The Roman Road Less Traveled: An Apostle’s Attitude

Last week we wrapped up our series that covered the sermon on the mount, Jesus’ kingdom manifesto. Sunday, we started a new series that will take us through the book of Romans, believed to be the last of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. Before we dive into this letter, let’s consider the author–Paul (previously known as Saul)–as well as the historical and cultural context into which this letter was written and received.

The book of Acts introduces us to a man named Saul. We first hear about him at the trial and subsequent stoning of Stephen, a servant-leader in the early church. “…Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul…And Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 7:58b, 59b, NIV) Who was this young man named Saul? Later, in a letter written to the Philippians, he writes of himself:

I was born a true Hebrew of the heritage of Israel as the son of a Jewish man from the tribe of Benjamin. I was circumcised eight days after my birth and was raised in the strict tradition of Orthodox Judaism, living a separated and devout life as a Pharisee. And concerning the righteousness of the Torah, no one surpassed me; I was without a peer. Furthermore, as a fiery defender of the truth, I persecuted the messianic believers with religious zeal. (Philippians 3:5-6 TPT)

Saul’s credentials identify him as one of the most religious, zealous men of his day. Acts chapter 9 tells us that he breathed out “murderous threats” against followers of Jesus and arrested and imprisoned as many of them–men and women–as he could find.

In the Philippians chapter referenced above, Paul continues:

Yet all of the accomplishments that I once took credit for, I’ve now forsaken them and I regard it all as nothing compared to the delight of experiencing Jesus Christ as my Lord! To truly know him meant letting go of everything from my past and throwing all my boasting on the garbage heap. It’s all like a pile of manure to me now, so that I may be enriched in the reality of knowing Jesus Christ and embrace him as Lord in all of his greatness. (Philippians 3:7-8, TPT, emphasis mine)

What caused this about-face? How did the murderous, arrogantly righteous Saul become enraptured by the singular passion of knowing Jesus as his Lord? He had an encounter that changed everything. Acts 9 tells the story, which we won’t go into here, but encountering the risen Jesus altered this young man’s course for the rest of his life. Encounters with the real Jesus have a way of doing that…

It is believed that the letter to the Romans was written during Paul’s third missionary journey, around 56 AD. He addresses both Jewish and Gentile believers in his writings, and makes it clear that he is including all those in Rome who are loved by God (Romans 1:7). He expands this thought, as we’ll see throughout the coming weeks, to make clear the power of God to bring salvation to all who believe, without exception. It is important to note, as we begin, that the church grew out of a Jewish culture, in a land under Roman rule, where Greek intellectualism was becoming more and more prevalent. As Pastor John emphasized Sunday, knowing the context as we dig into scripture is extremely important.

Author Tim Stafford wrote in his introduction to Romans in Zondervan’s God’s Justice Bible:

“Paul brings good news about a new king for the ages, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son. . . All people, from all ethnic and religious backgrounds, are called to put their faith in him. . . to be filled with his Spirit, and as God’s new people to live a life pleasing to him–a life of justice. This new people become the living embodiment of God’s presence on earth. We live, Paul says, in the final act of God’s story. . . For Paul, justice is bigger than politics or sociology, as important as those are. Justice is cosmic, summed up in the reign of Jesus and a world set free.”

This is the set up for the book we’re about to explore. It is packed with theological ideas and stirs questions and considerations that still leave many theologians confounded today. That means the Spirit has new things to teach us, as the Spirit always does, if we’re willing to lean in and learn.

So (finally!), let’s begin…

In Sunday’s message, Pastor John outlined the attitude with which Paul carries himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, and what we, as modern-day followers of Jesus, can learn from his example. He covered the first seventeen verses of Romans chapter 1. If you’re at all familiar with the way Paul writes, you know that seventeen verses is a lot of words. So I won’t include the whole passage here. Rather, before I wrap up my portion, I want to come back to something I touched on earlier…

The only reason we have the book of Romans and all of Paul’s other letters in our Bibles today is because Saul had a real, life-altering encounter with Jesus. Without that experience, the Apostle Paul would have remained the zealot Saul, and we might not even know who he is today. What a tragedy that would be. Fortunately, for him and for us, we follow a Jesus who doesn’t disqualify any one of us because of our stories, but rather pursues us in the midst of our mess to infuse and transform our stories into clarion calls for the kingdom of God.

It is precisely because of who Saul was before he met Jesus that he was able to reach the world as Paul, a (willing) slave to Jesus and his ways; called, set apart, and empowered by the Spirit (whom I’ll call Grace, taking my lead from author and theologian Bradley Jersak) to carry the gospel of salvation (we’ll look at this word in more detail in just a moment…) to the world. As Pastor John articulated in his message, we may not have the ‘credentials’ we think we need to do the work we are called by God to do, but our encounters with Jesus transform us. Our encounters, our stories–they speak. Our stories become our credentials.

Back to salvation… this is a word we’ll encounter frequently in our study of Romans. It’s a word that has been used in a variety of ways throughout the history of the Church, one that is important to our understanding of faith and the work of Jesus in our lives. So I want to revisit what the word means in scripture.

In a message Pastor John preached a couple of years ago, he told us that our English word “salvation” has Latin roots. I wrote in my portion of the blog that week:

“The word “salve” is the foundation of this word that we talk about all the time in church. What is salve? It’s an ointment or balm used to promote healing. Hold onto that for a minute. The word Paul used in the original Greek is soteria. The root of this word is a word that means “Savior”; the primary root is sozo, which means save, make whole, heal. So… Salvation… If I were going to combine the meanings of the root words in each of these translations, my definition would read something like this: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

We were in the book of Philippians that week, not Romans, but the Greek word Paul uses in chapter 1 of Romans that is translated into the English word “salvation” is the same word defined above, soteria. On Sunday Pastor John emphasized the safety and security, the invitation into wide open spaces and freedom that is implied in a thorough understanding of the salvation Paul is writing about in this letter. Wholeness, a balm that leads to healing, safety, security, and freedom for all, for everyone–this is the definition of salvation we’ll be referring to during this series. Salvation, as John said in his message, is never about “behavior modification.” That was never God’s idea. Humanity superimposed that framework onto the healing work of Jesus.

However… when we encounter the living Jesus, when his life enters our stories and brings us to life, the healing and wholeness his love brings changes everything–including our behavior, especially identifiable in the way we treat others. Paul writes in Romans 1:14: Love obligates me to preach to everyone, to those who are among the elite and those who are among the outcasts, to those who are wise and educated as well as to those who are foolish and unlearned. (TPT)

What does he mean when he says that love obligates him? Furthermore, what does it mean for him to identify himself as a slave of Jesus? Don’t these words seem counterintuitive to the idea of salvation that we identified above? It certainly doesn’t sound like freedom, does it?

It is helpful to look at what the word translated “obligates” means in the original language. The Greek word, and its root forms, means to owe, be bound, offer the advantage, and can be used metaphorically to mean, “the goodwill due.” I like that last one best. Because when we encounter the love of Jesus and that love begins to grow in us, we want others to encounter him, too. If I am learning to love my neighbor (all others) in the same way I am loved by Jesus, then I will naturally want to offer in goodwill what I myself have received by grace.

Brad Jersak writes in his book, A More Christlike Way: A More Beautiful Faith,

“By the Grace (transforming energies) of the indwelling Spirit, love becomes a law of nature–our new nature. . . Triune Love is a divine verb Who entered space-time history through the Incarnation. Divine Love necessarily appears or it is not love at all. That act of love is Jesus Christ–the eternal Word enfleshed as perfect, cruciform Love. . . Jesus repeatedly insists that our identity in him be expressed in the Way of our being, humbly demonstrated when his Grace-energized life lifts us up just as he was lifted up–to give ourselves unselfishly, to forgive others supernaturally and to co-suffer with others according to Christ’s compassion and empathy. (Note: Grace is another name for the Holy Spirit, just as Word is another name for Jesus Christ. The transforming Grace who lives in us bears the fruit of love. In fact, all of Grace’s gifts and fruit are expressions of love.)”

“Love becomes a law of nature–our new nature” when we have a personal encounter with Jesus. It is his love and goodness in its power and fullness that so captivates our beings. Enraptured (the literal meaning of “fear of God”) by his love, we willingly choose the same surrendered, self-emptying, cruciform ways of living and loving that Jesus himself modeled. Our willing enslavement is perhaps better understood in terms of a covenant relationship. He has promised and demonstrated his perfect faithfulness, his unconditional love, his with-ness to us; he’s offered us the cup of his love in the manner of a marriage proposal, inviting us to commune with him forever, to allow his life to be born within us and produce kingdom fruit for the world. He himself is irresistible. Paul’s identifying himself as a slave to this Jesus is evidence both of the change in Saul-now-Paul, and also the captivating love and Grace he encountered on that road to Damascus.

My fingers are cramped from typing that last section, because the words flowed out faster than I could write them, like a fire within my bones that had to get out. That passion, that energy, is Grace, the Spirit of Jesus that I have encountered on the most unlikely days, during the ugliest seasons, in the midst of the most destructive choices I’ve made in my life. There are so many labels I could give myself, so many points along the way that I “should” have been disqualified from God’s call on my life to carry his kingdom within this messy, broken vessel. But those labels, those choices–they don’t define me, so I won’t even mention them here. Because I have encountered Jesus and his healing, freeing salvation over and over and over again. And his love has become my law of nature as he changes me and grows life where death once reigned.

There is so much more I could say, so many stories I could tell, but I’ll save those for another week. It’s about time I wrap up my portion and hand this over to Luanne. So I’ll conclude with this… Part of our call as Jesus-followers is to leverage who we are–our stories–and all that we have to carry Jesus to the world. Living as our real selves–with our scars, failures, and every part of our histories–is what makes us effective kingdom-bearers. Our stories are to be leveraged for the kingdom of God. Saul was not disqualified. I am not disqualified. You are not disqualified. We are set apart and empowered by Grace, as slaves only to Jesus, to carry the kindness and love and story of God to the world around us. I think that’s so beautiful.

