven difference in the here and now. After this, Jesus tells us that he didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them. We’ve studied how Jesus spoke of the commandments not to murder and not to commit adultery, yet jumped right over the action words and focused on the heart of the matter–anger and lust. Now we’re on these verses about divorce. Jesus has not changed direction; he is still concerned about the heart of the matter.

In the book of Genesis, when God created humankind, God said:

“Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and overall the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created mankind in his own image,

in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (1:26-27)

In God’s original design, male and female each reflect who God is, each bears his image, and each was given the same task–to steward well his created world. Nowhere in the creation story does God create a hierarchy. Yet, all throughout the Old Testament we see men marrying multiple wives, sleeping with servants, dismissing and mistreating women–even among the patriarchs and kings.

Jesus enters the scene and models something completely different. Even before Jesus’ birth, we see God highly esteeming women. There are five women named in the genealogy of Christ. Tamar who was wronged by her husband and had to trick her father-in-law in order to bear a child; Rahab, the woman from Jericho who resorted to prostitution in order to survive and hid the Jewish spies on their way to the promised land— she married into the Jewish faith and gave birth to Boaz; Ruth, the widowed foreigner who honored her mother in law and later married Boaz. Bathsheba (Uriah’s wife) is the next woman mentioned. She was taken advantage of and then became one of the wives of King David who was the grandson of Ruth. A few generations later the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary first–not Joseph.

In Jesus’ earthly ministry he gives women his full attention. He encouraged Lazarus’ sister Mary’s behavior when she chose to sit at his feet and learn, just like male disciples did.

When the teachers of the law tried to trick Jesus and brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (where was the man?), Jesus did not condemn her. Instead, he caused each man present at the scene to search his own heart.

Jesus interrupted his trip to the home of Jairus, the powerful synagogue leader, and gave his full attention to a woman who had been a bleeding outcast for twelve years. He gave her time to share with him her full story.

The account of the woman who poured perfume on Jesus’ feet shows us that he was not about to allow her to be condemned or poorly thought of.

The women present at Jesus’ crucifixion are named in scripture. The women are the first to see the resurrected Jesus and the first to share the news that he is alive.

The women are present with the men on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. They receive the very same power of the Holy Spirit, and together with the men share the news of Jesus in foreign languages to those within their hearing.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is probably my favorite encounter. Jesus was speaking to a woman who was from a people group considered inferior to his. Both of those things were taboo. Scripture even tells us that when the disciples returned from getting food, they wondered why he was talking to her. She had been married five times and was currently living with a man who wasn’t her husband. (Let me remind you–she couldn’t divorce a man, so she had been dismissed and abandoned five times). Jesus doesn’t condemn her, instead, she is the first person to whom he reveals his identity as the Messiah. Their conversation changed her life. She shared her story and his identity with those in her town, and they came to know Jesus as well. 

Back to this week’s verses…Jesus is addressing the men. The man divorces, he is supposed to give her a certificate of divorce, his actions cause her to choose someone else so she can survive, and his actions defile her next husband. It all begins with the man, his abuse of power, a power over her that was never God’s intent in the first place, and the ripple effect of his choices.

The Passion Translation offers a footnote that says the Greek word for divorce (apolyo) can also mean “to loose,” “to dismiss,” “to send away.”By serving her divorce papers, a husband was required to return his wife’s dowry. The divorced woman would then leave his house and receive back her dowry.  Think about that, he could dismiss her without papers and not be obligated to return her dowry, leaving her without means. 

I have a Lebanese Muslim friend whose marriage was arranged for her. Her family provided a dowry to the groom’s family. When we lived near one another, we asked each other questions about our lives and cultures, so I asked her about that. She told me that the dowry wasn’t a “bride price”, but that it was like an insurance policy. She said if anything happened to her marriage or her husband, the dowry was what she would use to live on. I’d never heard that before, but The Passion Translation footnote indicates the same thing. In other words–“Fellas, if you’re going to be hard-hearted and dismiss your wives, at least be honorable. Give her what is rightfully hers so she has something to live on.”  Jesus is addressing their hearts.

God shows us throughout scripture that he sees his relationship with us like a marriage. In the Old Testament, God’s relationship with Israel was to be a model of his faithfulness and love to the nations around them. In the New Testament, the relationship between Jesus and the global church is supposed to show the world his love for us, our love for him, and our love for them as a result.

If you are divorced and have been hurt by the church, I’m sorry. Jesus’ words on divorce were never intended to be used as clobber verses, nor were we ever told to exclude anyone from fellowship with Jesus and his church. If you are divorced you are fully embraced and fully accepted by God. There is no condemnation in Jesus.

In the 1970s, my dad’s best friend was leading a weekend ministry event at a church in another town. He shared his testimony with the group, and part of his story is that he is divorced and remarried. A man came up to him afterward and asked: “What’s it feel like to be living in sin?” Pete responded: “I don’t know. You tell me.” It still makes me chuckle.

We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us. 

–Luanne

We are seeing over and over again in this series a process that would be beneficial for each of us to adopt as we make our way through this world. What Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is picking up the law–one piece at a time–and processing it through the filter of a higher law, a law he modeled in every interaction recorded involving him during his life on earth. He ran every single law through the law of Love. The love of God and love of people, which are truly interchangeable, because if we are doing one well, it follows that the other will also be satisfied. The law may allow, require, condone ________ (fill in the blank), but what does Love require?

This is the question, the heart of the matter. It is what Jesus is getting at with every point he makes. You have heard it said… but what does Love require? This week’s passage applies the question to marriage and divorce. It might be the clearest, most straightforward distortion of God’s heart toward his children, because it addresses the stripping away of the inherent value of a woman–her identity as an equal image-bearer–and the reduction of a human being to property that can be used and disposed of at will. Can you think of other examples throughout history and even presently when the value of a human being was reduced to property? I can. Too many to list.

I think that’s part of the ache of these two verses. What Jesus was doing in his brilliant way, was lifting up the “leasts,” as he always did. In this case, the leasts are women. His words honor the value of a woman and, if followed, offer protection from systems that left so many displaced and destitute. Yet, somehow, these exact verses have been used to further abuse and devalue women and abdicate men from their responsibilities, at the hands of the Church. How did that happen?? It happened because, even as Jesus was reorienting the Law around the way of Love, those in power chose to make it about the words rather than the heart behind the words. It became about a list of dos and don’ts, and this short passage has been used against the very people it was meant to protect and left devastation in its wake.

Running the rules through the filter of Love makes all the difference. In regard to marriage and divorce, I’ve seen that difference firsthand. I’ve watched friends and family I love dearly choose the way of self-emptying, self-sacrificing love when they had every right to leave and never look back. I’ve seen people devalued and devastated choose to honor their vows even when their spouse has shattered theirs. I’ve watched, awestruck, as God moved through open channels of love to restore what was lost, as the pile of torn and tattered threads was woven into a tapestry more beautiful than should even be possible after such devastation.

I’ve also seen and experienced what can happen when a lesser love captures a heart. I watched my mom be discarded three times by the same husband, abandoned for other women and a brand new life, left with nothing but the bills and the children and her failing health. I watched her struggle to put food on the table as she worked long hours in multiple jobs to try to make ends meet. I watched as our church turned its back on our family while my dad was still allowed to attend with his girlfriend and her family. I saw my mom’s new church embrace her partially, but warn her that if she remarried, an adulteress she would be. I saw her ache for a community that didn’t really have room for a poor, divorced woman and her kids–one that certainly wouldn’t invite her to use the gifts she’d been given as a full participant in the kingdom within their walls. At best, she was a project, a charity case. She was marked.

Jesus didn’t want that for her. What happened to her was the exact opposite of what he called for in this week’s passage. What happened to her is what happens when we miss the heart of the matter, when we don’t process the law through the higher law of Love. And somehow, we all know there’s a better way. There’s a song that keeps running through my head as I write. Not some spiritual, worship song, but the chorus of a song I didn’t even know all the words to until I looked it up a moment ago. The song is Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love”, released in 1986. Here are some of the lyrics…

