Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The gospel of peace

Ephesians 6:10-20 (TNIV) -

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place,15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel,

20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

My thoughts -

This is a passage that many of us know well. My sons are studying it in their basketball league right now. Well, I'm not sure "studying" is the right word. It's hard for elementary aged boys to "study" anything, even without the distraction of a loud gym with a basketball game about to start. But they are reading it. And as best as I can tell they are enjoying it.

I remember this passage fondly from my "discovering" it when I was about their age. We built our "full armor" in Sunday school with our belts and breastplates and helmets, swords, and shields and everything. It was pretty cool. We boys loved the war imagery. We loved the idea of guarding ourselves from flaming arrows and attacking with our swords. We could imagine the epic dual between good and evil going on all around us. We were always good, of course. And "the world" was always bad. Bad was out there. We never internalized the message. We saw the battle outside of ourselves and never saw that it was really within.

We also never noticed verse 15. I mean, I'm sure it was read. It must have been. But we were kids. We just read scripture, we never lived with it. A little detail like "the gospel of peace" was sure to slip our young attentions.

So I read this today and I wonder, why all of the war imagery in regards to the gospel of peace? Why did Paul write it this way? I'm sure his perspective was skewed some by his living conditions. Life was a lot rougher for Christians in Paul's day than it is for us. For Paul persecution meant imprisonment, beatings, and ultimately death. For us it may mean getting teased about still being a virgin in high school. Not that teasing is fun but I'd take that over being martyred any day of the week.

But the more I think about this the more I think that the war imagery is not a bad thing. And I don't mind it sitting in glaring contrast against the backdrop of the gospel of peace. I'm good with contradictions. Life is full of them. Wherever we got the notion that they shouldn't exist I'll never understand. I think my beef with the war imagery is not necessarily the imagery itself and more the way my childhood self interpreted it. Let's look at verse 12 again:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
My childhood self couldn't grasp this. Maybe the me I am today can't either, but I'm better equipped to. Our war is not with people, it's against evil. It's against sin. And the war I'm fighting today isn't even against other people's sin. I've got no control over that. Maybe I can be a prophetic witness, maybe not. But what I can control, with God's grace, are my own actions. I want to get closer to God. I want to know and to love God more. I want to get deeper into this Christian living on a daily basis. I want to stop being the wretch that I've been and be who God is creating me to be. I am at war with my own sinful nature.

In this conflict I need to be prepared. I need to have a good relationship with the truth. I need to be honest with myself, with others, and with God. I need to be righteous. I need to be ready. I need to live in peace. I need to have faith. I need to trust God in everything. I need salvation. Do I ever need salvation! And I need the word of God. There's just something about living with scripture. I can't describe it but I need it. Even if I don't completely understand what I'm reading all of the time it helps to focus my thoughts on Godly things instead of my own selfish, sinful nature.

I need to be in prayer. I need to pray for my friends. I need to pray for my brothers. I need to pray for my enemies. I need to pray for people I don't even know. Honestly I'm not sure how prayer works. We pray for healing and some are healed and others aren't. We pray for tough situations that sometimes work out and sometimes don't. But prayer places our trust in God and not in ourselves and places the needs and concerns of others ahead of our own. When we pray for others we connect with our Creator and we connect with our fellow travelers in this life. How it works is not my concern. I've not prayed and I have prayed. Praying works better.

We need to strengthen and encourage each other just like Paul and his churches did. We're all in this life together and it isn't always easy, but peace is coming. Peace will be here soon. We just need to be strong and hold out until then.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord

Ephesians 5:15-20 (TNIV) -

15 Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise,16 making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.17 Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is.18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit,19 speaking to one another with psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,

20 always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

My thoughts -

I try to sing as often as I can. I sing to my children. I sing to wake them up in the morning. I sing to make them laugh when I get home from work. I sing to see them smile. I sing to annoy them. I sing to get them to sing.