–Laura

Laura did a beautiful job of setting us up for this series, and I’m not going to add much to what she wrote; however, it is deeply important that we understand Paul’s greeting and the first portion of the letter he wrote to real people in order to set the stage for the rest of the series. A lot of these verses are familiar to us; let’s commit to willingness–willingness to see things through a new lens; to resist the temptation to settle into familiar interpretations, and to pick and choose verses. Paul’s overall message is inclusive and grace-filled…sometimes we miss that. Here we go…

I’m going to be super honest here–people I love have been hurt by verses from the book of Romans; there are scriptures in the book of Romans that have been pulled out of context and used to “other” and harm people, so I want to throw out a reminder–when Paul wrote this letter, it was not divided into chapters and verses. It was written as one long letter. Ten or eleven years ago, I decided to read it as a letter. I read it over, and over, and over again. I read it in multiple translations. I listened to it read to me. I don’t know how many times I read/heard it, but what I came away with is this: Every human being on the face of the planet is messed up. God, through Jesus, entered our mess, introduced us to his all encompassing grace and his incredible unconditional love—for all of us. No one is left out of God’s love. As we move through this book–we must resist the temptation to pull a verse here or a verse there out of context in order to fit a narrative or agenda. Romans is one whole letter with a beautiful overall message.

Paul in his greeting and introduction makes that clear.

A couple of things to note: In Romans 1:5 Paul writes through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship… Notice that he lists grace first. That’s important. A ministry of Jesus that’s not immersed in the grace we have received can quickly transfer into a ministry of law that becomes mean.

Continuing in verse 5–the grace that came before the ministry of apostleship empowered Paul …to call all the Gentiles… for his (Jesus) name’s sake. This is a huge statement. Before Jesus, Paul was a fanatical, war-mongering, violent, self-righteous, zealot. After getting to know Jesus, not only does Paul tell the Jewish people that Jesus is their Messiah, he tells them that they are accepted by God; that God’s way is the way of grace; therefore, they are accepted right now. He tells them they are set free from the weight and impossible expectations of the law. And he extends that message to the Gentiles as well.

If you close your eyes and picture “the Gentiles”, who do you see? I most often see people who look like me, which is an inaccurate picture. The Gentiles include every single person who is not Jewish. Revelation 7:9 gives us the description: I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Do we picture this great ethnic diversity when we picture Paul’s audience? The ministry of Paul was ground-breaking. It was radical. It was inclusive. And it was God-called and God-ordained.

Another thing to note: Paul didn’t set himself up over the Roman believers. In verses 11 and 12 he writes: I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong–that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

We are all in this together, and each one of us has gifts to bring to the table. We mutually encourage one another. I am deeply grateful to have friends who both challenge and encourage me by what God is showing them, and who allow me to to do the same. New lenses, new understanding, stretching our faith, growing as we share stories of our unique life experiences and what God is teaching us through those experiences–it’s all part of being God’s kingdom-people.

And one last thing to remember as we move through this letter–the most famous verse from this greeting: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (1:16-17)

Laura wrote this beautiful definition of salvation based on the original language: That which comes from, and is, our Savior’s life that has saved-and now lives in-us; the balm that promotes healing and leads to wholeness.

The power, the energy of God brings healing and wholeness to everyone who believes, then three times Paul writes… righteousness….righteousness…righteous.

What does Paul mean by righteousness? You all, it’s the same word dikaiosýnē that we wrote about in The Sermon on the Mount series. Jesus used this word twice in that sermon: blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosyne) for they will be satisfied. And seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (dikaiosyne)…

Dikaiosýnē; equity (of character or act). The “equitable (in character or act); by implication, innocent, holy (absolutely or relatively):—just, meet, right(-eous).”… “used of him whose way of thinking, feeling, and acting is wholly conformed to the will of God.” (Strong’s concordance)

In some Bibles, the word dikaiosýnē is translated as the word justice–that’s how it is in my Portuguese Bible–blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice; seek first the kingdom of God and his justice. It’s hard to grasp the full meaning of this word, since it’s not native to our language, but it encompasses being rightly related to God, being rightly related to others, equity—-shalom…

Equity can be hard for us human beings to grasp. We like to earn/deserve things and compare ourselves to others. We want things to be fair. To the Jews of the day, the fact that God included the Gentiles in the kingdom; the fact that Jesus wasn’t just their promised messiah but the messiah for the whole world; the fact that the Law they had sought to obey in order to have a relationship with God wasn’t required of Gentiles; it all seemed unfair. The first shall be last and the last shall be first doesn’t seem fair. God’s way is the way of equity. Through Jesus, all have the same access to the kingdom of God; to God’s love; to God’s grace…it’s all about God opening the Way to all of us. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t choose who is worthy and who is not. We must pause here and think: is there anyone that you or I think is not included–at least not until they change?

God’s way is not our way. God’s way is not based on human behavior–ours or anyone else’s. God’s way is wide open to everyone everywhere. That’s why it’s such good news!

So Paul says…I’m not ashamed of this inclusive message of God’s healing and wholeness. It’s in this gospel, this good news, that we see the real God. We see God and experience God’s love and grace. We extend to others, for the sake of Jesus, this ministry of grace and love–and it happens as we live by faith.

The righteous will live by faith (NIV) . The just will live by faith. Those wholly conformed to the will of God (dikaiosyne), will live by faith.

One letter, bathed in grace, bathed in equity, bathed in inclusion, bathed in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit–bathed in God’s unconditional love. Paul’s letter to Rome. Together, let’s explore the Roman Road Less Traveled.

–Luanne

Poetry of the day: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost (1874-1963) —  Steemit

Sermon on The Mount: Therefore…

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know we’ve been studying the Sermon on the Mount for months. Since last spring, Pastor John has been taking us through Jesus’ sermon slowly, digging into a few verses each week. Why? Why would we take so many months to study these three chapters of scripture?

It’s because the sermon on the mount is Jesus’ primary teaching on what his kingdom followers are to look like. It’s Jesus’ manifesto. What does that mean? The definition, according to Merriam-Webster states: Manifesto is related to manifest..which means “readily perceived by the senses” or “easily recognized”. . . Something that is manifest is easy to perceive or recognize, and a manifesto is a statement in which someone makes his or her intentions or views easy for people to ascertain. Jesus is making clear who his followers are to be, and how we will be recognized.

Before we get to this week’s verses, let’s briefly recap: Jesus went up on a mountain and sat down to teach. He begins with the beatitudes–blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers….blessed are the persecuted for Jesus’ sake… For theirs is the kingdom of heaven… they will be comforted… they will inherit the earth… they will be filled… they will be shown mercy… they will see God…, they will be called children of God… theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Next comes You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world, followed by Jesus’ statement that he has not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them, which is followed by his first therefore.

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

Jesus then moves into the six You have heard it said…but I say to you...statements, where he reinterprets their understanding of the law, reminding them that it’s always about the heart rather than their behavior. He reminds his followers to be reconcilers, to be faithful, to be quick to offer grace, to be loving toward all–especially our enemies. His second therefore comes in the middle of this section…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. (5:23-24) Again, Jesus is highlighting the importance of relationship in God’s kingdom. When there is conflict, we lovingly address it. Blessed are the peacemakers—it matters.

Following this, he talks his hearers through three pillars of their faith: give, pray, fast. They would have been familiar with these actions, but again, Jesus is reinterpreting their understanding. Give to the needy, pray and fast in secret…do these things as part of an intimate relationship with God, not to be “seen” by others.

Next: Store up treasures in heaven, keep your eyes on God, seek God’s kingdom first and foremost and don’t worry; God will take care of you. Jesus third therefore comes in this section. Right after he says you can’t serve both God and money” he teaches Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life. . .. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?  (6: 25)

Jesus teaches his listeners– don’t judge others–ask, seek, knock, learn to discern, and the Golden rule: In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.

Following this, Jesus teaches us to enter through the narrow gate that leads to life, teaches us to discern false prophets who can be recognized by their fruit and then his fourth therefore:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock…(7:24)

You all, it is so important that we hear the words of Jesus, not the words someone else told us about Jesus. There is a stream of Christianity in the United States today that does not look like Jesus. It is known for being mean, judgmental, exclusive, divisive. It “others” people and determines who is in and who is out. There are others who teach that the evidence of God’s favor is worldly wealth–treasures on earth. There are some who teach that the kingdom of heaven is aligned with worldly power and if one is going to be “in” one must align oneself with that power’s philosophy.

Does Jesus teach any of that in his sermon?

Jesus is about the inward transformation of his followers. That transformation comes as we spend time with him–as we immerse ourselves in his words–as we seek first his kingdom.

Therefore–if anyone hears these words of mind and puts them into practice...

Are we hearing the words of Jesus? Are we practicing what we learn?

Pastor John reminded us that Jesus isn’t creating a separate, conduct based, Christian culture. He is forming a regenerated, redeemed culture, who return to the culture they came out of living lives so inviting that others are attracted to Jesus–others will discover who Jesus is by who we are.

Who we are…

Are we beatitude people? Are we sermon on the mount people? Are we salt and light?

Jesus finishes his sermon with this:

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock… (7: 24-25)

These words of minethese words from this sermon–and lives them out, is building on The Rock–and living this kingdom-minded way is wise and keeps the chaos of this world from destroying us.

One last thought before I close. The sermon ends with Matthew letting us know that the the crowds were amazed at his teaching,  because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law. (7:28-29)

Then chapter 8 begins with:

When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” (v.1-3)

Jesus taught on the mountainside, came down and demonstrated what it means to put his words into practice. In the midst of the large crowd following him, Jesus gave his full attention to one sick, oppressed, outcast man. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, if you listen well to my words, and pay attention to who I bring across your path, if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

Are we willing? Will we sit with Jesus, hear his words–and then put them into practice?

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us, even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence, experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

–Luanne

As I read through Luanne’s words, I prayed about where to go and how to wrap up my portion of our final sermon on the mount message. She covered what Pastor John brought before us on Sunday in a beautiful and comprehensive way, so I’m going to do something a little different.

We began this series in April, and we have now written tens of thousands of words about this sermon that has captivated our hearts. So I’m going to revisit the words we’ve written over these many weeks, and remind us all of the journey we’ve taken together. For the sake of readability, I won’t indicate who wrote what in each paragraph or which week it was pulled from–the snapshot below contains a combination of my words and Luanne’s in fairly equal measure.