Think about it, there must be a higher love
Down in the heart or hidden in the stars above
Without it, life is wasted time
Look inside your heart, and I’ll look inside mine
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love
Bring me a higher love, oh
Bring me a higher love
Where’s that higher love I keep thinking of?
Worlds are turnin’, and we’re just hanging on
Facing our fear, and standin’ out there alone
A yearning, yeah, and it’s real to me
There must be someone who’s feeling for me
Things look so bad everywhere
In this whole world, what is fair?
We walk the line and try to see
Fallin’ behind in what could be, oh
Bring me a higher love (oh my Lord)
Bring me a higher love, oh (oh)
Bring me a higher love (my Lord)
It’s that higher love I keep thinking of…
We all know intuitively that there is a better way, a higher way. We crave that higher love  whether we know and believe in Jesus or not. We know, “there must be a higher love, down in the heart or hidden in the stars above…” And yet, we run after lesser loves. In our fear and desire for control and order, we forsake the way of love for the inferior substitute of a list of rules. That list of rules has served an insidious purpose. The Church that is the bride of Christ, meant to birth the fruit of that union–the kingdom on earth, has clung not to her groom but to the list, and abdicated her responsibility to the way of Love. It is heart-wrenching to see the results of our idolatry. Rather than embrace the extravagant way of love that Jesus modeled, we have too often looked to satisfy the minimum requirements.
Imagine what the world would look like if we processed everything through Jesus’s filter? If we looked for ways to exhibit the maximum amount of love rather than the minimum? It should change everything, friends! Because the love Jesus spoke about and modeled–self-emptying, humble, generous, gracious, compassionate, real love–is inexhaustible. There is actually not a maximum, because love never ends (See 1 Corinthians 13). The more we pour it out, the more there is available. It expands, enlightens, restores, and remakes everything it touches. Its power is in the laying down of oneself on behalf of another, the way that Jesus did for every single human being. What if we followed his lead and lived accordingly? We wouldn’t have to worry about ourselves because there would be reciprocity and mutuality and thriving for all. Love like this doesn’t need additional rules and regulations. It covers absolutely everything.
I believe with my whole heart that this is Jesus’s whole point. Everything he says in the sermon on the mount, all of the exhortations and insights he gives are expressions of love in action. This week’s passage is about divorce, but not only divorce. It applies to the way we are to embrace, cherish, and care for one another as we live out the love we share with our Abba. It was perhaps the clearest example Jesus could give in that day of what happens when the way of higher love is replaced by lesser things. When we refuse to live in the light of love, we reduce one another, treat each other as problems and projects, see each other as means to an end, expendable. We NEVER see Jesus objectify anyone in this way. 
The story that I held in my heart as I listened to Pastor John preach on Sunday is the same one Luanne emphasized above, the woman at the well. Jesus had every reason–and the teachers of the law may have said an obligation–to avoid her, ignore her, and condemn her according to the law. But love…
The law said not to associate with “those” people. The Samaritans were outsiders, people the Jews were not to mingle with. The law didn’t allow them to be alone together at the well–she was a woman, and an unmarried woman at that. Forget about a conversation–that went way too far. It was against the rules. And Jesus knew more still about this woman he engaged at the well. She had been married five times, and was now living with a sixth man. The law gave him so many reasons to not only walk away from her, but to outright condemn her!
But love…
Pondering this passage in different seasons, I’ve cried many times over the tenderness of the moment. The story, much like our verses this week, has been used and preached in unkind ways. But the Jesus I know is always kind. Always good. Always loving. He knows the backstory to every story. When I read and ponder this particular story, specifically the part where Jesus lets her know that he knows what she’s been through, I hear his voice as gentle, quiet, empathizing with her plight. I see tears pool and fall from his eyes as he feels how brutally and repeatedly she’s been rejected by those charged to cherish and protect her. I have exactly zero doubts that in that moment, she experienced the love she’d searched for all of her life, love that saw to her core and called her beloved despite the labels she’d been given by the world. How am I so sure? First, because my Jesus has done the same for me. But also,  her reaction tells us everything we need to know. Hope overflowed as joy exploded in her. She left her jar and ran back to the village to tell everyone about this man who had set her free from her shame. His words to her did not condemn her. His words communicated that she was seen and known… and fully loved. 
The words Luanne ended her portion with seem appropriate to repeat here…
“We are not prisoners to our histories. There is freedom in Christ no matter what our story is. In this freedom,  Jesus is asking us to go deeper–to check our hearts, to value those around us, to esteem our relationships, and to be demonstrators of God’s unconditional love to the world around us.”
Can you imagine what the world would look like if we loved like this?
–Laura

 

 

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You’ve Heard it Said… (Part 2)

After a couple of weeks elsewhere, we are back into our Sermon on the Mount series. We picked up where we left off, in the middle of Jesus’ “You have heard it said…” statements. This week’s passage is Matthew 5:27-30:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

These are strong verses that we’ve likely all heard before in one way or another. The words of Jesus in this passage (and all throughout scripture) are often taken out of context and misunderstood. As we have been discussing for weeks now, what Jesus is doing in this famous sermon is inviting his followers to go deeper, beyond surface-level, law-abiding living that stops short of transforming hearts. A few weeks ago, I wrote,

“He came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.”

And in our first “You’ve Heard it Said…” post, Luanne wrote,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

It’s important that we keep these things in mind as we continue to explore passages that are sometimes difficult to understand.

Pastor John led us on a word journey through these verses on Sunday, explaining what they meant in the original language and expanding their meanings within the context of this passage. We looked at the words adultery, lustfully, hell, and stumble. I learned a few things… Let’s look at each word before we talk about the passage as a whole.

Adultery, John told us, is something we commit. It is a form of idolatry. When we commit adultery, we are satisfying ourselves; it is self-serving. It is something we first allow, and then give ourselves to. It is not simply about sexual misconduct–our lusts can lead us to be unfaithful and to sin against God, others, and ourselves in a multitude of ways.

Lustfully is a compound word that means to turn upon a thing. It relates to something we long for on the outside of us. It is passion or anger, heat or hate, that boils up and moves us toward what we eventually give ourselves to in the acts of adultery. Pastor John said, “The lust grows from within you, looking to find something to satisfy your heart.”

The word translated hell in this passage is the word Gehenna. Gehenna was a literal place, a garbage dump outside of the city that was always burning the waste and dead animals deposited there. There was no life or fruitfulness in that place of waste.

Stumble comes from the Greek skandalon (where our English word scandal comes from), meaning to trap or ensnare, to cause to offend.

With these definitions in mind, Pastor John read the verse back to us in reverse order, in his own words, that we might hear it from a different perspective:

“From out of your heart comes the action of committing adultery, because you are lusting, longing, desiring, placing all that is within you towards something outside of you. This is what I’m telling you,” says Jesus.

The people Jesus was speaking to knew what the law said. And their teachers had made clear to them what actions to avoid and what the consequences would be should they choose to break those laws. They lived disciplined on the outside, but Jesus implored them–as he implores us today–to look deeper. As we’ve discussed before, surface-level behavior modification is not what Jesus is after. He wants our hearts.

John told us about Saint Anthony of the Desert, also known as Saint Anthony the Great. He is revered for his disciplined life, as he spent 35 years in isolation, many of them living in a tomb. He sought to live away from any distractions, any exterior things that could draw his thoughts away from God. He desired that Jesus be his teacher and influence, and he lived in solitude on purpose. He found that, even while living such a disciplined life, he could not escape the temptations and bad thoughts–because they existed in his own mind. Even in isolation, he took himself with him.

Even without outside influences, the work of cultivating the soil of our hearts in the ways of Jesus takes commitment and a willingness to look deeper… 

So what do we make of how Jesus says to handle our adulterous thoughts and actions? Are we to take him at his word and gouge out our eyes, cut off our hands? Of course not. Jesus was speaking in hyperbole. We can look at the eye as the symbol of our thoughts that result from what we take in. The hand symbolizes the actions we take that flow out of the desires within us. Together, Pastor John said, they were thought as a pathway toward sin. The emphasis on the “right” hand and eye refers to what they saw as their “stronger” side. So Jesus may have been telling them to take the things they thought were their strength, and if those things led them to sin, remove them from their lives. What that means for each of us will look different, as adultery plays out in a myriad of ways.

Unfortunately, many of us have heard these verses taught this way,

“If you don’t cut off your hand or gouge out your eye, you’re going to hell.” 

Of course, most of us have never been advised to actually take these extreme physical measures. But there are other ways we brutalize ourselves and allow ourselves to be abused by others out of fear of eternal damnation.

Let’s look at Jesus’ words again:

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Taking the context and original words into consideration, here is another way to look at these verses:

If the way you’re seeing things, how you choose to look at them, is setting a trap for your mind and leading you toward sin, let that part of you go so you can see a new way. And if the things you choose to do are manifestations of the heated passions and hateful anger boiling up and spewing out from within you, causing you to turn upon something or someone for self-serving purposes, that part of you needs to be cut away from the fabric of your heart so you don’t lose all of yourself to your idolatry. It is better to change the way you see and to turn away from the things you think you want to do than to end up in the wasteland where nothing lives. 

Jesus wants his followers to live in such a way that brings his kingdom to bear on earth. That’s his whole point in the sermon he gave on the mount. Behavior modification wasn’t changing the world then, and it isn’t changing it now. Fear of judgement didn’t change hearts then, and it doesn’t change hearts now. Outward expressions of worship disconnected from the heart are not what he desired then, and he’s not impressed with them now. He wants us to know his heart for people, for the world, and to follow him so closely that his heart becomes our own. He wants undivided hearts that worship from the inside out, and undivided lives given fully to him and not split between other desires. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives on what will never satisfy, but to live in a way that makes a difference for his kingdom. It begins in our hearts and moves outward. It never works when we try to do that backwards.

How can your words be good and trustworthy if you are rotten within? For what has been stored up in your hearts will be heard in the overflow of your words!

(Matthew 12:34b, TPT)

As water reflects the face,
so one’s life reflects the heart.

(Proverbs 27:19)

You will find living within an impure heart evil ideas, murderous thoughts, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lies, and slander.

(Matthew 15:19)

So above all, guard the affections of your heart,
for they affect all that you are.
Pay attention to the welfare of your innermost being,
for from there flows the wellspring of life.

(Proverbs 4:23)

–Laura

You have heard it said…but I say…

I think it’s wise to sit with that phrase for a while. Jesus, in this sermon, doesn’t change what’s been said or what’s been written; what he makes clear, however, is his people– his followers, have misunderstood the intent of those words. He is taking them deeper and teaching the correct interpretation of the law. As Laura highlighted above, it’s not about behavior modification. It’s about the condition of our hearts. It always was, and still is about being rightly related to God and to others–loving God and others authentically, creating a world filled with God’s shalom in which all people can flourish and become all God made them to be.