I sing to my wife, too. One of the first things that she noticed about me is that I sing loudly. Too loudly, in her opinion. She did not like that about me at first. After all these years I'm not sure she likes it now, but she tolerates it better than she once did. A big milestone in our relationship when we were dating (for me, at least) was when I was able to gather the nerve to sing "My Best Girl" from the musical Mame to her. Yes, I like musicals. Get over it.

I sing at the church. I sing in worship. While I do the contemporary service at Trinity Hill I grew up in First United Methodist, which was at that time the flagship Methodist church in the area for traditional worship with organ and choir. I still enjoy singing hymns. I like singing from the hymnal and, as I can read music, I enjoy breaking off into parts and singing either the bass or tenor part, depending on the hymn. Sometimes for fun I'll switch back and forth. When I was a youth I was bold enough to break into head voice and sing the alto and occasionally the soprano part, too.

As I've said when going through the Psalms to prepare for worship, I like it when scripture tells me to sing. I doesn't require much from me. I was going to, anyway. I wonder though, what it is about singing that so connects us to God and to each other. I haven't studied the history of worship, but as far as I can tell we've pretty much always sung in worship. We sing Psalms still today that are over 3000 years old. We even do them in the contemporary service as if, by adding some electric guitar, bass, and drums we're doing something new. We're not. We're singing to God, just like we've always done.

As I read this passage I can't help but wonder why Paul wrote it. He's just laid out for the Ephesians how believers are and aren't to live. Paul is telling them (an us by extension) that they are to be wise and not foolish or drunkards. What does he replace getting drunk with? With singing. With giving thanks to the Lord in song. With worship. With praise.

Were these things mutually exclusive to the early church? Was there no getting drunk on Saturday night before church on Sunday back then? Honestly I don't know. I'm not sure what he's responding to. I don't have any real personal need to dig too deeply into this. I don't need any extra incentive to sing, and I don't need any more reasons to sing to God and praise God for all that has been done for me. Maybe I'm just wired that way. I don't know. But it seems to me that we've all been wired that way as a species. Again, I am ignorant of the history and could be way off base but it seems as though we've always done this; that we've always sung songs to God in worship.

Some of us believe that when we get to heaven that what eternity is, forever praising God in song. I could think of worse ways to be.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Walk in the way of love

Ephesians 5:1-7 (TNIV) -

1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children

2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
3 But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for the Lord’s people.4 Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.5 For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.

7 Therefore do not be partners with them.

My thoughts -

We just went over how are lives are supposed to look different. If you've been set free from your slavery to sin then it shouldn't be that big a shock to see Paul write that we shouldn't continue to wallow in it. Let's go over what he's saying here.

What does Paul mean when he says "not even a hint of sexual immorality"? Sexual immorality is something that we think we understand but I wonder. As a straight married man my role here seems pretty easy. I'm not supposed to have sex with anyone who isn't my wife. I say that's easy and yet many people struggle with this, even Christians. A pastor at a church here in Lexington even recently left his church after confessing to an affair. Obviously that's more than just a hint. Clearly we're not supposed to do that.

But what about unmarried monogamous couples? What about monogamous gay couples? And even with straight, married couples, does "anything go" as long as it's just between the two of them. We have, culturally, an obsession with sex that deals with it as an alluring taboo. We're fascinated with it but don't want to talk about it. As such there's not a lot of clarity in our sexual ethic, and it doesn't address our lives as we live them. As a straight, married man I am lucky in this. I have sex with my wife and only my wife and there's nothing else I have to worry about. The morality of this sexual relationship is pretty clear.

Greed is a big one. Are we greedy? Obviously we shouldn't be. But what exactly does Paul mean when he says "greed"? And what does he mean in throwing that in with sexual immorality and impurity? Was this intentional? Was it incidental? Are these all related? Is it just that they're "improper"? How so? Clearly no one who is a greedy, selfish, adulterous drunkard would be a good religious or moral example to follow. But when Paul says these things how far is he going and how connected are they?