Here we go, starting at the beginning:

May we learn well from our Teacher as we dig into his words over these next weeks and months. The kingdom of heaven is here, friends, and if we can embody the ways of this upside-down kingdom, it might begin to change the world…

God gives us the opportunity to set aside our privilege, or leverage our privilege for the sake of others like Jesus did. We are invited to humble ourselves, stop clinging to or grasping at what we have, admit our complete and total reliance on God acknowledging that all we have belongs to him (including our very lives) for the sake of the reign of God and the advancement of his kingdom on earth. This total reliance upon God is the doorway into the kingdom realm.

This sermon pushes back against the kingdoms we build that revolve around ourselves and invites us to join him in his kingdom of self-emptying love, where everyone has a seat at the table and no one is elevated above another. It is a kingdom where no one has too little and no one has too much, where we recognize value and worth as inherent to each one as children created and formed in the image of God. It is a kingdom where barriers are broken and flourishing is the result; where conflict finds its end in connection and brokenness is the doorway to wholeness. This is the way of Jesus–The question is: Do we really want to live like this?

Our “being” is not what we do. It’s who we are–our very essence.  Remaining connected to Jesus is the key to the beatitude way of being, leading to the natural outflow of “flavoring” the world with his principles, his ways, his heart, his love, him.

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 beingas God originally intended. 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. 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.

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?

Let’s lean into Jesus, let’s let him reframe some things we’ve misunderstood about what it means to be his people, let’s let him make us “whole” which is what integrity means. Let’s seek kingdom justice, truth, and peace because our hearts are his and our character matters. Let’s get rid of frivoulous oaths and be people whose lives are oath enough to demonstrate that we are trustworthy people of our word, and people of The Word…Jesus Christ himself.

Inside-out living. It’s the way of the kingdom. It matters to Jesus, because it’s the only way to live and love like him, in a way that draws all of the world to his heart. Dualistic, us-versus-them living, maintaining and defending old ways of thinking and behaving because, “We’ve always done it this way,” refusing to listen, learn, and be willing to see things a new way–none of that looks like the kingdom Jesus brought to earth. We must be willing to hold up what we’ve heard said and pass it all through the filter of what Jesus says. We must be willing to repent, to change how we think, so that our actions can follow suit and we can actually become more like the teacher we follow. 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. 

 The whole spectrum of humanity will always be attracted to the real Jesus, but sometimes, his followers get in the way. . . 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. 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…

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. Do we want that?

Our walk with God, including our prayer life, is individual and collective. We relate to God as Abba and as the Holy One, sovereign over all. Without a both/and understanding, without allowing Jesus to break into our understanding, we cannot see the bigger, more beautiful, kingdom-focused perspective that Jesus invites us into. This is where we begin. Before we can say “Your kingdom come, your will be done,” with any idea of what that might look like, we need to align ourselves with God and others Jesus’ way.

The light of the Kingdom of God is inside us. Are we giving light to everyone in the house? Do we look like Jesus? Do we act like Jesus? Do we prioritize who Jesus prioritized? Do we treat others as Jesus did? Do our lives bear His fruit? His kingdom will come and his will be done on earth through us. The world will know that God loves them deeply and unconditionally through us. To prioritize God’s kingdom ways comes through an intimate, connected-to-the- vine type of relationship with almighty, Papa, God—our Father. It also comes with an acknowledgment that our allegiance is to his kingdom above all other kingdoms. Are we willing to pay a high earthly price to be like Jesus? We will be misunderstood. We will be labled as we get rid of labels and as we hunger and thirst for dikaiosynē (equity, justice, righteousness). It might cost us something. Are we willing?

When we seek first “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” God will take care of the rest. Our total dependence is upon him. The entirety of The Lord’s Prayer points us to Jesus. He taught his followers to ask God for the one thing that meets every last need–himself. . . We are asking God to daily–every day and forever–give us Jesus. We are declaring our understanding that God’s kingdom came–and comes, still–through Jesus, that the will of God is displayed in Jesus, as he perfectly shows us how to love God with all that we are and how to love all others as ourselves. We are asking for the broken bread and living water that satisfies our souls. We are expressing our need to be led by the one who modeled and continues to teach us what forgiveness looks like.

In order to live in right relationship with others, we have to allow Jesus to mess in our business, to let him remind us of God’s unconditional grace and love for us, and to be willing to place those who’ve hurt us, who “owe” us, who’ve let us down into God’s hands. The energy, the strength, the longing to live according to the kingdom of God–these don’t come from ourselves. They come from the Spirit of God living within us, filling us with the divine. And forgiveness is a divine attribute. It doesn’t have its origin in humanity. Forgiveness, like love, is part of the very nature of God. 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.

. . .We have to ask ourselves at this stage in the sermon on the mount: What are we living for? Who or what has our heart, our attention, our focus? Each week we are reminded that the entire sermon on the mount is about heart transformation. Worry about all the cares of this world leads to heart strangulation. Openness to God’s ways in the world leads to heart transformation. We will have trouble, days will be hard, we’ll be tempted to worry (which won’t change our circumstances one iota.) So, let’s choose, even in our hardest most desperate moments to lean into the miracle of being alive, of being able to sit in God’s presence. Let’s choose to be aware of all that we have rather than what we think we lack. Let’s choose to seek first God’s kingdom and store up treasures in heaven rather than the things of this world. Let’s take in the beauty all around us remembering that Jesus holds it all together, and he can hold us and whatever we are dealing with together too. Jesus never promised that if we followed him we would be safe, or that our lives would be painless. But we can rest assured that we are secure in his cruciform love that never lets us go. No amount of worry can remove us from a love like that, from a rescuer whose presence doesn’t always look how we expect, but is constant nonetheless.

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…”

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. . . 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. 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…

We continue to come back to the same things during this series, because Jesus continued to say the same things. Throughout the whole sermon. Over and over, in different ways, so as to clearly invite all of his listeners into the kingdom he presented. It seems he really wanted us to hear his heart–which is always full of love toward all, a cruciform, self-emptying love that always moves toward others. His focus was not death and destruction, but on life and abundance. He came as the image of the invisible God, the God who IS love. So Jesus, then, is the embodiment of love. And he invites us once again to join him on this narrow way of abiding in him so that his life can grow in us and produce good fruit that can be shared with the world around us. God never gives up; however, in order for God to work in us, we must choose the narrow way, the abiding way. We must remain connected to God–abide in God’s love, abide in God’s presence, abide in The Vine, then the power, the energy of transformation that allows us to produce the Spirit’s fruit and carry out God’s loving will is made evident to those around us.

When we take the time to hear the words of Christ, the transforming work of the Holy Spirit that happens in that time of intimacy produces the fruit of the Spirit, our lives demonstrate the narrow way, the kingdom way; we value people above all else, those around us–even the most unlikely in our sphere of influence–experience the love of God, and the world is changed for the better. Maybe Jesus is saying to us, If you pay attention to who I bring across your path; if you, my followers, are willing, you can reach out your hands and touch and heal and love and change the world…

So, what will our response be to all that we’ve learned over the last five months? Are we willing? Do we really want to live like this? Is Jesus our first love? Do we really want to live according to the ways of the kingdom? Knowing all that we know now? Can we envision a new tomorrow full of life and hope and flourishing for all? Are we willing to remain connected to the Vine until his life in us produces kingdom fruit for the world around us?

Our answers to these questions matter more than we know. The trajectory of the Church in the U.S.A. and her witness to the rest of the world will be set by our collective response to Jesus’ teachings. Jesus is the Word. The Light. The image of God and the embodiment of Love itself. His kingdom is here. It is now. And it changes everything. Let’s join him.

–Laura

See the Signs: The Sign of Sight

Since Laura and I took last week off, I’m going to touch briefly on last week’s scripture passage because it is relevant to this week’s message. Pastor John’s passage was Mark 8: 13-21. To sum it up, the disciples were concerned because, with the exception of one loaf, they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey. While they were thinking about their lack of bread Jesus warned them to beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples were confused and thought Jesus was mad because they hadn’t brought bread. Jesus, who knew what they were thinking said:“Why all this fussing over forgetting to bring bread? Do you still not see or understand what I say to you? Are your hearts still hard? You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” (Mark 8:17-18 TPT) Jesus asked them to remember when he fed the crowds of 5000+ and 4000+, asked them to remember how many leftovers there were and then asked them “…how is it that you still don’t get it?” (8:21) . 

The yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod that Jesus mentions represent two oppressive systems. Yeast changes the composition of whatever it is introduced to. In the fermentation process, whether it be the making of bread or the making of beer, once yeast is introduced it works its way through the entire substance and changes its chemical structure. The disciples and Jesus had experienced quite a few unpleasant encounters with the Pharisees who continued to question Jesus’ authority and sow seeds of doubt, believing (and teaching) that their oppressive behavior-based system was the way of God. Their yeast represents man-made religious systems that have detoured from God’s loving heart and desire that his followers join him in his mission to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. Man-made religious systems create hierarchies where some are in power and lord it over everyone else. Man-made religious systems oppress people. Man-made religious systems forget that God desires that we each use our gifts to introduce His ways and work toward the restoration and flourishing of all. Man-made religious systems portray a mean God. Man-made religious systems lead to arrogance, self-righteousness, judgment and “othering”.

The yeast of Herod represents the political realm and worldly power. One needs only to read the headlines to see how divisive, destructive and polarizing it can be when we align our hearts with political structures. The hate, the “othering”, the inability to see human beings without attaching labels and preconceived notions in regards to them, the mistreatment of some for the benefit of others…it’s toxic yeast changing our very nature.  Both religion and politics can have a tremendous influence on us. We are steeped in these systems and many times don’t recognize it, so we must be wise, allow the Holy Spirit to show us what we need to see, and separate ourselves from man-made systems that seek to oppress. The ways of the Kingdom of Heaven run counter to the kingdoms of this world. It is very easy to be infected by the yeast of the systems we grew up in. Do we see that? Are we willing to let Jesus open things up and show us something new–or–like the disciples, are we too hard-hearted to get it?