Jesus began the sermon on the mount with the beatitudes–the heart condition and way of being of his kingdom people, leading to such a radically different way of living that they will be salt and light in the world. We mustn’t “chunk” up the sermon on the mount into verses that come under subheadings; the entire sermon is connected and built on the foundation of the beatitudes.

This week, just like in the previous “you have heard it said” sermon that Pastor John preached, Jesus again moves through the action word (murder, adultery) and goes to the deeper heart issue (anger, lust). Outward actions, outward words are indicators of our heart’s condition and our thought lives. Too often our way of being in the world is more a reflection of our own thoughts than the Spirit-filled beatitude way of being.

Adultery, the action of being unfaithful, begins within. We can be unfaithful to God and others in a myriad of ways, and each way is an indicator that our heart center has gotten off course.

The words that define the inner workings of lust are strong words: Passion. Anger. Heat. Hate. Without a doubt, if left unchecked these inner experiences and inner emotions lead to Gehenna where we burn up our own lives.

I can think of a few biblical examples of this right off the bat. I referred to Cain a couple of weeks ago, and will refer to him again…

God said to Cain “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:6-7)

Cain did not rule over sin, murdered his brother, and was banished from his land and people. He lived in Gehenna and murderous violence became part of his lineage.  (See Gn 4:23-24)

King David (who was home when he shouldn’t have been) lusted over Bathsheba which led to sexually abusing her; she became pregnant, he tried to cover it up and eventually killed her husband. (2nd Sam 11-12). In Psalm 32 David recalls what it felt like to live in Gehenna when he wrote: When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. (Ps. 32: 3-4)

Judas had an issue with money. Chapter 12 of John’s gospel informs us that after a female worshipper poured expensive perfume on Jesus,  Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (Jn 12:4-6) . As we know, he later betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver (was it the money that he lusted after, anger at Jesus, or something else?). After Jesus’ arrest, Judas, in Gehenna, took his own life (Mt. 27:3-5)

When Stephen was stoned, Saul (Paul)–a defender of the Jewish faith approved of their killing him… Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8: 1 & 3). Paul does not give us much insight into his Gehenna; however, in 1st Corinthians 15:9 he says  I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Cain and Judas suffered hard consequences, King David and Paul acknowledged their sin, experienced God’s grace, left Gehenna and went on to live in the presence of God.

We learn from Paul, that staying out of Gehenna involves a thought battle and how to fight that thought battle so that our hearts and beings can be formed by the Holy Spirit. He writes:  So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you. (Romans 12:1-2 The Message)

Written another way: Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. (NLT)

Paul also tells us: Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.  The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. (Romans 8:5-7)

Our actions follow our thoughts; our thoughts reflect our hearts. We have heard it said don’t “do” certain things. Jesus says look deeper- it begins in your being, in your heart.

Jesus tells us A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart. (Luke 6:45 NLT)

God is the creator of new hearts. Every moment of every day he is willing to give us one. If our own thoughts, our own actions, our own words are showing us that we are headed to Gehenna, let’s look deeper. What have we given ourselves to? What are we lusting after, and why? If we’re currently in Gehenna, let’s repent, let’s change the way we think and let God restore us. If our way of being looks like our culture rather than God’s kingdom, let’s explore that.  If we are not seeing God, let’s investigate what it is we are seeking instead–what has our hearts? Let’s take the time to go deeper.

Heavenly Father, Create a new, clean heart within [us]. Fill [us] with pure thoughts and holy desires, ready to please you. (Ps. 51:10 TPT)

Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God… 

God, we want to see you.

-Luanne

Account of the Soul - Girls' Brigade Australia

 

How Long, Oh Lord?

As I ponder how to begin our blog today, I’m asking the Holy Spirit to give me the ability to write with clarity–the chance of being misunderstood is great. On Sunday, Pastor John diverged from his Sermon on the Mount series to focus on the issue of racial injustice, and our (majority culture) silence that happens over and over in our nation. What makes this hard to discuss is the tendency among many majority culture people to bristle at the mention of racial inequity. Defenses go up, political assumptions are made, lines are drawn and division occurs. Conversations (or social media threads) get heated. Thoughtful, culture-changing conversations don’t happen. I don’t know why it’s so polarizing. I do know the polarization keeps us from healing, from becoming better and from experiencing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

I’ve been on a journey for a number of years now trying to gain better understanding of the systemic issues of racism in our nation. One of the push backs that happen when this subject comes up is an immediate “I’m not racist”, so I want to clearly explain a couple of terms.

Pastor, seminary professor, and author Soong-Chan Rah wrote one of the clearest definitions of systemic racism that I’ve read thus far.  In his book The Next Evangelicalism he wrote: Central to our understanding of the sin of racism is our understanding of the image of God... we make ourselves the standard of reference in the determination of our values and norms. Racism elevates one race as the standard to which other races seek to attain and makes one race the ultimate standard of referenceRacism elevates the physical image above the spiritual image of God given to us by our creator. Racism is idolatry…it elevates a human factor to the level of the ultimate.  

Systemic racism can be really subtle. It can be as subtle as “flesh” colored band-aids, and “nude” pantyhose, which are the color of my flesh. I’m “the norm”. I can walk into stores and not be deemed as suspicious or someone to keep an eye on because my very appearance doesn’t create any kind of stir. I’m “the norm”.  My education primarily highlighted the contributions of European settlers–“the norm”. Up until the last few years, most of the theologians and Bible study authors I’ve read have my color of skin–meaning even our church theology can be subject to “the norm”.

In speaking of church matters, Professor Rah writes: When the majority culture church continues to define and shape what the church will look like, those who are “the other” are …silenced and the multiethnic dialogue deteriorates to a white monologue.  

And yet…if we look at the New Testament, In Revelation 7:9 John shows us what the “C” church looks like:  I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. 

The Apostle Paul writes: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28) and In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. (Colossians 3:11)

In the book of Acts, Peter had this realization when God confronted him with his own racism ( the mindset that the Jewish people were “the norm” as God’s people) and he exclaimed I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34) A few chapters later, Peter stood up at the Jerusalem Council and told church leaders that God made no distinction between Gentile believers and Jewish believers, he gave them the same Holy Spirit without having to become Jewish– “the norm”. (Acts 15) 

In speaking of justice, I’m not talking about worldly social justice. However, the Bible speaks of justice from beginning to end; therefore, it is imperative that we pay attention to and understand biblical justice.

The Bible Project group says: According to the Biblical justice that God sets forth, all humans are equal, all humans are created in His image, and all humans deserve to be treated with fairness and justice.. most of the time the Bible uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. Taken this way, the combination of righteousness and justice that God dictates means a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are fixed. Is this something we see our churches addressing? 

A small sampling of scripture on this issue includes:

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression. (Isaiah 1:17)

He has told you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times! (Ps. 106:3)

Evil men do not understand justice, but those who seek the Lord understand it completely. (Proverbs 28:5)

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord. (Ps 33:5)

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice. (Pr. 21:3)

This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3)

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42)

Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets. (Mt 7:12)

The call of Christ: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, (Luke 4:18)

So what are we to do? Acknowledge, listen, learn, act, influence…

I’ve shared before about my parents’ influence–my mother began a group in my hometown (a college town) for wives of doctoral students who were from other nations–they built community while learning from and supporting one another. There were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists etc. Love, fairness, justice, and respect are pillars of that group still today.

My dad had a KKK cross burned in the yard of his church in 1950 because he welcomed a black man in his church and visited him during the week. 15 years later my dad marched with MLK.

I am of the first generation of integrated schools; my friend group was highly diverse, which was encouraged in my home. I’m grateful for that legacy.

Our nation was founded by people escaping oppression who incorporated biblical principles in our early documents; however, a look at history shows they failed to see the image of God in the people who already lived here and brought with them the very oppression they were escaping from. They failed to see the image of God in their slaves and used scripture to justify atrocities.  These things are hard to face, but we must recognize them, do what we can to help heal centuries-old wounds and not participate in a culture that contributes to ongoing oppression.

A few years ago, Laura, another friend, and I attended “The Justice Conference” in Chicago. We didn’t know what to expect, and I’m not going to lie, it was hard to be spoken to so frankly. We didn’t like it at all (at first). However, I’ll be forever grateful that we stuck it out and wrestled it through. Our role at the conference was to listen and learn. We heard from Native Americans, African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, a Christian Syrian refugee, a Muslim Yemeni refugee, a Jewish rabbi, and others. We were confronted with our own cultural bias and lens. One of the things we became aware of was the individualism and silence of white culture America in matters that don’t personally affect us. A majority culture man in the audience pushed back against one of the speakers and he got called out on it. It was uncomfortable and we thought he was treated unfairly. The three of us went back to our hotel, and in our arrogance, we discussed how we thought the minority culture speaker was wrong.  Later that afternoon, we boarded a train and headed into downtown Chicago.

Our train car’s seats made it possible for groups of four to face one another– it also had an upper level of single row seats facing perpendicular to the lower level bench seats. We could look to the upper level and see the faces of the people seated there. At one station, an ethnically diverse group of young people got on the train and headed to the upper level. They were older teens, jovial, and enjoying their day. Most seats on the lower level were filled with people who looked like us, one group contained middle-aged men.