These previous statements have been pretty easy for me. It's not too demanding to declare that a sober, straight married man with very little ambition not be sexually deviant "impure" greedy person. What I understand those things to be and what Paul means by them may be quite different but I steer pretty clear of a lot of things that way. They're just not who I am. This next verse may be an issue:
Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.
First off, what does Paul mean by "obscenity"? You see, I have what my wife calls a "potty mouth". I enjoy profanities. I use them like an artist uses paint. I can conjugate them in creative ways that might make a pirate blush. And as for "foolish talk", well... That's a pretty ambiguous statement. I have been known to make an asinine or inane comment or two in my day. And coarse joking? Again, I don't really know what that means. "Coarse" to one person may not be coarse to another. Whose definition carries the day?

Honestly I can't read this passage without feeling completely lost and confused. There are way more questions than answers. I need specifics. I need clarity. And then, amidst all of my confusion already, Paul throws this in:
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.
What does Paul mean by "empty words"? Are these lies? Are they promises that are made to be broken? Is this something like false gospel he railed against to the Corinthians?

And what does Paul mean by "do not be partners with them"? In my first reading of this passage I thought that this line just seemed harsh. I lumped this verse in with all of the previous ones and got from it essentially that we shouldn't hang out with "sinners". Obviously this message didn't sit too well against the example of the life of Christ. And then I wondered two things. The first, what if this is a separate claim? I'm leaning towards empty words being less the garden variety lies and untruths that many people tell and more towards a false gospel. Paul seems very concerned in his letters to his churches that they not be taken in by false teachings. It seems in line with the Paul who I've been reading that this would be a big enough concern of his to address in this way. It gets it's own statement set aside from the others on sin. This false gospel is a big deal.

The second thing I wondered is what we mean by "partner". A partner is not just a friend or an acquaintance. A partner has an equal say in all matters in a relationship. Whether Paul means these "empty words" as a false gospel or just untruths and broken promises you wouldn't want to make someone who disregards the truth to have an equal say in your relationship or to be in a position to speak for you.

As for all of my other questions about this passage, as they say, the devil's in the details. I wish I had some great insight into this. I wish I had some great insight into a lot of the Bible. I'm trying, but there's so much I don't know. There's so many different opinions by people who do claim to know. It seems a cop out to say that no one can fully know and to stop wondering, to stop seeking, to stop asking questions, and to stop trying to understand. So I'm trudging through and praying for God's word to penetrate my confusion and to light my path.

As I meditate on this more I keep coming back to verses one and two:
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This is what we're called to do. The rest is just the details. How am I offering myself as a sacrifice to God? How am I walking in the way of love? If profanity is really an issue I can stop using it. If my mouth is a stumbling block to others I can clean it up. If my joking is in bad taste and puts people off I can adjust. Whatever I'm doing that I shouldn't be doing I can stop. Not because of some arbitrary rule but because I love others and do not wish to cause them harm.

I don't have all of the answers. Sometimes I think it would be easier to just live "under the law" with a comprehensive list of dos and don'ts that was clear and inarguable. But we don't. We are free to live under the "law of love". As I learn more about God, what God's will is, what God wants from me, and how my actions affect others my behavior can change to be situationally appropriate. Not because I'm "not allowed" to do that but because I love God and I love others and I don't wish to do anything that causes suffering for others.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Put off your old self

Ephesians 4:17-32 (TNIV) -

17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking.18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts.

19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds;

24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.26 “In your anger do not sin” : Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

28 Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.

32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

My thoughts -

Paul has just explained to the Ephesian church that they are the body of Christ, and that they "joined and held together" in love like a body is by ligaments. He has mentioned these themes of the body and oneness and love and peace an awful lot. Now he is showing them (and us, by extension - you may tire of me saying that) what separates them (us) from non-believers.

Paul says they are no not live like the Gentiles anymore. Since Paul has made a career out of ministering to the Gentiles and has gone at it with the Jews over forcing the Gentiles into a strict adherence to the law my assumption is that, rather than "Gentiles" here meaning believers who are not Jewish Paul means non-believers. That's the assumption that I'm rolling with for the rest of this post.