This week our passages are Mark 7:31-37, and Mark 8:22-26.  In Mark 7, Jesus heals a deaf and mute man.  In Mark 8, Jesus heals a blind man. The way Mark lays out the timeline, Jesus heals the deaf man, feeds the crowd of 4000+, has an unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees which leads to the above conversation in the boat, and then he heals the blind man. There are interesting parallels in these two healings that bookend this segment of scripture,

  1. Both men were brought to Jesus by others.
  2. Both men were brought to Jesus because they had physical limitations.
  3. Both men were brought to be touched and blessed by Jesus.
  4. Jesus pulls both men aside, away from the crowd, and gets one on one with each of them.
  5. Jesus uses his own saliva in both of these healings.

One man was deaf/mute, the other was blind. Isaiah prophesied centuries before that blind eyes will be open and deaf ears will hear… (35:5). These healings were more than just healings…

After Jesus healed the deaf/mute man, and right before he healed the blind man, he said to his disciples  “You have good eyes, yet you still don’t see, and you have good ears, yet you still don’t hear, neither do you remember.” 

Would Jesus say the same to us? Everything that Jesus does is nuanced and multi-layered. Yes, two men were miraculously healed by Jesus, but is that all there is to the story? Could it be that as Jesus fulfills Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, he is using these men as signs that the Kingdom of Heaven is right here and that he is the Messiah? He is giving his followers the opportunity to recognize that his ways are different from the ways of the Pharisees and of Herod; his ways are the ways of the Kingdom of God. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I find it beautiful that in both of these accounts Jesus pulls the men away from the crowd to be with them one on one.  If we look at Jesus’ miracles, they were never for the purpose of showing off–they were always on behalf of people who were in need–and he responded with compassion to the situation at hand. When the Pharisees wanted Jesus to show off for them to “prove” that he had authority to perform miracles, Jesus sighed deeply and walked away (Mark 8:12). Yes, his power was a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven, but his demonstrations of power were driven by his compassion, his love, his concern for all of us who are like sheep without a shepherd. Compassion, kindness, unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, all the fruit of the Holy Spirit are signs of His Kingdom on earth. Our Savior is powerful and pointed and gentle and kind. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

I wonder, in the case of the deaf/mute man, if the voice of Jesus was the first voice he ever heard?  Mark 7:34 tells us that Jesus “gazed into heaven, sighed deeply, and spoke to the man’s ears and tongue, “Ethpathakh,” which is Aramaic for “Open up, now!

In The Passion Translation of the Bible, the footnote from Mark 7:34 says: “The phrase “open up” is the same wording used in the Hebrew of Isa. 61:1 “Open the prison doors.” It furthermore refers to the opening of the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf.  

Hmmm. Does this remind anyone else of Luke 4:18 when Jesus, at the very beginning of his ministry read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free…”  Jesus opens prison doors, sets captives free, restores sight to the blind… He opens things up. He changes things. Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

In the healing of the blind man, “Jesus led him, as his sighted guide, outside the village. He placed his saliva on the man’s eyes and covered them with his hands”  (Mark 8:23 TPT). Again, the footnotes from The Passion Translation give us deeper insight into what is happening here. It says of verse 23, that the word “eyes’is not the common word for “eyes.” The Greek word omma can refer to both physical and spiritual sight”. And of the actual healing process itself “The Aramaic can be translated “Jesus placed his hands over his eyes and brought light.”

This healing account is different from any other in scripture because it happened in phases. The first time Jesus touched the man’s eyes, he only received partial sight. Jesus touched him a second time and he was able to see clearly, which according to Strong’s concordance literally means he could see “at a distance, and clearly”. Sometimes we get partial sight; the Apostle Paul said that’ “For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (1st Cor. 13:12 The Voice) Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers? Are we willing to examine the lenses we grew up with and test them to see if they hold up to Truth? Are we willing to see through another’s eyes, and wrestle with his/her understanding of God, of salvation, of Jesus–removing our lenses and studying the gospels to see what is gold and what is stubble–recognizing traditions taught by man, versus what is actually there? Are we willing to soften our hard hearts and see, hear, remember? Jesus, the light of the world, is willing to touch us as many times as we allow so that we can see his light and his ways clearly.

In both of these healing encounters, Jesus opened things up. In putting these three accounts together, Jesus warns us to be careful about being influenced by human power structures, whether they are religious systems or political. He desires to pull us aside, to open our ears to hear his voice, open our eyes (both physical and spiritual) to see what he sees. He is our sighted guide. He brings us light. He leads us gently. He shows us who he is and what his Kingdom is about. He desires that we be like him, setting the oppressed free, and serving the people of the world with a heart of love, of compassion, of humility (“I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” John 13:35).

Do we see? Do we hear? Do we remember?

–Luanne

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”  Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I chose these words as my Senior quote. This line sits beside my picture in the yearbook that marked both an ending and a new beginning. The words came to my mind as I listened to Pastor John’s message on Sunday, and again this morning as I prayed through what direction to go in my writing. I don’t remember exactly why I chose this quote as a conflicted yet wide-eyed-with-wonder 17-year-old; I just know that it resonated deeply with my heart. I didn’t know that I would come back to it again and again as I grew from childhood into adulthood. It has reminded me that things are often not what they appear to be on the surface, that there are depths and nuance and mystery undetectable with our physical eyes. In moments where I’ve been tempted to pass judgment based on what is visible, these words have challenged me to consult the eyes of my heart first–the view is often different from there.

As I ponder the quote now, I find myself adding a few words that spring from what I’ve found to be true as I’ve grown in my own ability to see. I would say something like, “It is only with a heart whose eyes have been enlightened by the Spirit that one can see rightly; what is essential can be seen no other way.”

A few weeks ago, I wrote the following:

“And [I pray] that the eyes of your heart [the very center and core of your being] may be enlightened [flooded with light by the Holy Spirit], so that you will know and cherish the hope [the divine guarantee, the confident expectation] to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints (God’s people),  and [so that you will begin to know] what the immeasurable and unlimited and surpassing greatness of His [active, spiritual] power is in us who believe.” (Ephesians 1:18-19, AMP)

I love that the Amplified Bible defines the eyes of our hearts as “the very center and core of your being.” Keeping this part of us open is explained as being flooded with light by the Holy Spirit… If we live with the eyes of our hearts squeezed shut, we will miss out on what is possible in God’s power. We need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, open to the signs God gives us along the way so that we can continue journeying with hope on the hard days. We need to see with our hearts so that we can believe all things are possible.

The eyes of our hearts… It would be great if, when we each meet Jesus for the first time, a one-and-done opening of our heart-eyes was part of the deal. Can you imagine being able to see clearly and completely from that point forward? It would change everything!

But that’s not how it works. This seeing, this opening, it’s a gradual process. That’s what makes the two-part healing of the blind man at Betheseda so relatable. Luanne reminded us of 1 Corinthians 13:12,

“For now, we can only see a dim and blurry picture of things… I realize that everything I know is only part of the big picture. But one day, when Jesus arrives, we will see clearly, face-to-face.” (The Voice)

What we know and see is only a sliver of the whole. In light of this truth, Luanne asked us some questions:

Are we willing to let Jesus, our sighted guide, touch us over and over, as many times as it takes so that we can see clearly? Are we willing to admit that every revelation we receive is part of a bigger picture, a greater work of God, a portion? Are we humble enough to keep seeking, knocking, asking, because we know that there is more and that none of us have all the answers?

Are we willing? Willing to, first, come to Jesus? Even if we have to be brought to him in the arms of someone else? And then, are we willing to let him touch our blind spots? Those places where we haven’t yet been enlightened by the Spirit? Luanne also asked if we are humble. Humility and willingness go hand in hand. It takes humility to admit that we have a limited field of sight and that our understanding is incomplete. And in that place of humility, we can choose to be willing to be led by “our sighted guide”, as Luanne called him.

Willingness and humility are not difficult–if our motivation is the same thing that moved Jesus. That motivator is love. If love is what drives us, being humble and willing are natural fruits of our endeavors. Luanne and I have both referenced 1 Corinthians 13:12. I was drawn to go back and read all of chapter 13, the chapter often called the “love chapter”. I’ve included it in its entirety below, to remind us what love actually looks like. Pastor John said on Sunday that to be “godly”, to be like God, is to be loving. Because God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). No other attribute more fully captures his nature. And Jesus says the world will know us by this same love…

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. 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. Our present knowledge and our prophecies are but partial, but when love’s perfection arrives, the partial will fade away. When I was a child, I spoke about childish matters, for I saw things like a child and reasoned like a child. But the day came when I matured, and I set aside my childish ways. For now we see but a faint reflection of riddles and mysteries as though reflected in a mirror, but one day we will see face-to-face. My understanding is incomplete now, but one day I will understand everything, just as everything about me has been fully understood. Until then, there are three things that remain: faith, hope, and love—yet love surpasses them all. So above all else, let love be the beautiful prize for which you run.

 (1 Corinthians 13, TPT)

This kind of love is what motivated Jesus. If it’s what motivates us, we will have to continue to go to Jesus, to ask him to touch our blind spots and teach us to see the way that he sees. We’ll have to let him open us up–our eyes, our ears, our hearts. Luanne and I both used variations of the words “open up” many times in this post. We both know how hard it can be to open up. It can feel so much easier to live closed off, withdrawn, with eyes and ears closed to the world around us. It can feel safer. To open up is to be vulnerable. And being vulnerable feels scary. But there is no way to embody the kind of love we just read about above if we’re not willing to be opened up by Jesus. Because love can’t be poured out of a closed vessel.

May we each have the courage to ask Jesus to heal our vision–layer by layer–so that we can see the world through his eyes–eyes that see what could be and what will be when wholeness and restoration come to set all things right. May we embrace the humble willingness that leads to a love that spills from our open hearts. And may we remember that for now, we only see in part, but our sighted guide sees the whole–and he’ll be faithful to keep bringing sight to us until the day we also see in full.

–Laura

Compassion (Like Never Before)

Leper.

What comes to mind as you read that word?