While we were en route, two testosterone-laden majority-culture teens came through our car. One of the youth on the upper level said something about a hat; the young men below thought the comment was directed at them and started verbally threatening the group. The upper-level group tried to explain, but the two young men were already escalated and were right next to the seat where the middle-aged white gentlemen sat. Those men looked down, looked at each other, but didn’t say a word to the angry young men. It’s what we had just learned at the conference; if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.

The angry young men turned, came right by us, and climbed the staircase to the upper level–they were ready for a fight. One young lady tried to block them from hitting her boyfriend. We were flabbergasted, jumped up, and spoke out. We said things like “Enough!” “Stop!” etc. And you know what? They did. They came back down the stairs and cussed their way out of our train car. 

We sat back down, all three of us shaking, and all three of us amazed at the lesson we had learned. We got off at the same stop as the young people, checked on them, told them how deeply sorry we were that they were treated that way, and went our separate ways.  It was life-changing. Our arrogance flew out the window and we were/are more determined to listen to and learn from minority voices. However, it is not the job of minority culture people to teach us. They are exhausted. It is our responsibility to learn about our own individualistic culture, what is helpful and what is not in seeking biblical justice, and how to come alongside (not take over) and work together to change oppressive systems.  

Could our experience on the train have gone differently? Yes. Could we have been in danger of being hurt. Yes. Would that have justified staying silent? No.

And we can’t stay silent when George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many others to list here are murdered, or incarcerated for crimes they didn’t commit, or given longer sentences than those of “the norm” who committed the same crime, or not speak out about the disappearance of hundreds of Native-American women, or not pay attention to land that is still being confiscated, or not be deeply concerned by the suicide rate among LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. These indicate serious, serious systemic issues.

We must stop judging peaceful protests because we don’t like the way they are done. We must pay attention to people in power who abuse their roles. We must advocate for arrests, for fair trials, for equity in our judicial systems. We must look beyond the surface to deeper issues, the things that don’t directly affect us as part of “the norm”. And when frustration spills over to rioting, we must remember the words of MLK from his 1968 “The Other America” speech who said:

Let me say as I’ve always said… riots are socially destructive and self-defeating. I’m still convinced that nonviolence is the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom and justice…

…[but] I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air.Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. In the final analysis,a riot is the language of the unheard.

And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity…

What do we do? It’s a complex issue that’s not going to be fixed quickly–so we commit to the long journey. We commit to listening, to learning, to looking deep. We commit to squelching our own defensiveness, exploring why we get defensive, and acknowledging our own fragility when this subject comes up. We commit to trying to see through a different lens. We commit to abolishing pre-judgment and suspicion based on the color of someone’s skin. We commit to not being discipled more by our preferred news sources than we are by the Word of God. We commit to paying attention to who Jesus valued, loved, saw, encouraged, and to treat others as he did. We commit to using our voices and standing with those whose voices are being ignored. We commit to paying attention to and changing oppressive political policies. We commit to the common good.

And, as the people of God, we humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face (even in the faces of image-bearers who look different from us), turn from our wicked ways (judgment, individualism, silence, contributing to the standard of “the norm, systemic racism) and God will forgive our sin and heal our land. (2 Chron 7:14).

Lord God, move us deep within. Help us to hear, to see, to acknowledge, to act. Help us to empathize, seek to walk in another’s shoes, care deeply. May your kingdom of total inclusion and equity come, may your will that includes the flourishing of all humanity be done right here on earth, through us, as it is in heaven.

–Luanne

Like Luanne, I have been revisiting the things we learned at The Justice Conference and remembering our experiences from that weekend. I’m so glad I have notes saved in the journal I took with me to Chicago–I come back to them again and again. As I have been reading back through the things I learned from so many wise presenters, some of their words stood out in new ways in light of what we are experiencing in these days. I want to share some of the quotes I recorded with you as we press into the holy work for biblical justice and equity that Luanne explained so beautifully and clearly for us. I’ll start with something she said above:

“…if it doesn’t affect us personally we stay silent and our silence encourages violence.” 
The story of what happened on the train drilled this truth into the three of us that experienced it together. If we are part of the majority culture, we have the option of entering in… or not. If it’s not convenient, if it feels unsafe, if we’re criticized for speaking up or standing up, if the cost to us personally seems too high… we can choose to opt out. This is what privilege looks like. It’s not about wealth or having an easy life. It’s about having the opportunity to choose whether we’ll be affected by injustice or not.
Many people don’t have that choice.
Injustice, prejudice, racism, violence–these things affect their daily lives. And until the majority culture, the ones holding the power to change systems and structures that oppress and dehumanize others, chooses to listen, to speak up, to come alongside, the daily lives of those on the underside of the power dynamic will continue to be negatively impacted by a multitude of injustices. Our silence has consequences. Our silence allows things to remain as they are, as they have been for hundreds of years.
Many of the speakers at the conference we attended spoke directly into our silence, which is, as we learned, complicity with the systems that are in place.
Pastor and activist Sandra Maria Van Opstal said,
“How can we say we love our neighbor and not stand up against the systems that break them? We can’t say we “do life together” unless we actually do.”
We were challenged at the conference, and continue to be challenged in our day-to-day lives to do more than simply break the silence. It is a good and necessary first step, speaking up. But if our words never grow legs and move us into action, what good are they?
Justin Dillon, Founder and CEO of the nonprofit Made in a Free World, shared that,
“Participating in the problems of others is the path to purpose.”
He went on to describe something we’ve mentioned in the blog before: virtue signaling. Justin explained this as “lending a voice, but no action, pulling equity out of something we have no investment in.”
Virtue signaling is real and it can hurt the very people we long to come alongside. When we raise our voices, when the words we say make us sound like allies, but we are unwilling to move into action, to do the hard work required for change to come, our words are hollow.
But what do we do? I’ve heard this question asked repeatedly in recent days. The truth is, as Luanne highlighted above, it is a process. We are not experts, we are part of the majority culture, members of the societal norm. But we have chosen to take the posture of learners, to listen, to get proximate to the wise, faithful voices on the margins and follow their lead. Humility is essential. Acknowledging our own biases, coming to terms with our privilege, admitting our shortcomings and lack of understanding, owning our failures–these are all part of where we start. We heard the word “proximity” over and over again in Chicago. It’s important that we get proximate to the real people behind the stories we hear. As Reverend Gabriel Salguero shared,
“We have a seeing and hearing problem… the biggest fog is distance.”
He also talked to us about how our fears and beliefs about others, our implicit biases that we don’t even know we have impact our ability to see and to act:
“Fear of our neighbor must be overcome. Love is what overcomes it. You cannot love people you’re afraid of.”
He addressed our fears of feeling unsafe in this work. He said of God,
“He’s not safe, but He is good… To truly love your neighbor(s) is never safe. But it’s always good.”
He also reminded us that to truly love, there must be mutuality…
“You can’t be a neighbor to someone you’re trying to conquer.”
This is where equity comes in. There is a power dynamic that exists, and it is fiercely guarded. It favors the strong and powerful and further oppresses the marginalized. When it attempts to act on behalf on another, it does so with bravado, like a hero on a white horse, seeking applause and accolades that maintain and strengthen the dynamics rather than shift them. In seeking to be a neighbor, to truly love our neighbor as ourselves, we must actively choose to be quiet so that the voices around us can be heard. It’s not about being the voice for the voiceless–no one is voiceless. It’s about quieting down so that the voices of those who haven’t been heard can be elevated. They are speaking–we simply haven’t been listening.
We will never see the stunning mosaic of God’s kingdom come to life in our churches, in our communities until we intentionally elevate the voices on the margins. What they bring to the table is not a threat to our faith. No. They bring a feast we didn’t know existed because we’ve been eating the same meal for too long. So we invite them to bring the fullness of who they are to the table, understanding that sometimes it is necessary to let go of our limited understanding. Inviting, elevating, believing and honoring the voices of our brothers and sisters who don’t look like us to lead us expands us, grows us, helps us to see a more complete picture of God. We cannot think we have an understanding of who our God is if it only includes the narrative of the normative.
So we start with humility. We listen, learn, get proximate, acknowledge, give up our seat at the table, understand that we don’t understand and so we look to those who do, those who live on the margins. We engage in hard conversations with those in our own circles–our families, our friends, our churches. We choose love over fear, and we let our love grow into action. We do not lead out as heroes in the story. We follow the lead of those already in the trenches, fighting for change, and we leverage our privilege to magnify their voices. We don’t burden people of color with our questions, our guilt, our shame–we find resources (there are so many available!) and we do the hard work of educating ourselves. We repent and we let Jesus and his way mess in our business. We wrestle with our defensiveness, our fears, our selfishness, and our complicity with our God–we don’t lash out at others. We walk alongside our friends, as humble allies, not heroes looking for a pat on the back. We recognize that there’s much we don’t know, but we do know this: In Jesus’ kingdom, the marginalized are prioritized, loved, protected, and elevated.
These are some things we can do. But how we do these things matters just as much. As I was flipping through my notebook and praying about what to write here this week, I came across notes from a sermon that Pastor John preached in July 2017. Reading through the points I recorded from that message out of Colossians, it struck me that this is how we do these things that matter. The passage is Colossians 3:12-14:
So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.
Pastor John began his message with these words, “This passage is all about connection, it is transformational rather than transactional. The way we connect with others is a reflection of our connection with Jesus.”
We looked deeply into what the virtues highlighted in these two verses really mean, as they are all about how we relate with others. Here’s what we learned:
Compassion begins with seeing a problem, then letting what we see penetrate our hearts. It can literally be translated “co-suffering.” Compassion moves us beyond feeling pity into  action. It moves our hearts and our feet toward others and it always involves personal sacrifice.
Kindness is “a tender goodness that is useful.” It is all about community. It goes against independence and individuality. It cares for the well-being of all others and is willing to be a “last” so someone else can be a first. It leads us to see the needs around us. Pastor John called it, “the yoke of Jesus.” I love that.
Humility is defined in a multitude of ways, but John highlighted that it means “groundedness, earthiness.” Humility is not about cowering; it is not self-deprecating, pathetic, or downcast. It doesn’t minimize our individual gifts. It is about knowing who we are in Christ and taking our place, filling up only the space that is ours--not more, not less, so that everyone else can take up exactly their amount of space, too. To be humble means to have an honest, healthy perspective of who we are in relation to God and others and knowing our place in the kingdom.
Gentleness, what the translation above calls “quiet strength,” is exactly that. It is not voicelessness. It is the middle ground between too much and too little anger. It is a burning that stirs us to move toward something that needs addressed, corrected. It says what needs to be said, led by the Spirit. Pastor John said that gentleness is letting God out of the inside of you, saying the hard, difficult things with strength. It does not shrink, and it does not rage. It finds the space between the two and remains planted there.
The word discipline in the passage in more often translated patience. It is connected to gentleness because it also deals with anger. It is a restraining of anger, a very long wick. It is steady and keeps a little distance between us and the anger and swelling emotions. This can be both healthy and unhealthy depending on how we lean into this space, but in our dealings with others, this is what creates a little space, allows us to wait and process, restrain destructive rage and choose how to we will move rather than being led by our anger.
Forgiveness in this passage also carries the concept of forbearance. Both are important.
Together, they mean being tolerant of some things and releasing our “right” to get even. This means abstaining from attacking and controlling others because we value and honor the person. We choose to see every person as someone of value and we choose to be for them, not against. Forgiveness and forbearance are born out of grace, and leaning into this hard work takes us out of the role of judge and keeps us flexible and willing to engage with others to work toward the flourishing of all.
Love is what holds it all together. If love is not what drives us, none of the other virtues will grow in our lives. Love is where we start and end–everything else flows out of it. Love, according to what Jesus taught and modeled, is self-emptying. It “…never gives up, cares more for others than for self, doesn’t want what it can’t have, doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, trusts God always, looks for the best, never looks back, keeps going to the end.” (taken from 1 Corinthians 13, The Message)
We must be willing to do something, to put actions behind our impassioned words about the injustices in our world. But we must choose how we engage. Wisdom reminds us that we always have choices. We must choose wisely. Our fight for restorative justice is born out of compassion–the kind of compassion that sees someone hurting, abused, silenced and, like the Samaritan in Jesus’ parable, moves toward that person–regardless of the cost. Kindness leads us to be willing to prioritize the needs and voices of the marginalized and unheard.  Humility makes us aware that the space we’ve been handed by our world may not match the space that is actually ours to take up according to the kingdom. In the kingdom, there are no power dynamics at play, and no one gets more space than another because of their skin color, gender, education, or status. It recognizes the systems that have been built to uphold some and oppress others and it desires to set things right–to restore Shalom according to kingdom principles. This does mean those of us that have been given more than our share must choose to step back into the space we were created to inhabit so that those who haven’t been able to breathe, speak, grow, lead can expand into the space that is theirs to fill.
Gentleness moves us into the space where we say what needs to be said–not more, not less. It sounds like strength, but it’s controlled and measured. It is a healthy anger that smolders within–enough to move us into the work that needs to be done, but not so much that it engulfs what is good, holy work in flames that could burn the whole thing down. Patience creates the space we need to keep going. If we burn hot and engage from a place of raging anger, we will never see restorative justice come, and the flourishing of all will be inaccessible. Forgiveness is imperative in this work. It’s messy and not one of us will do it right all the time. We have to be willing to hang in, to keep working together in spite of our differences, and extend grace to others and ourselves when we cause and experience pain on the journey.
Love is the foundation, the source, the river that carries the work of justice. Without it, nothing we do or say matters. But when we’re firmly rooted in the love that gives and sustains life, grounded in the goodness of the One from whom it flows, there is nothing we can’t do, nowhere we can’t go. When we’re driven by love, we are empowered to do the work that needs to be done in a way that makes justice and equity possible.
May we remember that Jesus already brought the kingdom to earth. It’s here. But it needs channels to flow through so that everyone can be brought into wholeness and flourishing for the benefit of all of creation. The world will remember our response to the mounting injustices plaguing this generation. How we are remembered is up to us. What we do matters. How we do it matters. May we be found faithful citizens of the kingdom we carry within us.
–Laura
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Living Loved & Loving Others