So we are not to live like non-believers, then. We are not to live with "hardened hearts" but in love. We are not to be slaves to our sinful desires and impulses but disciplined. And we are, most definitely, not to be greedy. This is important especially in the American culture. We have hardened hearts that ignore the needs of the poorest among us to indulge in the idolatry of materialism. We are drowning in cheap shiny crap we don't need and that won't last while our brothers and sisters have nothing. We have a calloused approach to the poor, the needy, and the unemployed and don't want "our" tax dollars to go to entitlements. We'd much rather they go to tax cuts so we, the well off, are required to contribute even less to the well being of others. We do this and claim to be a "Christian" nation. What do we think Paul would have to say to us? What do we think Jesus would have to say to us?

Of course we need to do better. Of course we need to not be selfish, greedy, and indifferent to the suffering of others. We need to live a life that is set apart both from non-believers as well as from who we were in our sin. We need to be made as new creations in love in the image of God.

I love what Paul says in verse 28:
Those who have been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.
What better example of repentance than this? Not only do you not do what you formerly did in your sin but you replace that with what is, in effect, its godly opposite. Rather than steal, make something with your hands. And not only do you create rather than take, you then GIVE it to the needy. This is a powerful image. We think of repentance as being sorry. That may be the first step towards repentance but you must then STOP doing what was the sin and then TURN from it radically, making restitution for it. Then you are reconciled to those you were sinning against. Then you are remade as something new. It's not enough to feel bad and then to feel different, but your actions must change.

Paul then has some even tougher words:
Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.
I don't like the word "all" here. It doesn't leave me any wiggle room, just like Paul left no wiggle room earlier when he said we were to "put off falsehood and speak truthfully". I also don't like how strong and direct the language is. He's not saying to try to not be as bitter, angry, etc. He's say to get rid of it all. We are called to do this. There is not love in bitterness. There is no love in rage. There is no love in brawling, in slander, or in malice.

We are called to build each other up, not to tear each other down. We are called to love each other, not to maliciously slander each other. We are called to be truthful, not to lie about each other and stab each other in the back. Too often we are so blinded by our own selfish, sinful agendas that we adopt a "the ends will justify the means" approach to accomplishing our own goals and fail to show any love, charity, or grace to our brothers and sisters in Christ. We believers can be every bit as two-faced, malicious, vicious, and cruel as non-believers. Paul chastised churches about this 2000 years ago, so it's nothing new. We have no "glorious past" to fall back on here.

But we are called to be different. We are meant to be different. You cannot repent, you can not be made new, you cannot follow in the footsteps of Christ and not change. We can't keep being the fallen, selfish, prideful, hard-hearted, two-faced, deceitful, infantile, cruel, spiteful, vengeful, wretched people we used to be.

I love how Paul ends this passage:
Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.
Kind and compassionate. Forgiving. These are the marks of the Christian life. This is how we are to be.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

There is one body

Ephesians 4:1-6 (TNIV) -

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called;5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism;

6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

My thoughts -

Paul gave a bit of a "pep talk" to the Ephesian church in chapter 3, encouraging them to, rather than be discouraged by his suffering for the church and for Christ, be strengthened by it. Now it seems he is urging them to live how he would if he were able.

You will, in reading Paul, see that he mentions frequently that we are essentially free to live as we please. Someone who spent the bulk of his adult life in prison probably has some very strong ideas of what "freedom" is. But, if we have freedom in Christ to live as we please then we have strength in Christ to live according to God's will. That seems like a contradiction, doesn't it? There are many seeming contradictions in the Christian life and I think a big part of solving this conundrum is to think and live more experientially than rationally. Love is never very rational, anyway. Life in Christ is more to be experienced than understood, no matter how much I wish to know and understand.

So here is Paul, in prison, telling the Ephesian church how they (and us, by extension) ought to, in their (our) freedom, live together. And what does Paul say?
Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
So we're to be humble and gentle? That's not to hard, is it? What, what does he mean by "completely", here? Does that mean there are no exceptions? No exclusions, no exchanges, returns, or refunds?