Leprosy isn’t a disease we hear much about today. Only a handful of cases are diagnosed in the United States each year, and with modern medicine, it is absolutely curable. But it wasn’t always that way…

During the time that Jesus walked in human skin, leprosy was a death sentence. It was terminal–there was no cure. But worse than the death sentence was the life sentence it carried… We picked up our story of Jesus in Mark 1:40-45 this week. These verses tell us the story of a leper. Consider this man’s reality with me for a moment…

We don’t know his name, or who he was before the leprosy. We know nothing of the life he’d lived before. He had been banished from human contact, with no hope of being touched by anyone again. Perhaps he’d been a husband, a father. If so, his family was now to regard him as though he were dead–even while he lived. Never again would he embrace his wife or hold his children. In fact, his wife may have already remarried, as she would have been regarded as a widow…

Even if someone dared to touch him, he wouldn’t feel it–the disease affected his nerve endings and destroyed his ability to feel. His leprosy made him numb. For the rest of his life… He was sentenced to a life in the shadows–and even there, people would avoid him, because they believed even his shadow was contagious. He was sentenced to a life of shame and obscurity, and who he used to be mattered not. From here on out, his identity was “leper” and “unclean”. If he dared come near a town, he’d be obligated to shout out that word to warn people to stay away. “Unclean! Unclean!” This was his name now. He lived his life as the walking dead.

Rejected. Unclean. Isolated. Ashamed. Lonely. Broken. Numb. Disgraced. Discarded. Forgotten. Unnamed. Untouchable. Hopeless…

He would live alone. And then die alone. Would anyone notice he was gone? Likely not, for his life ended the day his leprosy appeared. He had been dead to them–all of them–since then.

But Jesus…

Maybe the leper had heard rumors of this man from passers by… Maybe another leper had spoken of him… We don’t know how this man knew about Jesus, but he’d heard enough to recognize when he came near. And one day, as Jesus was traveling throughout the region of Galilee, preaching, healing, and casting out demons, this leper fell at Jesus’ feet. He knelt before the One he had heard of, grasping at hope and brimming with belief…

“If you are willing, you can heal me and make me clean,” he said. (Mark 1:40b, NLT)

Somehow, he knew Jesus could cure the incurable. He believed in His ability to restore him to health.

But maybe he wouldn’t want to…

The paralyzed, blind, demon-possessed, and otherwise afflicted had experienced healing at the hands of Jesus. But him? A leper who was already regarded as dead to his community? Maybe Jesus wouldn’t go that far.

“If you are willing…”

I can picture his eyes, pleading, daring to hope–but wide with a bit of fear… Was he crying? Did he look at the ground, or did he glance at the eyes looking back at him? If he did, did he see the deep pools of Jesus’ eyes fill as the emotion within Him surfaced? The vulnerability of this moment–for both men–causes me to pause, to linger, to imagine what each of them might have been feeling…

Have you ever pleaded with anyone? Knowing they had the power to help you, the ability to meet your need, if only they wanted to? Has anyone ever pleaded with you that way? Do you know the desperation of a moment like this one?

Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out and touched him. “I am willing,” he said. “Be healed!” (Mark 1:41, NLT)

Compassion… Pastor John spoke of compassion as the deepest of human expressions. It is a feeling that originates in the gut, more specifically in the bowels. Something deep within feels the suffering of another. It is more than coming alongside one who is suffering. It isn’t a surface emotion, like sympathy; it doesn’t carry the condescension of pity, and it doesn’t remain detached like empathy. It is entering into the suffering of another as though it was happening to you.

Jesus was filled with compassion for this man, moved by it. In this moment, it was as if he became a leper, too, and felt the hopelessness, the sorrow, the depth of his agony… Again, I imagine Jesus’ eyes as He entered into this man’s existence, knowing the man’s rejection and loneliness would transfer to Him as He granted this request… Did His chest tighten as He realized that what He felt for this man–the rejection and isolation that was headed His way as soon as people heard the news of his healing–would pale in comparison to the rejection, betrayal, and death that He would soon feel? As His compassion and deep love for humanity led Him to the end of His own life on this earth?

I don’t know the answers to the many questions this story provokes. But I do know that Jesus didn’t hesitate. Didn’t count the cost and weigh His options, though the cost to His very well-being would be extremely high. His response was not an emotionally driven knee-jerk reaction, though His emotions were absolutely in play during this interaction. How do I know this? Because of what the word “willing” means here…

In the Greek, the word is distinguished as “an active option”, and differentiated from “subjective impulse”. It means “to will, have in mind, intend; be resolved or determined, to purpose; to desire, to wish; to love; to like to do a thing, be fond of doing; to take delight in, have pleasure.”

When Jesus said He was willing, it wasn’t a flippant decision. It wasn’t a begrudging yes. It was an expression of deep love and purpose, something He was delighted to do, something that–while the cost to Himself would be very high–He was determined to do.

And He didn’t only say the words. He reached out and touched the man… 

Can you even imagine this moment?

We don’t know how long this man had suffered. How many days, months, years it had been since anyone reached out to touch him… He clearly believed that Jesus was able to heal him. But to be seen, heard, and then touched by the Jewish rabbi/God-man? Touched by this One who knew and understood that to touch him was to violate every social, medical, and religious law, rule, and recommendation regarding people of his kind? I imagine the thought didn’t even cross his mind.

Can you picture the shock on his face as the hand of Jesus moved his direction? Did he flinch, or try to move out of the way so he wouldn’t contaminate Jesus? Did he gasp or try to say something? Did he even see it coming, this collision of heaven and earth? Or was he staring at the ground, ashamed of his need and afraid of the response he would receive? We aren’t given details of the interaction, so we’re left to wonder… Did Jesus gently lift the man’s chin so he could see the love on His face as He voiced His willingness? Did He tenderly cup his face in both hands? Did he reach for his hands and lift him to his feet? Leprosy had robbed this man of the ability to feel touch. Did Jesus’ hands linger on him until he could feel the warmth of the Healer’s hands break through his numbness?

I don’t know. But every possible scenario causes my breath to catch in my chest…

Sweet Jesus, how beautiful you are… How kind… 

Touching him let the leper know that Jesus was willing to accept the cost of compassion. And it would cost Him everything, as it was the beginning of the violence and rejection Jesus would face at the hands of those He came to heal… Touching him told the leper that Jesus was willing to take his place, to share his pain, to connect with him. This went far beyond concern. Jesus got proximate to this man. He took the time to look and see beyond the surface, to listen so that He could really hear. He set aside the “wisdom” of the culture around Him that said this man might as well be dead, that he was hopeless, and beyond the reach of mercy. He chose to engage deeply enough to feel the full extent of this leper’s pain. He got close enough to smell the stench of his disease–and He continued to move toward him, not away. Because compassion takes us all the way. All the way into the pain of the one in front of us. Beyond the judgments, assumptions, and invisible walls of separation. Compassion takes us beyond our comfort zones and often, right into a danger zone. And then it takes us further… Jesus touched him…

The nuance of this story is lost on us if we move through it too quickly. Take a moment to place yourself there. If you had a front-row seat to this interaction, what would you see? Hear? Feel?

Jesus touched the untouchable… In that moment, as Pastor John told us on Sunday, the Kingdom came and invaded the life of this leper. I can’t articulate how much I love that. This story, contained in six short verses, shows us what the kingdom looks like. The way of the kingdom is the way of self-sacrificing love. If we haven’t allowed compassion to move us out beyond ourselves into love that chooses to identify with and take the place of another, we haven’t become carriers of the kingdom. The kingdom has come–Jesus brought it with Him and He modeled what it looks like over and over again. It is here, among us, inviting us to step into it, to carry it to every corner of this earth–but I think we sometimes have the wrong idea of what “Your kingdom come” actually means…

Kingdom love always co-suffers with the “other”–whoever that may be. Kingdom love doesn’t pick and choose who’s worthy to be invited in. Kingdom love doesn’t shame people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t “truth” people to Jesus. Kingdom love doesn’t judge people to Jesus. Kingdom love wears the shoes of compassion–or it isn’t Kingdom love at all. 

Jesus showed us what Kingdom love looks like and what it does. It moves us to go. To go to the ones we’re told to disregard, to be afraid of, to ignore, to disdain, to stay away from. To the ones who could hurt us, infect us, and change our “status”. The Kingdom moves us to go to them, and to engage with their stories. It moves us to enter into their lives, knowing it will cost us. Kingdom love says, “I’ll take your place. My life, given for yours.”

In Jesus’ day, the leper represented the dirtiest of humanity. The leper’s level of “uncleanness” was second only to a decomposing corpse.

But Jesus… He changed everything. He brought the kingdom to this man, fully aware of the cost.

Who are the “lepers” of today? Who are we unwilling to engage with, unwilling to get proximate to? Who do we regard as “unclean”, “hopeless”, even… better off dead? Who do we judge from a distance, post about on social media, and see as less than human? Who, if we choose to enter into their lives and their pain, could cost us? Who are we unwilling to touch because the social, physical, financial, and professional risks are just too high? Who are we afraid of?

Is it the LGBTQ community? 

Women who have had abortions?

Undocumented immigrants?

Muslim refugees? 

Prisoners on death row?

The sick?

The elderly?

The disabled?

Democrats?

Republicans?

People who don’t look like you?

That estranged family member?

Yourself…?

Who are the lepers in your world? Who is hiding in the shadows, hopeless and rejected, asking, “Do I have worth?”, “Is there any hope for me?”, “Are you even willing to look at me, hear me, touch me?” What would it take for you to move toward that person, toward that group?

Jesus isn’t walking the earth in human skin today.

But His Church is.

The Kingdom invaded one leper’s life on an ordinary day that changed both his and Jesus’ life forever. We are invited, and called, as Kingdom-bearers, to be moved by compassion and love and carry that same Kingdom–the one that also invaded and transformed our lives on ordinary days–into the hardest places, to the most broken of lives.

Think constantly of those in prison as if you were prisoners at their side. Think too of all who suffer as if you shared their pain. (Hebrews 13:3, J.B. Phillips)

This verse calls us to remember those who suffer, to think about them constantly. This will cultivate our concern. But Jesus taught us by example that compassion is more than simply thinking of those who suffer. Compassion is concern that has learned how to walk, how to move and get proximate to those we think of and pray for. This is the way of the Kingdom. Walking in compassion identifies us with the One we call Savior.

Friends, we can carry healing, kingdom love to a hurting, dying world… Jesus has entrusted us to carry His kingdom–

Are we willing?

–Laura

A few years ago, I was walking to work and pondering the word “remember”. I was struck by the fact that the opposite of remember is not forget–the opposite is dismember. Hebrews 13:3, that Laura wrote above, in many other translations uses the word remember… The NLT version reads:

Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies. 