We took a short break from our sermon on the mount series this week to hear from Trevor Schenk, one of our elders. Though his message wasn’t from the sermon on the mount, it fit in seamlessly with what we’ve been learning from Pastor John. One of the first statements Trevor made was,

“Jesus led a life that showed us how to love, how to live.”

He led us through passage after passage reminding us about God’s love, what it is and what it’s not. He reminded us that even when we’re living with hateful, murderous thoughts inside like we discussed last week, we are not exempt from the love of God that pursues us. He gave us many examples from the scriptures of people who chose to kill rather than to love, and yet God went to them and revealed his heart to them–changing them by the transformative power of his love and empowering them to love like him. He exhorted us to first embrace our own belovedness and then to learn from the example of Jesus so that we can model that kind of self-sacrificing love in our relationships with others.

The message was a “Selah” moment, of sorts–a pause to remember and reflect on how dearly loved and chosen we are by the Creator who calls each of us children, made in the image of our eternal God. It was also a call to live a life worthy of the one we claim to follow.

Rather than write a lot of extra words to expand on the message Trevor brought to us, I thought the best thing to do this week would be to give our readers what Trevor gave us–a moment to pause and reflect, a moment to ponder with fresh awe the deep, deep love of God lived out in the life of Jesus, and what that love requires of us as we relate with our fellow image-bearers.

The main passage Trevor spoke from is 1 John 3, so I’ll include the verses he used below, as well as many of the supporting passages he shared with us. I am intentionally including a variety of translations. My hope is that you’ll take a moment to read through them slowly, ponder the words in your heart, and be reminded afresh of the deep love that pursues you, that pursues us all. Because this is what I have found to be true over and over again–

When we catch a glimpse of the Love that made us, that pursues us, that willingly died a criminal’s death at our hands so that we might understand there is nowhere he wouldn’t go to reach us… we can’t help but be changed. Love like that rearranges our hearts if we let it, and it keeps doing its good work until we learn to live cruciform like Christ–arms outstretched in love that looks outward and invites all to come in…

Look with wonder at the depth of the Father’s marvelous love that he has lavished on us! He has called us and made us his very own beloved children. The reason the world doesn’t recognize who we are is that they didn’t recognize him. Beloved, we are God’s children right now; however, it is not yet apparent what we will become. But we do know that when it is finally made visible, we will be just like him, for we will see him as he truly is. And all who focus their hope on him will always be purifying themselves, just as Jesus is pure. . . Here is how God’s children can be clearly distinguished from the children of the Evil One. Anyone who does not demonstrate righteousness and show love to fellow believers is not living with God as his source. The beautiful message you’ve heard right from the start is that we should walk in self-sacrificing love toward one another. We should not be like Cain, who yielded to the Evil One and brutally murdered his own brother, Abel. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s righteous. So don’t be shocked, beloved brothers and sisters, if you experience the world’s hatred. Yet we can be assured that we have been translated from spiritual death into spiritual life because we love the family of believers. A loveless life remains spiritually dead. Everyone who keeps hating a fellow believer is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him. This is how we have discovered love’s reality: Jesus sacrificed his life for us. Because of this great love, we should be willing to lay down our lives for one another. If anyone sees a fellow believer in need and has the means to help him, yet shows no pity and closes his heart against him, how is it even possible that God’s love lives in him? Beloved children, our love can’t be an abstract theory we only talk about, but a way of life demonstrated through our loving deeds.

(I John 3:1-3, 10-18, The Passion Translation)

Be kind to each other, be understanding. Be as ready to forgive others as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you. 

(Ephesians 4:32 J.B. Phillips)

 You shall not take revenge nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor (acquaintance, associate, companion) as yourself; I am the Lord.

(Leviticus 19:18, Amplified Bible)

“Here is a simple, rule-of-thumb guide for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you, then grab the initiative and do it for them. Add up God’s Law and Prophets and this is what you get.”

(Matthew 7:12, The Message)

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.