And we are to be patient? How patient? Does this fall under the purview of "completely" from the previous statement? Haven't you heard a pastor or someone once say to never pray for patience? There's no easy way to acquire patience. It takes a lot of work. And the work is unpleasant, at that.

And what exactly does "every effort" mean on the whole keeping the unity and peace thing? Is that like the token effort that we put in to be able to say that we tried or does that literally mean "every" effort, like to try everything possible?

It seems like a stupid, cheesy cliché to say this but we are all in this together. There is one God and one body and we're the body. Life isn't easy and if we are really living for Christ it's even harder. We can't just "go with the flow", follow all of the inclinations of this world and our own sinful natures and just see where we end up. Living for Christ is intentional. Seeking after and doing God's will is intentional. I'd like to believe that we're given a very simple list of instructions we are to follow in this life and all of the tools to do it and it's just that easy but God doesn't work that way. Me wanting God to doesn't change that. The answers are never easy and only end up leading to more questions.

But we're asking the questions together. And we're living the answers together. And if we want an easy list of instructions then maybe we should start with "love God and love people" and see where that leads us. But then we have to ask what love is and which people and then the questions just snowball from there.

Honestly seeking after God is no easy thing. Honestly living as a Christian is no easy thing. You might think in a culture where Christianity is accepted and even normative that would be different but I think it makes it even harder. There's a blurred line, at least in the Bible belt, between "godly" and "worldly". There aren't a lot of clear distinctions and it's easy to live according to the worldly and not even notice. Most of us do that. I hate to admit it but I do as well. It's unavoidable.

Life is hard. Following Christ is hard. If we aren't living with each other in the way Paul describes here; if we aren't humble (remember, it isn't about us, it's about Jesus)and gentle; if we aren't patient, loving, and peaceful; if we aren't united as one body in Christ then this life is even harder.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

For he himself is our peace

Ephesians 2:13-17 (TNIV) -

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.

My thoughts -

What does it mean to say that Christ is our peace? We have talked before about how we, in our sin, were God's enemies. Paul is saying here that, in the cross, Jesus made himself a "dividing wall of hostility" between the two warring parties, between us and God. Jesus has reconciled us to God and "put to death (our) hostility".

That is a neat image. We don't like to think of ourselves as being enemies of God's. That's a terrifying position. Yet that's where we were until we had our intermediary Christ come and forcibly make peace through submission to God's will and death on the cross. In that we received the grace that can lift us out of our selfish, sinful nature and do God's will. He became our peace with God. He ended our conflict.

Paul also says here that Jesus "preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near". What does it say of us, the recipients of peace with God through Jesus, that we have historically waged wars in Jesus's name? How are we doing in our following in the example of our Lord and Savior?

Jesus inserted himself as a buffer between two warring parties and became a sacrifice so that there could be peace. We seem to be too eager to continue in our blood lust, to continue to wage our wars, and to even go so far as to invoke that which Paul calls our "peace" as the reason for the war. I've never seen what's so holy about a Holy War. It seems like an oxymoron to me. And if you think that Holy Wars ended with the Crusades take a look at the Middle East right now. We can say that they started it, or we can say that this isn't a "Holy War", but something else, and yet we still have a nation that wants to call itself a "Christian" nation invading others and we have religious leaders here at home invoking Christ in it.

So maybe I'm taking Paul too literally, then. Maybe he means that we have some kind of metaphorical peace in Jesus. How's that working for us? Do we still squabble amongst ourselves? Are there still factions and feuds? Some peace we have. I know, maybe I'm just asking for too much. We're only human, after all. We can't be expected to be perfect, right?

But what good is grace if it doesn't help us overcome the limitations of our own fragile, sinful humanness? Are we expecting peace only in heaven after we've died? After we're all dead I'm sure the world will be quite the peaceful place. There will be none of us left fighting in it. But can Jesus be our peace now? Can we strive to receive grace and do God's will and overcome our own selfish, sinful nature now? Do we have to wait until are bodies have died? Are we so corrupt in the flesh? Is grace really powerless? Can we find no peace here?