That verse is the very definition of the compassion Jesus modeled. We (I) too easily dismember ourselves from the pain of others–yet Jesus says connect yourself to others, re-member, attach yourself to them. Enter into their story with them. Feel with them. Suffer with them. Become them, as much as you are able to.

Compassion is greater than pity, which can be condescending.

                          Compassion is greater than sympathy, which can be superficial.

                                         Compassion is greater than empathy, which can be too distant.

                                                                           Compassion wants to take their place. 

Is anything about compassion easy? No. Compassion is self-sacrificing. Compassion is loving others so well that we are willing to exchange our lives for theirs. Compassion looks like Jesus.

Laura wrote beautifully about the leper’s encounter with Jesus–she slowed us down, put us in his shoes, caused us to think about what he may have been thinking, feeling, experiencing. Can you imagine what his life was like?

So here he is, this total outcast who is not supposed to come out of the shadows, yet he not only comes out of the shadows but approaches Jesus. Up until this moment  in the book of Mark, Jesus has been ministering to the masses. He’s been teaching in  synagogues, he’s been healing large numbers of people. But Jesus, (I love him so much), in this moment, becomes all about the one man.  The one. The one rejected, isolated, unclean, untouchable man.

Jesus touches him. I wonder if this man who couldn’t feel felt the touch of Jesus immediately, or if Jesus gave him a moment to see that he was being touched, even while he was still diseased, and gradually let the touch become felt?  The moment of Jesus’ touch makes me think of the verse God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8). While we are still diseased, he touches us, while we are still diseased, he takes our place. He didn’t heal the man first and then touch him. He touched him while he was still sick. He does this for us–do we do this for others? If he hadn’t/doesn’t love us in our brokenness, we have no chance to be in relationship with him. We cannot fix ourselves. And compassion like this is the proof of God’s love-if we are the carriers of His love to this broken world, what does compassion look like for us?

Compassion will cost us something. For Jesus, in this encounter, it cost him the ministry that he previously had. After Jesus asked the man not to tell anyone, but to go show himself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that were required as a testimony of his healing (vs. 44-45) the man did what we might do as well–he told everyone. The result was that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly, but stayed outside in lonely places. (vs. 45)The man, who had previously been isolated, banished to live outside in lonely places, was now free to be part of society again. Jesus was now the one living in lonely places.

There is so much in this encounter. So much. Many of us recognize that Jesus died in our place. He gave His life in exchange for ours–and we are grateful. But what He models in this story is that this very human earth life we live–he is willing to exchange for His.  I think this is a key point in what it means to be a Jesus-follower. If his life now lives in me, do I look like him?

In trying to think of people who model compassion, my mind kept going to the Ten Boom family, Christians who hid Jews in their home during World War 2. They were arrested–they knew all along that arrest was a possibility–but they were willing to show compassion, Jesus’ kind of compassion–the entering in and suffering with kind of compassion. Only one of the Ten Booms survived the concentration camp. Her name was Corrie, and she wrote an incredible book called “The Hiding Place” that tells their story.  They broke the laws of Nazi Germany in order to fulfill the law of Christ–“love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31),  and greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13). Which laws are most important to us?

The call for Jesus-followers— we are to be him by letting him live the life that he exchanged for ours through us.

We just finished our season of 21 Days of Prayer and Fasting, and this year many of the needs we were interceding for were heavy and hard. Friday night, as I was praying, a worship song that lifts Jesus up and recognizes that He is on the throne came on. It’s a song that I usually love, but Friday I could not sing it. Instead I was saying to Jesus, I know that you are on the throne–but right now I don’t need to feel that distance. I need to know that you are right here, right now, and that you hear our cries on behalf of these we are praying for. The need felt overwhelming to my heart and I was hurting for so many.

Saturday morning, our last time together for this season, communion was being served. As I was praying, my eyes kept being drawn to the bread and the juice. God reminded me that bread and juice come from the earth–they are elements of earth. He reminded me that Jesus–our bread, our wine–is fully present here, fully human even while being fully divine. I needed to be reminded of his humanity, and I was.

After Jesus went to live in lonely places, Mark concludes this encounter by telling us the people still came to him from everywhere. Jesus had proven that he is in this with us. He touched a leper. He is here. He will touch you, and give you the freedom to touch others–not just the ones who are easy to touch, but the ones who when you touch them, when you speak up for them, when you love them, it may cost you something. It’s the Jesus way–and nothing is more beautiful.

Love so amazing, so divine

                                                                      Demands my soul, 

                                 my life

                                                    my all…

                              (When I Survey, Isaac Watts)

Re–member.

–Luanne

Image result for compassion quote henri nouwen

 

Colossians 3:15-17

“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. AND be thankful.   Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:15-17 NIV)

As we work our way slowly through the book of Colossians, it could be tempting to take each section as a separate thought, but to do that is to miss the entirety of the letter. Right before Paul wrote the above section, the last two words of verse 14 are “perfect unity”.  Backing up to verse 11 Paul reminds us that in Christ there are no labels, no ethnic or social barriers, and he is wise enough to realize that different cultures coming together can lead to tension and conflict, so in verse 12-14 he reminds us that we are ALL chosen, ALL loved so we each need to work to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, bear with each other, forgive each other (as we’ve been forgiven), and above all put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.   THEN he writes the above words.

I am struck by the phrase “as members of one body you were called to peace”.   

God has had me on quite a journey over the last few years, and He has taken me to a new level on that journey this summer. Those of you who know me well know that for about five years God has been pounding the phrase “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10) into my heart, my mind, my soul. He’s been showing me in scripture that Jesus’ primary message was about preaching the Kingdom of God. His primary teaching was about the Kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7) he teaches us what it looks like to live as a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven right here on earth. And in John 17 he prays his beautiful prayer, again reminding us what Kingdom living looks like and the effect it will have on the world. He, himself models it in the way he cares for everyone, especially those who have been invisible, oppressed, outcast, despised, judged, criticized and ultimately he lays his life down for us all–and he asks us to do the same–to love as he loves.   Impossible without the filling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, so there is a tremendous individual element in keeping self connected to God, keeping the heart soft, repenting quickly, not having personal agendas, staying connected to the heart and message of Christ, asking the Holy Spirit to fill us– but the body of Christ is not about the individual. 

So this summer, with the help of The Justice Conference in Chicago, God is teaching me and challenging me in new areas. It has been eye opening, it has been hard and it has been beautiful. I have been convicted in some areas and on my face in repentance before the Lord, and I have been stretched in beautiful ways. I won’t even begin to pretend like the journey is coming to an end any time soon, but I’ll share with you a few of the things I’m seeing, and some of the things I’m doing differently.

I was challenged to look back across my life and see what voices have primarily shaped my theology. Were they people who primarily look like me? The answer was yes. Almost everyone that I’ve learned from in my Christian walk is white, most of them American, a few white Europeans in the mix. I’ve learned wonderful things from many of them, gone deeper with the Lord, so I am not in anyway saying that I am not grateful for their teaching, or that their teaching is wrong. However, I am now aware that I have not brought other voices into the mix. So, this summer I am beginning to read and listen to Christian authors and teachers who are not white. I am getting a new theological perspective based on their experience in life, and their experience with Christ. I am seeing a tremendous community element, the heart for the entire body of Christ to get beyond barriers and get about the business of loving one another. I’m seeing how individualistic the emphasis in the white American church has been, and how different that is from the vast majority of believers from other ethnic groups, both in the United States and around the world.

I’ve been challenged to see past “issues” and look at the humanity of people, and then minister to that humanity. One voice I heard this summer brought up a political issue that had been divisive. He shared that Hollywood voices were there standing with people, hippies were there, but where was the church? He was frustrated as he said to us–“You don’t have to agree politically to minister to the humanity in others.” He’s right. We are the church of Jesus, the only ones with the message of hope– of salvation. If we stay separate, how will the world ever see Him?

I’ve been challenged to read scripture in a new way, and let me tell you–it’s been exciting and it has changed–it is changing everything! Christena Cleveland, a very wise professor at Duke Divinity School, spoke to us about paying attention in scripture, especially in the life of Jesus (but it’s all over scripture) to how “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Mt. 20:16). She encouraged us to pay attention to who the privileged are in each story, who the underprivileged are in each story, and watch how Jesus turns it all on its head. Easy example–Jesus first miracle at the wedding in Cana. (John 2) Jesus performs the miracle in front of the servants. The privileged have to learn about it by talking to the servants. The privileged have to humble themselves… It’s all over scripture. And the challenge is real–those of us who are privileged by our citizenship, the color of our skin, our education, whatever…have the awesome honor to humble ourselves, to listen well to others who have a different experience, to learn from new voices, find our commonality in Christ, and get about His mission of bringing His Kingdom to earth together. 

In the spring of 2010, my husband and I went to a conference in Queens, New York. We were in a church whose congregation consisted of people groups from at least 60 different countries. The pastor said that it was messy at times, but that they were all learning to truly evaluate what was family culture, ethnic culture, and Jesus culture. They had to be willing to lay down the things that didn’t line up with the culture of the Kingdom of God in order to be a unified body of Christ.

Which brings me back to our passage from this week…as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you…”  

Peace means one. As members of one body, we were called to oneness. That means we must be willing to be humble, to learn from others, to have hard conversations with kindness, compassion, gentleness, patience, a forgiving heart, a willingness to hang in there, and most of all–love, in order to have unity in the body. We must be filled with grace. We must be filled with thanksgiving. We must be a people of worship, of singing with gratitude in our hearts to God, who has called us to this beautiful, diverse, body–and we must let the message of Christ, the word of Christ, Christ himself dwell in and among us.

I’m learning, I’m growing. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I like it, sometimes I don’t. But I’m committed to this journey. I want to partner with Jesus in His mission on earth. I want to get rid of anything that is based on church tradition or my cultural understanding of Jesus and really do this his way. Will you join me? It’s not easy, but it will be so worth it!

–Luanne

Luanne wrote about an extremely diverse church body that she visited in New York. She wrote:

“The pastor said that it was messy at times, but that they were all learning to truly evaluate what was family culture, ethnic culture, and Jesus culture. They had to be willing to lay down the things that didn’t line up with the culture of the Kingdom of God in order to be a unified body of Christ.”