(1 John 4:7-8, NKJV)

 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.  If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

 Love is large and incredibly patient. Love is gentle and consistently kind to all. It refuses to be jealous when blessing comes to someone else. Love does not brag about one’s achievements nor inflate its own importance. Love does not traffic in shame and disrespect, nor selfishly seek its own honor. Love is not easily irritated or quick to take offense. Love joyfully celebrates honesty and finds no delight in what is wrong. Love is a safe place of shelter, for it never stops believing the best for others. Love never takes failure as defeat, for it never gives up. Love never stops loving. It extends beyond the gift of prophecy, which eventually fades away. It is more enduring than tongues, which will one day fall silent. Love remains long after words of knowledge are forgotten

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG, 4-8 TPT)

Trevor encouraged us to be aware of what is in our minds and hearts. He reminded us that God already knows what is hiding within each of us but still refuses to give up on us. I read last week that St. Augustine said sin is, “…being curved in upon oneself.” Those few words have messed with me these last few days. They challenge me to look up, to reach out, to listen, to recognize what lives in the shadows of my soul. Being curved in upon myself–however good the reason may be, even when it feels like the only way to protect my heart–is the opposite of living cruciform, the opposite of Jesus’ display of self-emptying love. This week, my prayer is that we each have the courage to open, to embrace the beautiful vulnerability of living with arms outstretched as we continue to learn how to live as dearly beloved children of God.

–Laura

Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth ...

You’ve Heard it Said…

We are in the fourth week of our Sermon on the Mount series. As a quick recap, Jesus began with the beatitudes–how his followers are to “be”, then he said we are to be salt and light in the world, which will happen organically if we are “beatitude” people, then he taught that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, to complete them, to help us understand their original intent.  This week, we look at one of those laws and the first of Jesus’ statements “you have heard it said…but I say…”

 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5:17-20)

You have heard it said ‘you shall not murder’–it’s one of the 10 Commandments. I imagine we’re all familiar with those words. I imagine there are very few of us who have committed murder so we can feel pretty good about ourselves as far as that commandment goes. Right?

Well, not so fast. Jesus hops right over murder and addresses the heart-the issue of anger that happens before we escalate to murderous rage. Murder is an outward action. Anger is an inward emotion. Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.

If you recall, the first murder that took place in the Bible is recorded in Genesis chapter 4 and was an older brother killing his younger brother. Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, was very angry (v. 5) because God accepted his brother Abel’s sacrifice, but not his. God, in His mercy, came to Cain and said:  “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast?  If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (v. 6-7).   

Cain did not rule over his anger, instead, he allowed it to rule over him, to burn in him until he killed his brother. His consequence–his judgment, for killing his brother was separation– he was driven from his land, lost his home, and lived in fear that he would be killed. The Lord didn’t remove all of Cain’s consequences, but he did place a mark on him that would protect him from being killed (v.15).

Did Cain deserve the protective mark? Not according to the Levitical law that came a few centuries later. By the code of Levitical law, a murderer was to be stoned (Lev. 24:17). Stoning is the consequence that those listening to Jesus would have been familiar with and would have thought of as just punishment for such a heinous act.

So Jesus, in addressing murder, ups the ante.  He addresses anger and says “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”  Subject to judgment? That makes sense in terms of murder, but for being angry? What does that even mean?

Get this… the Greek word for judgment is krisis. If that reminds you of the English word crisis you are exactly right, and according to vocabulary.com The noun crisis comes from the Latinized form of the Greek word krisis, meaning “turning point in a disease.” At such a moment, the person with the disease could get better or worse: it’s a critical moment…

So, anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to crisis, to a turning point, a critical moment that could get better or worse. 

I understand that. I’ve not ever been angry enough that I wanted to kill another person, but I’ve certainly been angry enough to be in crisis mode, emotional turmoil, and dishonoring toward another human being with my thoughts and words. It never leads anywhere good. There have been other times in the critical moment, I have taken a deep breath, valued the relationship and handled myself in a much calmer manner, seeking a solution and reconciliation. Our response to anger, the critical turning point in how we’ll handle ourselves, is our judge.

Anger is a God-given emotion. Some things are truly worth being angry about, but we’ve got to be careful with our hearts. Jesus is addressing the heart matter, the crisis moment, the turning point.

Jesus’ brother James, one of the early church leaders, offers wise words for how we are to comport ourselves: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness (justice) that God desires. (Jms 1:19-20)

The Apostle Paul advised,  In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph. 4:26-27)

Paul also wrote:  …rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips…clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. (Col. 3:8 & 12-14)

Jesus constantly points to valuing people and relationships. He sternly warns against demeaning others with our words. He encourages us to settle disputes before having to get the judicial system involved.  He encourages us to reconcile with others before we bring our gifts, our worship to the altar of God so that we are rightly related with others and therefore, rightly related with God. Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.

Jesus’ order of topics in the Sermon on the Mount was not happenstance. He talks about anger right after teaching the beatitudes and letting us know we are to be salt and light in the world. I think it would behoove all of us, myself included, to reflect and ask the Holy Spirit to show us our heart attitudes toward others. Have we demeaned others, or supported others who are demeaning in their treatment of people? Have we been divisive? What do our social media accounts look like? Our political posts? Our Covid19 posts? Our humor? Proverbs 18:21 tells us the tongue has the power of life and death. Jesus taught us that out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks. (Luke 6:45). Are our words murderous? Do we ingest the murderous words of others and allow those to taint our hearts?

Have we been righteously angry about the right things such as gross, sometimes murderous injustice against image-bearers of God–many times because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their station in life? Even in our godly, righteous anger would our posts, our words be defined as wise? As loving? As peacemaking? Do they represent the salt and light, the principles of the Kingdom of God, or do they goad?

Let’s reflect once more on the heart attitude, the “be” attitude Jesus desires in his followers. He desires followers who are humble and totally dependent upon God, who mourn (feel deeply), who are gentle and kind (meek), who hunger and thirst for right relationships and equity, God’s kind of relationships among all humankind with each other and with God. He desires followers who are merciful, who are pure in heart and can see God’s presence in others and in the world, followers who strive to make peace, those who live so counter-culturally that they are persecuted, lied about and insulted for being like Jesus, (which is exactly what Jesus experienced at the hands of an angry group of powerful people who stirred up an angry mob).

Can we be like the beatitudes in our own strength? No. But we have the Holy Spirit within us and can pray, like Paul prayed for the Ephesians: I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being (3:16) 

Anger flows from the heart. If left unchecked it leads to crisis, broken relationships, the demeaning and blaspheming of the image of God in others, superiority attitudes, separation, condemnation, condescension, division, violence, abuse and murder.

You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment…

…human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires…

So, search (us), God, and know (our) hearts; test (us) and know (our) anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in (us) and lead (us) in the way everlasting. (Ps. 139: 23:24)

Create in (us) a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within (us). (Ps 51:10)

Above everything else guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life. (Prv. 4:23)

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. (Mt. 5:8)

–Luanne

As difficult as this week’s passage is, I have been eager to get to it. Everything Jesus speaks in the sermon on the mount is revolutionary, but this section that we are getting  into is one that has been transforming the way I see, believe, and walk out my faith for a few years now.
Sometimes people say–and I’m pretty sure we’ve written similar things in this blog more than once–that Jesus condensed all of the Law into two commandments that really are one. Love. Period. In Matthew 22, when a Pharisee quizzes Jesus about which commandment is most important,
 Jesus answered him, “‘Love the Lord your God with every passion of your heart, with all the energy of your being, and with every thought that is within you.’ This is the great and supreme commandment. And the second is like it in importance: ‘You must love your friend in the same way you love yourself.’  (vs. 37-39, TPT)
Sometimes when this is brought up, people call it watered-down, negligent of the whole Law, too grace-based. The argument is that saying Jesus is all about love lets people off the hook to do whatever they want, that it’s a bit of a loosey-goosey, free-for-all theology. Jesus would disagree. He completes the above statements with these words:
Contained within these commandments to love you will find all the meaning of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:40, emphasis mine)

“All of the Law and the Prophets” are contained in Jesus’ commandments to love God with our whole hearts and to love others in the same way. That’s a pretty big deal.

You might be thinking, “That doesn’t sound at all like this week’s passage…” 

And it doesn’t–at least not on the surface. What we are looking at this week lays the groundwork for what Jesus will say later. If Jesus had made his Matthew 22 statements prior to his lengthy explanations in the sermon on the mount, I can’t imagine the riot it could have caused. He had to move slowly into this space, to meet the people where they were, so that they could see the truth:

Jesus was not in any way setting the Law aside or replacing it. He came to expand it, to show that their understanding of the commandments of God was skin deep. And nothing we put on our outsides has the power to transform what is inside.

Luanne wrote in her portion,

“Jesus takes this commandment, this “do and don’t” thinking and basically says it’s deeper and bigger than the action– check the condition of your heart, your state of being.”

The Law’s intention from the beginning was to form God’s people in the way of love, as we discussed at length last week. But that’s not how it was being used, and Jesus wasn’t about to stay quiet about it. A little later in Matthew, we come across these words,

“Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.”

(Matthew 23:1-3, MSG, emphasis mine)

So when Jesus says, “You have heard it said… But I say…,” he is reorienting the hearts of his listeners to the why behind the Law. Each of the Ten Commandments was designed to form the people in the kingdom ways of loving God and loving neighbor. But those in attendance had no idea. They were living in a generation that had been totally overtaken by those in positions of power and privilege, and they didn’t know the heart of God. They knew the list of what they could and couldn’t do, and they were doing the best they could with the skin-deep theology they were taught.

No wonder they were hungry for the bread of life…

They had ingested the “wisdom” of their teachers and, while it may have kept them from breaking the law, it also left them starving for the God those laws were meant to keep them connected to. The wisdom of their teachers wasn’t wisdom at all. According to James,

“Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

(James 3:17-18, MSG, emphasis mine)

Treating each other with dignity and honor…

Luanne wrote,

“Our relationships with others, how we treat others, is of great importance to God. Every human bears the image of God and is dearly loved by God. To mistreat a fellow human being is to mistreat God.” 

This matters deeply to Jesus. So he takes the law and seemingly makes it even harder to follow. And it is–if we’re not being formed in the way of Love.

My morning reading yesterday included Psalm 139. Luanne included a bit of it above. As I read it slowly, the spirit spoke deeply to my heart, connecting it to Sunday’s message. I’ve included the whole Psalm below. I encourage you to read it slowly, and ask Jesus to be your guide as you read this. Last week, at a prayer school that was put on by pastor and author Brian Zahnd, we were encouraged to “…go into the Hebrew Scriptures escorted by our Messiah.  Let Jesus teach us. He’s our (as we are Gentiles) Jewish sponsor…” Reading Old Testament passages with Pastor Brian’s exhortation in mind has made a difference in how I see. I hope you can read the words below in this way, with Jesus as your guide and the lens through which you see.

Lord, you know everything there is to know about me. You perceive every movement of my heart and soul, and you understand my every thought before it even enters my mind.
You are so intimately aware of me, Lord. You read my heart like an open book and you know all the words I’m about to speak before I even start a sentence! You know every step I will take before my journey even begins. You’ve gone into my future to prepare the way, and in kindness you follow behind me to spare me from the harm of my past. With your hand of love upon my life, you impart a blessing to me. This is just too wonderful, deep, and incomprehensible! Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face? If I go up to heaven, you’re there! If I go down to the realm of the dead, you’re there too! If I fly with wings into the shining dawn, you’re there! If I fly into the radiant sunset, you’re there waiting! Wherever I go, your hand will guide me; your strength will empower me. It’s impossible to disappear from you or to ask the darkness to hide me, for your presence is everywhere, bringing light into my night. There is no such thing as darkness with you. The night, to you, is as bright as the day; there’s no difference between the two. You formed my innermost being, shaping my delicate inside and my intricate outside, and wove them all together in my mother’s womb. I thank you, God, for making me so mysteriously complex! Everything you do is marvelously breathtaking. It simply amazes me to think about it! How thoroughly you know me, Lord! You even formed every bone in my body when you created me in the secret place, carefully, skillfully shaping me from nothing to something. You saw who you created me to be before I became me! Before I’d ever seen the light of day, the number of days you planned for me were already recorded in your book. Every single moment you are thinking of me! How precious and wonderful to consider that you cherish me constantly in your every thought! O God, your desires toward me are more than the grains of sand on every shore! When I awake each morning, you’re still with me. 

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.”

(Psalm 139, TPT)

I want to share with you a few things that spoke to me as I read these beautiful words, but I don’t want to say too much or linger too long. I hope each of us will sit with these words and invite Jesus to speak through them, to shed light on what it means that he came to show us the way of Love, and to help us understand why he had to clarify that what we have heard said may not capture the whole picture.

The psalmist writes these words,

You read my heart like an open book. . . Your understanding of me brings me wonder and strength.Where could I go from your Spirit? Where could I run and hide from your face?. . . How thoroughly you know me, Lord!

He reads our hearts. Not our outward behavior, but the attitude of our hearts. There’s nowhere we can hide from his constant gaze. This understanding brought the psalmist wonder and strength. Why? Because there’s nowhere to hide from a love like that. We are thoroughly known and seen… and loved. Jesus wants his listeners in our passage this week to get this deep into their bones. God knows the hearts of each one–their teachers included. What they had heard said might have been correct on the surface, but we don’t follow a shallow God, and his love grows from the depths outward–not the other way around. The people didn’t know the truth until the Truth came to walk alongside them. The only way he could exhort them later on to live according to the greatest commandment of love was to first reveal that love through himself.

O God, come and slay these bloodthirsty, murderous men! For I cry out, “Depart from me, you wicked ones!” See how they blaspheme your sacred name and lift up themselves against you, but all in vain! Lord, can’t you see how I despise those who despise you? For I grieve when I see them rise up against you. I have nothing but complete hatred and disgust for them. Your enemies shall be my enemies! 

When I read this part of the Psalm yesterday, I wept. Because as I read it with Jesus as my guide, it changed into this…

God, come and slay the bloodthirsty, murderous ways that live within me… Rid me of the parts of me that don’t line up with your way of love. I cry out, ‘Depart from my mind, my heart, and my words, you wicked thoughts, criticisms, judgements, comparisons–all you do is blaspheme the image of God in my brothers and sisters. You lift yourselves up against the wisdom of God that is peace-seeking, kind, patient, and gracious, and all you care about is being right. But you can’t out-right the Holy One.’ Lord, I despise the ways in me that despise your command to love first. I hate that my love can grow cold in the valley of selfishness, arrogance, and pride. When I see how far I’ve moved away from your heart, I grieve, and sorrow carries me into wells of my own tears. I am disgusted by the image of me that parades around my soul as your ally, your counterpart. That part of me knows not your humility and is an enemy of your image alive in me. Your enemies are my enemies, and they are out to devour my soul. I am at war within myself–the parts of me that attempt to deceive me into eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil fighting with the presence of your Spirit in me that invites me to dine at a table set under the tree of life, in the presence of the enemies that live within… 

While all of that is true, I need not fear. For he is with me. He’s the one who prepares the table in the dark corners of my soul, in the presence of the pieces of me that aren’t yet fully formed in his image. And he invites these parts of me, these “enemies” to bear witness to the disciple in me as I sit and dine with the one who leads and guides me. As the enemies within behold the feast, they come to know that they are also invited to come sit and be formed in the presence of Love.

The psalm ends with these beautiful words:

God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart. Examine me through and through; find out everything that may be hidden within me. Put me to the test and sift through all my anxious cares. See if there is any path of pain I’m walking onand lead me back to your glorious, everlasting ways—the path that brings me back to you.

See if there is any path of pain I’m walking on–anywhere in me that came upon a crisis and chose wrongly and has ended up in the valley of the shadow of death, on the winding road away from love–and lead me back to your ways.

Jesus’ way calls us to live in a whole different dimension while remaining present where we are. That’s what living in the kingdom is all about.

We have heard many things said… But what does Jesus say? May we listen well to the author of life as he leads us beneath the surface and into the real.

–Laura

Psalms 139:23 God, I invite your searching gaze into my heart ...

Sermon on the Mount #4: Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics. That’s where Pastor John began Sunday’s message. It’s a big word that most of us are probably not very familiar with. While the word may be unfamiliar to many of us, its impact has touched all of our lives in one way or another. It means simply, the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts.” What any of us know or understand about the Bible has come to us through the filters of many different interpretations. It was the same for Jesus’ first followers, except their “bible,” at that point, did not include what we call the “New Testament” today. They had the Hebrew Scriptures, and they had scribes and Pharisees to interpret for them what the words meant and how they were to be applied.

Long before Jesus sat down to teach the sermon on the mount, there was another man on another mountain. It was Moses and the mountain was Mt. Sinai, where he met with God and was given what became the Ten Commandments, the Law. These Ten Commandments were given from God to his people in love as a comprehensive framework for how to love God and each other. As Brian Zahnd writes in his Lenten devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus,

“The first four of the the Ten Commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with God, or what we call worship. The final six commandments are intended to form Israel in right relationship with one another, or what we call justice.”

Instead of adhering to God’s exhortation to the ways of love, the people expanded it and broke it into subsets of laws and conditions. The commandments grew from ten God-given laws to 613 different regulations. Around the 613 regulations there were thousands of comments to explain them. How were the people to know what they were to do, how they were to follow the Law? As Pastor John shared with us Sunday, they needed interpreters, designated men, set apart to attend to the interpretation of the many amendments to God’s original commandments. Enter the scribes and Pharisees… These teachers were set apart to interpret ALL of the laws and regulations FOR the people. What the people learned as “God’s Law” came through the hermeneutics of the scribes and Pharisees. This elevated these leaders in the Jewish culture. The people needed them so that they could correctly understand the words of God.

But there was a problem. The leaders had missed the the original intent of the law. They had missed the intended focus. The focus was never supposed to be on the Law itself as a checklist to be completed. The focus was to be on the God of love who gave it to them as a way to protect them from the disease of self and the effects of living in opposition to God’s way of love. This brings us to this week’s text, Matthew 5:17-20:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus goes up on a mountain and sits down to teach his growing number of followers. He begins to teach them how they are to be, as citizens of his kingdom; he tells them that, in living his way, they will be salt and light to the world. He follows that up with this week’s passage about the Law that they held so dear. In the midst of what may have sounded to the people like new commandments, perhaps replacing what they had learned as God’s Law, Jesus says otherwise. I imagine the people were confused–what Jesus was teaching sounded nothing like what they had been taught all their lives from their scribes and teachers of the law. This is precisely why Jesus says what he does. He knows they have learned the law in a way that missed the mark of its original intent. He knows that the focus had become the laws themselves rather than the God who gave the law to them. So he addresses it in these four verses, and we get to see the law through the hermeneutics of Jesus and how his interpretation differs from that of the scribes and Pharisees.