“They had to be willing…”

So much of my personal journey with Christ, especially in recent years, has been a journey toward willingness. God has used the word ‘willing’ so many times in the last three years, it has almost become laughable. But I know that when He makes something so obviously clear, it’s important that I pay attention. Because it matters. It’s key. And so, when I read this paragraph that Luanne wrote, it immediately grabbed my attention.

I believe that we could see the Kingdom of heaven come so quickly–if we would simply be willing

Willing to lay down our privilege, as Luanne wrote about.

Willing to lay down our expectations and notions of “fairness”.

Willing to let go of control, of our ideas of how it “should” be.

Willing to let God reshape our thoughts and theologies with a more accurate, more full picture of His heart for all of the people He created in His image.

Willing to go–and love… willing to stay–and love.

Willing to repent from and lament our complicity in the individualization of the Gospel of Jesus.

Willing to repent from and lament our implicit biases, our own prejudices.

Willing to embrace the “other” who doesn’t look, act or think like us.

Willing to take the first, shaky step toward authentic community.

Willing to give and receive grace as we all fumble around, trying to find our way.

Willing to forgive-and be forgiven.

Willing to let the peace–the oneness, wholeness, unityof Christ rule–assume the role of umpirein our hearts. 

John said in his sermon that what is actually responsible for conflicts around us are the conflicts raging within us. The places where we can’t find common ground? They are actually places where we’re unwilling to let Christ rule in our hearts, places where we have taken an immovable stance–hardened places unwilling to yield. Where Christ rules, unity is found. It is proof of the love of Jesus in us-individually and in community-when we can be unified despite our differences, and it also bears witness to the truth of who Jesus is. Luanne mentioned Jesus’s prayer in John 17. Verses 20-23 from that prayer, out of the New Living Translation, read like this:

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”

I believe it is the unresolved conflicts-some that we may not yet be aware of-raging in our hearts that shut off our willingness valve. When we become unwilling, we become hard, and our world becomes all about us. Living in this place, it’s impossible to embrace the thriving, diverse community of the Kingdom. This place is an isolated island under the rule of individualism, independence and a “me first” mindset. I have lived on this island. Some days, I travel back there. While “alone” can be lonely, it can also feel safe. Isolation can feel safer because, with no one else around, there won’t be conflict, right?

Wrong. Conflict rages in isolation, it just rages within us instead of around us. It is only within community that we can come together around a common core and work through the conflict. That core is the rule of Jesus Christ. He is our head. We-the collective, colorful, multi-cultural, diverse “we”-are His body. The beautiful manifestation of all of His Glory on display. It is through this unified body that the Kingdom will come on earth as it is in Heaven. Jesus makes it so clear, and Paul reiterates the importance of this unity throughout his letters. Letting the peace of Christ rule doesn’t mean we agree about everything. In fact, it is through admitting and addressing our disagreements that we learn how to love and grow the most. When we can disagree and remain united under the rule of Christ is when His glory and power are on full display.

Can we be a body that is willing to let the peace, the oneness of Christ, rule in each of our hearts so that there is then no question that He rules in our churches and in the greater, collective Church that bears His name? Can we be willing to embrace the messy, the awkward, the uncomfortable in our journey toward representing Jesus accurately? Willing to let go of everything that doesn’t line up with His Kingdom and willing to grab hold of everything that does? I pray that we can all answer yes to these questions. And I trust and know that in the areas we’re not yet willing, there is grace to get us there. Together. In community. His way. Will you join us?

–Laura

colossians 3

Daily Living the Mission

I loved the new take that John shared with us on “Living out the Mission” as one of the “dailies”.  

Using Luke 9:23 Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me”, as the “what” of the mission….

Then using Matthew 9:10-12 “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’  On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.’” to show the heart, the “why” behind the mission…

And then using the beautiful story in Luke 7:36-50 to highlight the “how”,  John painted for us a beautiful picture of “how” to carry out the mission of Christ.

Without a doubt, Jesus has made it clear that he wants our lives to be about making disciples (Mt. 28:19-20).  And he made it clear in Luke 9:23 that if I want to be a disciple, I must deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him. Every. Single. Day.

It will be impossible for me to make disciples if I am not a disciple. It will be impossible for me to be a disciple, if I don’t deny myself.

In Genesis 1, God put in motion that we will multiply in our likeness. The seed we sow with our lives produces “like kind”. When God asked Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, sin had not yet entered the world. The original plan was that they would multiply others who would walk in intimate fellowship with God.  Sin ruined that possibility. Jesus restored that possibility, and his call to us in Matthew 28 is the “be fruitful and multiply” of the New Covenant.

To be a disciple, quite literally means that I will follow Jesus’ precepts and instructions. To follow Jesus’ precepts and instructions is a way of life. Intimacy with Jesus will lead to fruit. That fruit will be other “disciples” who follow Jesus’ precepts and instructions; who live life in a new way, who share intimacy with Jesus and bear the fruit of other disciples. Being a disciple is all about closeness and relationship. To know his precepts and instructions, I must know him.

The passages that John shared, show a stark difference between what it looks like to be a disciple, and what it looks like not to be one.

In Matthew 9, Matthew, the man, was learning how to be a disciple. His dinner table was full of different kinds of people, an inclusive setting. Matthew was a tax collector, and they made pretty good money. However, once Matthew had an encounter with Jesus, he chose to deny himself. He knew that he had found the Savior of the world, so he shared his wealth, hosted a dinner, and invited his friends to come meet Jesus, and Jesus came.

The Pharisees stayed in their little cohesive “we’re all alike” group, observed from the outside, and questioned the ways of Jesus.

In Luke 7, it’s the Pharisee, Simon, who has invited Jesus to dinner. Given what we know about Pharisees, I imagine the other dinner guests were of his group–like kind.  I can’t even imagine what happened–the shot of adrenaline and confusion, and “what should I do now?”– that took place in Simon’s mind when the woman came in. In the words of Ann Voskamp, “Oh, blazing Gehenna!” must have been going through his head. In his shock, however, he didn’t get up and escort her out. He observed.

The woman, this brave, courageous woman who loved Jesus deeply, totally denied herself, totally carried her cross, and totally honored the Jesus she had begun to follow. She didn’t care what anyone else thought of her. She didn’t care if she made a spectacle of herself. She didn’t hold back at all in demonstrating her devotion to and her love for Jesus. She didn’t care who saw her. She was going public with her story of redemption, her gratitude for Jesus’ grace. The fruit– today, we are still moved by her love for Him.

Simon also questioned the ways of Jesus, however, he did so within himself. Jesus, who knew Simon’s thoughts and inner wrestling, answered out loud.  Verse 44 tells us that Jesus was looking at the woman, but talking to Simon– and in beautiful verse 47 he says: “I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.”

My sins, Luanne, me, my sins, and they are many, have been forgiven.  So the question is, am I willing to go public with my love for Jesus? John said in his sermon:

“The beauty of our mess is that it shows us the beauty of the love of Jesus.”

The difference between the Pharisees and Matthew and the woman–the Pharisees could not see their own mess. They could not perceive how far they were from God’s heart. They had been blinded by tradition, by do’s and don’ts, by position, by religion,  and by the approval of the others in their closed circle of friends. They judged Jesus, They questioned Jesus. They chose not to enter in to Jesus’ way of doing things. They chose to be exclusive and distant.

Matthew and the woman recognized that their lives were a mess. They recognized that on the list of religious do’s and don’ts , they were hopeless causes. They met Jesus. They let him bring their stories into the light so that they could receive the gifts of grace and relationship with Him. They went public. Matthew invited his very mixed group of friends to have dinner with Jesus, and the woman crashed a dinner that she hadn’t been invited to so that she could show what it looks like to love Jesus well. They embraced Jesus for who He is, they accepted his ways and his method of doing things, and they couldn’t keep from inviting others, all others, in.

I want my life to look like that. I want to make disciples that look like that. Am I willing to follow Jesus daily?  Am I willing to take up my cross—my messy life, my redemption story–am I willing to deny myself–not worry what anyone else may think of me–in order that I can be a disciple who multiplies disciples who love Jesus deeply and aren’t afraid to go public with their stories? Am I willing to show the beauty of my mess so that the people around me can see the beauty of the love of Jesus-and then experience it for themselves?  The honest answer–sometimes. May my answer move from sometimes to yes! Always yes.

-Luanne

Luanne wrote:

“…this brave, courageous woman who loved Jesus deeply totally denied herself, totally carried her cross, and totally honored the Jesus she had begun to follow. She didn’t care what anyone else thought of her. She didn’t care if she made a spectacle of herself. She didn’t hold back at all in demonstrating her devotion to and her love for Jesus. She didn’t care who saw her…”

John said in his sermon that, in doing what she did, the woman in this story was breaking every tradition, going against the rules and doing it all wrong. He said that she was willing to do whatever it took to get to Jesus. She stepped out of the safety of obscurity to step into the only light that could shatter her darkness.

When was the last time you were willing to do whatever it took to get to do Jesus? If you know Jesus, then you have taken this chance at least once… Think back to the moment in your life that you saw yourself in all your messy brokenness and you just knew you needed Jesus. Do you remember that feeling? That desperation? You needed him and you knew it and you did whatever it took to get to him. You know the details of that first encounter–does anyone else? Have you ever shared your story? I know many people don’t think their testimony is all that “special” or “powerful”–but the truth is, we all-if we know Jesus-have a resurrection story. As pastor Louie Giglio puts it:

“You were dead! Dead people can’t do anything to help themselves! He made you alive!”

I love that so much! We were dead, our spirits were dead. He brought us to life. Friends, that’s a story worth sharing!! The details of your story are what make you uniquely able to share with others who will be moved by your particular set of circumstances. We all have a resurrection story if we know Jesus.

I think I can safely assume that your salvation experience is not the only time you’ve found yourself willing to do whatever it takes to get to Jesus, though. Why would I assume that? Because I know my own story.  Sometimes we meet Jesus and we begin to change and we are excited to share our stories because we are just so grateful for what he has done for us, but as time goes by… things get in the way.

So many things can get in the way of our getting to Jesus.