He begins by saying, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law…” According to Strong’s Greek Lexicon, the word abolish in this passage is katalyo, which means “to destroy, break down, dissolve.” Its root words mean “to loose, unbind, set free, break apart, set apart.” Jesus did not come to set them free or unbind them from the original Law. He came instead, he says, to fulfill them. Please bear with me as we dig into what the word fulfill means here. I know not everyone gets as excited as I do about the definitions of words, but this one is important to our understanding of this text. And it’s pretty fascinating, too!

The word translated fulfill comes from the Greek pleroo, meaning “to complete, fill to the full, cause to abound; to fill to the top: so that nothing shall be wanting to full measure, fill to the brim; to consummate, render perfect and complete in every particular, to carry through to the end; to bring to realization.” A deeper look reveals that the root of pleroo is plebes, which means “to fill up hollow vessels; to thoroughly permeate the soul.”

When I read these definitions, it sets off fireworks in my mind! When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! To “cause to abound” implies the action of fruit-bearing. To consummate is to bring together, to connect and make one of two. He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love; to complete the people’s partial understanding of the law and its intent so that in uniting one to the other, fruit would be born in abundance. And this fulfillment Jesus brought would fill up the places left hollow by the law and “thoroughly permeate their souls.” Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended. As Romans 10:4 states:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.

The Law as a checklist has its limits. Where the words of the Law end, Jesus steps in to show us what it looks like to live as a kingdom-dweller. In Beth Moore’s gorgeous new book, Chasing Vines, she writes,

“John’s Gospel tells us that “the law was given through Moses” and “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). But lest the graced ones misinterpret these words, grace didn’t break the law of Moses, like stone tablets thrown into worthless fragments. Grace loosed the law of love from its limits.”

She continues a few pages later,

“Jesus isn’t impressed by love in word but not in deed (1 John 3:18). In Jesus’ reckoning, when it comes to love, confession without action is pretention.”

This leads us into what is, perhaps, the most difficult part of this week’s passage, the last verse. Here it is again, to refresh our memories:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I imagine the mouths in the crowd, if they weren’t wide by this point, fell open as they heard these words. What was the teacher telling them? The Pharisees and teachers of the  law were the most righteous among them, and this Jesus guy was telling them they had to be more righteous than them? Talk about unrealistic expectations! I wonder if any of them stood up to leave at this point, discouraged by the impossibility of meeting Jesus’ requirements.

Fortunately for the crowd that day, Jesus wasn’t finished yet. The words in verse 20 weren’t the last in the discourse, they were said to set up what would come next. He is about to expand and deepen their understanding of the individual laws they followed. As Beth wrote, “Grace loosed the law of love from its limits,” and the people were about to hear exactly what that means. But we’ll get into that next week. For now, let’s dive into the troublesome verse and see what there is for us to glean…

First, it’s important to note that when Jesus says “…you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven,” he is not talking about eternal destiny. As we have discussed at length previously, the kingdom Jesus repeatedly talks about is here and now. The Greek definitions of the words in this particular verse mean, “the kingdom realm; not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule (…) the encompassing, vaulted expanse of the sky and universe and all things visible in it.” He is telling them that if their righteousness is not greater than that of their “teachers” they’ll have no right to rule or teach with any authority in his kingdom. He is simultaneously disqualifying those who had been elevated as the only ones authorized to speak on the law and calling his hearers to live at a higher level than that of these leaders.

What is this higher level he calls them to?

“. . .unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law…”

As we have written about previously, the word righteousness is translated from the Greek dikaiosynē, derived from the root word dikē, which means “equitable, just.”  I wrote these words two weeks ago,

There are many occurrences of the word righteousness in our English translations of the Bible that originally meant justice, equity–which is a fuller understanding of exactly what Pastor John talked about: being rightly related to God, which will always include being rightly related to all others.

So Jesus is exhorting his listeners to be more equitable and just than their teachers, to be rightly related to God and others in a different way than what had been modeled for them. What had been modeled for them is what Beth talked about in the quote I included above: pretention--a whole lot of lip-service without action driven by love. The focus had shifted from God and his way of love to the words that made up the commandments and the 613 addendums to the 10 original laws. These added words also kept the powerful in charge and the weak in check. Jesus came to flip all of that on its head.

One more word definition, and then I’ll wrap this thing up… The word translated “surpasses” is from the Greek perisseuo. It means “to superabound, beyond measure; to exceed a fixed number of measure; to exist and abound in abundance.” Its root word means “beyond; on the other side; farther.”

I find this beautiful. Jesus says to the crowd, essentially:

When you bring together the words of the law you have been taught with the ways of being I am teaching you and you connect the two with my love, your fruit will abound. This is what it means to let your light shine. It’s not about knowing the letter of all 613 laws. But it’s not about abolishing the commandments they came from, either. It is about viewing them in my light, and reflecting them, in love, to the world around you. Real righteousness is not what you have been taught. It’s more. It goes further. Because it is driven by love. 

Pastor John said, “Let Jesus author our faith.” Our faith is not authored by the words of hundreds of by-laws. Nor by the words of men that took liberties with and manipulated God’s original laws. No…

“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith…” (Hebrews 12:2) We look to Jesus, and invite him to write the story his way. He is, after all, the way, the truth, the life–the light for all humankind. He is the one who shows us what it means to live according to the laws of love, and how living like that fulfills every law God gave us to follow.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of helping us understand what Jesus means when he says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

She wrote: When Jesus says he came to fulfill the Law, he is essentially saying that he came to bring the Law to life! … He came to connect the Law to himself, to Love …Jesus’ intention was not to set them free from the bindings of God’s original Law, but rather to tie the Law to himself and expand it into a way of being, as God originally intended.

If you’ve read our blog for any length of time you know that we write over and over God. Is. Love. God’s nature, God’s essence is love. Love is who God has always been and who God always will be. Until the time of Jesus, it might have been confusing to know exactly what that meant; however, the Apostle Paul tells us in Colossians 1:15 Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation. 

John the Apostle wrote the same thing when he said: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

Jesus himself said: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

So God, in the form of Jesus came to fulfill the law–to bring the law to life.

The Scribes and Pharisees were doing the best they knew how with “dead” law, but Jesus wasn’t impressed with their interpretation. He said to them: What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either. (Mt 23:13) .  Jesus is emphatically saying–guys you are missing the whole point and you and all those you influence are shut out of God’s realm as a result!

On another occasion Jesus said to them: You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (Jn. 5:39)

Does he say the same to us?  If the law–the knowledge of good and evil, the do’s and don’ts, the who’s in and who’s out drives us, then Jesus is not the center of our faith. If he and his ways are not the cornerstone of our lives, we are missing the point. I want to say this very, very carefully. If you read our blog, you know that we have a high view of scripture. We study it, we read it, we let the Holy Spirit speak to us through it, but scripture is not God. It is inspired and it is unlike any other book–but it is not our life source. Jesus is our life source…we study scripture to get to know the living Word–Jesus.

If we don’t come to the living Jesus and don’t look at all of scripture through the lens of the God of love as revealed in Jesus, we have a tendency to get mean and very black and white in our way of thinking. That’s the kind of attitude that led to Jesus’ frustration with the Pharisees when he told them that they shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. Are we doing that?

Laura reminded us that the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus is speaking of is not the after-life. It’s the Kingdom that is right here among us. She wrote: “the kingdom realm; (is) not to be confused with an actual kingdom, but rather the right or authority to rule….”  I’ve read before that it is the place where God reigns–which is any place where we are doing things his way. The kingdom of Heaven, the realm of Heaven, is where God’s will is being done on earth. (May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven) If that’s a new thought, remember that Jesus himself said in John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. It all starts right here. And ultimately God’s will is that we love like He loves. 

So Jesus’ purpose in fulfilling the Law and the Prophets is to show us how to live in God’s kingdom right here, with the door wide open for anyone else to come in. This goes against our natural tendency, and we’re not alone.

In the Old Testament, the prophet Jonah got mad at God for his “open door” policy. He didn’t want the Ninevites to be accepted by God. In the New Testament, there were those who tried to impose circumcision according to Jewish law on Gentiles who were coming into the kingdom. Paul told them Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. (Gal 6:15) .  Peter had a vision from God during his prayer time on a roof, where God lowered a sheet in front of him with all kinds of “unclean” animals on it and told Peter to kill and eat them. Peter said: “Surely not, Lord…I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” To which God replied (3 times) “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10: 14-15) . Peter could have refused–after all, his tradition and the law he had grown up with taught him that to touch unclean things was a sin–yet here was the living God saying–nope. It’s not about that.

Shortly after the vision, Peter had the opportunity to share the love of Jesus with a group of Gentiles.  Peter’s takeaway:  I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…And it wasn’t just Peter that was blown away by God’s acceptance of outsiders: The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Taken from Acts 10: 44-48)

So, what are the Law and the Prophets that Jesus came to fulfill? They are certainly not tablets of stone. The Lord tells us through the prophet Jeremiah: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jer. 31:33)  And through the Prophet Ezekiel he says: And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh. (Ez. 11:19)  And the Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth says: You show that you are a letter from Christ…written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor 3:3)

Let’s be “one-hearted” letters of Christ to the world. What would the heart of the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets in Christ say to them? Who would it include? How would it be presented? Would we, like Peter’s companions, be astonished at who God welcomes, or do we know that the fulfillment of the law and the prophets means everyone, exactly as they are, can enter in?

–Luanne

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