Sometimes those things paralyze us from doing what it will take to get back to him. Maybe it’s lies you’ve believed about yourself or about God… Maybe it’s an addiction and you feel ashamed and unable to change… Maybe you know that the “whatever it takes” means you’re going to have to step away from something you love so that God can draw you out into the wilderness and draw you close to him again… It could be a confession that you don’t think you can make… Or forgiveness that you don’t know how to extend… Maybe it just flat out looks crazy–like Peter, when he stepped out of the boat and onto the water to get to where Jesus was–and you just don’t think you can subject yourself to public ridicule… Maybe you think if you take that step, lean into your “whatever it takes”, Jesus will leave you hanging. I don’t know what your “whatever it takes” is. But I do know I have found myself in every one of the situations I highlighted above. And they’re all terribly frightening and they loom large and lie to us and make us feel stuck. John told us what to do, though…He reminded us that this woman in the story kept her focus on Jesus. It wasn’t about her–it was all about him. It reminds me again of Peter’s story that I referenced above–Peter was able to walk on the water until he took his eyes off of Jesus. When his focus moved from the Savior in front of him to the mess surrounding him, he started to sink. But, remember,

“The beauty of our mess is that it shows us the beauty of the love of Jesus.”

As Peter found to be true when he called out Jesus’s name and reached for him through the waves, when we refocus and reach out for Jesus in our mess, we find him right there, by our side, pulling us up. How many times have my messes gotten so big, so unbearable that I became willing to do whatever I had to to get back to Jesus? So many times… What about you? Have we shared these messy stories in vulnerable, authentic ways to the waiting world around us? I’m not great at it all the time… I want to become a person who boldly declares how good God has been to me, how much he has saved me from, how much of a mess I was-and still would be-without him. I want to be willing to share it all the time. Because I am also a woman who has been forgiven much…so very much. I want to love my Jesus much in return, as the woman in the story did. And I want the world around me to know just how much I love him just how good he has been to me… so that, hopefully, they’ll want to do whatever it takes to get to Jesus, too.

Where do you see yourself in these stories? Maybe you’ve never left the shadows of obscurity to meet Jesus. Maybe you did, once, but so much has gotten in the way. Maybe you have found yourself living the “whatever it takes” over and over again as you seek to know Jesus more deeply, but you’re hesitant to share all that he has done for you with others. Perhaps you are one who does share, often, your own beautiful redemption story. Wherever you are, I pray that this week, we can all move one step closer to Jesus. And that as we do, we’ll find ourselves more and willing to share his great love with those around us.

–Laura

your story

Daily Kindness

As  I reflected on John’s sermon about “kindness” as one of “The Dailies”,  and reflected on acts of kindness that have come my way, one story in particular stuck out to me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t paint me in a very good light, but it is beautiful.

During my teen years, I was living in a great deal of emotional pain. My mother had died a few years before. My dad had remarried a widow with four children of her own, all in the same age range as my siblings and me, and life was chaotic for a few years. I can not remember what prompted my outburst, but one afternoon I had a melt down directed toward my dad. I yelled, I said ugly things, and at one point, my grand finale moment, was that I did not want to live with them anymore. I wanted to live in foster care. Then I stormed out of his room and went downstairs. He came down after a few minutes and told me to get my sweater. My heart began to beat a little faster, afraid that he really might be wanting to take me to live elsewhere, but in my pride, I did not apologize or let on that I was nervous. We got in the car and he took me to play miniature golf and then took me to Dairy Queen. He told me that he knew I was hurting, that he loved me deeply and that nothing would ever change that. I deserved punishment. I received kindness. Kindness that didn’t make sense. Kindness that softened my heart and brought a piece of healing to my chaotic, painful life. It was more than an act of kindness. It was a heart of kindness overflowing with love for me. It is one of my most cherished memories.

In 1965, Dionne Warwick recorded the song, “What the World Needs Now”; the chorus goes like this:

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. No, not just for some, but for everyone.

How true those lyrics still are today, and God’s delivery system plan for that love is us. We, the followers of Christ will take it to the world. It’s why we’re here. What will it look like? It will look like kindness. Kindness is how love behaves.

Ephesians 2:6-7 tells us that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus Christ is God’s expression of kindness to us.  Have you experienced his kindness in Christ? Have you experienced the kindness of his forgiveness? Have you experienced the kindness of his presence? Have you experienced the kindness of his love? Have you experienced the kindness of his transforming power in your life?

The world has a very skewed perspective of God. However, as John said in his sermon, the world defines God by what they see in us. I have a much clearer picture of God’s grace, kindness and unconditional love because of my dad’s response to my outburst. The opposite is also true;  when the world thinks that God is mean, distant, angry–they get that impression from his followers. They define God by what they see in us. That hurts my heart.

Without a doubt, kindness is an action, but it goes beyond just being nice. True kindness is a fruit of the Spirit. (Gal 5:22)  Paul tells us in Colossians 3:12 “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. ”  The only way we can clothe ourselves like that is to allow ourselves to be filled with and empowered by the Holy Spirit, which means we must crucify our flesh and follow His lead in our lives. Can you imagine how different the world would be if Jesus’ followers really lived this way–If what spilled out of us was compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, love, joy peace?

Currently, a Google search of the phrase “why are Christians so…” brings up words like miserable, judgemental, intolerant, mean…Can you imagine if a Google search brought up words like kind, compassionate, loving, gentle?   

And, this kindness…it’s for everyone. Not just the people we like. Not just for the people whose favor we may be trying to earn. Not just for people who are nice to us, or kind to us in return. No–this is a Holy Spirit type of kindness. This is the type of kindness that is expressed when Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. (Mt. 5:44).  This type of kindness is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit. But if the world is going to change, if Jesus’ prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his will be done on earth as it is in heaven, is going to happen, it is imperative that his followers take–with thanksgiving–the love we have received from God in Christ–so costly, so undeserved, and so life changing–and pass it on to others. This is the kingdom coming on earth. Nothing that we receive from God is for us to horde. It is all to be given away. And what could be more beautiful and world changing than giving away love through kindness every single day–Kindness as a lifestyle, a heart overflow because our hearts are full of the love of God.

Kindness is how love behaves when it displays what Christ has done in us. What has he done in you? Are you willing to pass it on?

–Luanne

Luanne’s last paragraph is short, but powerful. It connects with what has been stirring in my heart since I listened to John’s sermon. She wrote:

“Kindness is how love behaves when it displays what Christ has done in us. What has he done in you? Are you willing to pass it on?

Willingness, it’s a tricky thing… God has been using the word “willing” in my life very intentionally over the past couple of years. I say that it’s tricky because there’s more to willingness than we initially realize. The first definition for the word willing is this:

“inclined or favorably disposed in mind”

If we use this as our only definition, it is probably a safe assumption to say, yes, we are willing to extend the kindness we have received. Most of us do not set our minds on being unkind. I think we have great intentions and we want to be kind to the people around us. At least in our minds…

But, the second definition Merriam-Webster gives for the word takes us a little deeper into the implications of willingness:

“prompt to act or respond”

When we read the full definition of the word willing, it makes it a lot more difficult to honestly answer Luanne’s question, doesn’t it?

In my mind, I have planned to bake treats and go introduce myself to our neighbors… for the past three years… I have thought about making time to take that person to coffee and give the gift of time several times over the past six months

If my willingness to extend kindness starts and stops in my mind… I am neither willing nor kind. True willingness is prompt to act or respond. Kindness, as Luanne shared above, is how love behaves. It is glaringly clear that both require action.

How, then, do we grow our good intentions into true, willing kindness?

The answer can be found in a verse John shared in his sermon. Hebrews 3:13 instructs us to:

 …encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Hebrews 3:13 (NIV)

Encouragement is one way we see kindness displayed. This verse exhorts us to encourage one another daily. Today. Before today becomes tomorrow. And therein lies our problem.

I didn’t mean to let today turn into three years of not knowing my neighbors. I didn’t intend to let six months pass without asking her to coffee. I simply planned to do it tomorrow… And when tomorrow became today, my plans moved once again to tomorrow.

There are two problems I see with “tomorrow”:

  1. It may never come. None of us is guaranteed a single breath beyond this moment.
  2. Every tomorrow eventually becomes our today. If we haven’t learned and practiced how to live intentionally in the moment we are given, we will not be truly willing. And we will not live out the kindness we ourselves have received.

Hebrews 3:13 tells us clearly why this cycle of “I’ll do it tomorrow” is so hard to break.

…encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

I have learned to pay attention when I see the words “so that” in Scripture. What follows those two words is always important. In this case, it’s a clear warning. If we don’t practice encouraging one another today, we will be hardened and deceived by sin.

Is it sinful to put things off for another day? To plan on doing them tomorrow?

I won’t take the liberty of answering these questions for you. What I do know is that, for me, there is one core reason I put off acting in kindness:

ME.

I don’t have time… What will they think of me I am tired… I don’t want to…

I can come up with eloquent, persuasive arguments as to why I put off extending kindness in the moment. But the root of every argument I could make? Selfishness. And I’m pretty certain selfishness is sin. So, yeah. For me, it is sin to put off until tomorrow what I could do today.

This is difficult to navigate, though, because we don’t often see beyond our good intentions far enough to see our selfishness. And the good intentions in our mind, they deceive us into believing we are kind when our actions (or lack thereof) prove otherwise.

For me, the truly frightening part of this verse is what it says can happen as a result of sin’s deceitfulness…

If we neglect to daily live and act out of the loving-kindness we have received, our verse tells us that we can be “hardened”.

The word “hardened” is translated from the Greek word “skléros. Included in the definition of skleros are the words:

harsh, intolerable, offensive

Those words sound a little bit familiar… They echo the words that Luanne mentioned earlier when she referenced the auto-fill options for the Google search:

Why are Christians so _______ ?

If we don’t act in love and kindness daily; if we are deceived by our sin, selfishness, good intentions, we run the risk of becoming exactly what the world thinks we are. I’m a little blown away by the fact that a couple thousand years ago, this warning was written to Jesus’s followers. And today, we are bearing the consequences of ignoring the warning. Somewhere along the way, our kindness stopped being kindness and turned into a word we didn’t really know the meaning of. We didn’t know it—and we certainly haven’t lived it. Google proves it.

Now, though, we know. We know that kindness is how love behaves. We know that being willing to give others what we have received from Jesus involves prompt action. We know that living out kindness daily protects us from becoming harsh, intolerable, offensive Christians.

We can change the auto-fills, friends. Let’s start today.

–Laura