Are we even trying?

Monday, December 20, 2010

This is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God

Ephesians 2:1-9 (TNIV) -

1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy,5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus,7 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.8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

My thoughts -

Faith vs. works. Can you earn salvation? Does grace demand anything from the recipient? Do we really just have to "believe"? Is grace just a gift that only demands that we receive it? These are questions that those of faith go back and forth on constantly. But what does it mean to be saved by faith and not by works?

First, let's look at what Paul is starting off with here. He is telling the Ephesian church (and, by extension, us, as we're the ones reading it together now) that they were dead in their transgressions and sins. The old way isn't working. Our will is KILLING us. The things of this world are KILLING us. We are dead in them.

You don't desire to turn from sin and from the world and toward God if your sinful ways are working for you. You would have no reason to. I've never seen anyone repent because they were happy and fulfilled in their sin. Our will is death. Our ways are death. Even if the body is still alive in sin we're dead. It just doesn't work, not on an existential level.

So, our experience as "sinners" is that we are dead. Paul says that we are deserving of wrath. I would think that if God really wanted to punish us then, rather than wrath, which might alert us to how awful our depraved, sinful nature really is, God would simply allow us to continue in sin. God does not allow us to, however. God has provided a way out. By God's mercy and through Jesus we are given grace. It is a gift that does not just save us from the consequences of sin after death. It saves us from the death we have in sin right here in this life. Grace enables us to, having received forgiveness and restoration in our relationship with God, go and sin no more. Grace is no mere get-out-of-hell-free card but that which gives us new life in Christ.

There is nothing that we can do to "earn" grace. Grace is made available to us through Jesus by a merciful God. That said, though works cannot save us that in no way means that, given new life in Christ, we are to continue to live as though nothing has changed and nothing is demanded of us. Maybe "demanded" is the wrong word here. Let me rephrase: Grace enables us to do what God desires for us. It's not about what God requires necessarily, but what God desires.

If we are given new life in Christ how do we respond to this without doing what God desires? How do we, having received grace in response to our desperate cries for mercy, in response to our desperate cries for redemption, in response to our desperate cries to be lifted out of our despair and slavery to sin, how do we not respond by doing God's will? Was our will working? Look where it got us. Death. Was our way working? If it was why did we long for and seek after something better?

Are we believers because we are culturally expected to be? If so, what good is our alleged faith? Are we believers because that's just what you do, you go to church and believe in God? If so, what good is our alleged faith? If we weren't DEAD in our sins, if we weren't desperate and lost, if we weren't broken then how did we come to Christ? What did we need in grace? Why are we here?

We were dead in our transgressions and sin. We have been made alive in Christ. Works can't "save" us, only the gift of grace from a loving and merciful God. We respond to this gift of grace by no longer living according to our own sinful nature but according to God's will. And it is God's will that we share God's love with others. That is our "works". That's what we do not because it will "save" us but because it is a sign of our salvation. We are a new creation being made perfect in God's love, and that love is contagious. As we have generously received it we must generously give it. If we don't, what good was that "grace", really?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Preparing for worship with Psalm 105

Psalm 105 (TNIV) -

1 Give praise to the Lord, call on his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.

2 Sing of him, sing his praises;
tell of all his wonderful acts.

3 Glory in his holy name;
let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice.

4 Look to the Lord and his strength;
seek his face always.

5 Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,

6 you his servants, the descendants of Abraham,
his chosen ones, the children of Jacob.

7 He is the Lord our God;
his judgments are in all the earth.

8 He remembers his covenant forever,
the promise he made, for a thousand generations,

9 the covenant he made with Abraham,
the oath he swore to Isaac.

10 He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant:

11 “To you I will give the land of Canaan
as the portion you will inherit.”

12 When they were but few in number,
few indeed, and strangers in it,

13 they wandered from nation to nation,
from one kingdom to another.

14 He allowed no one to oppress them;
for their sake he rebuked kings:

15 “Do not touch my anointed ones;
do my prophets no harm.”

16 He called down famine on the land
and destroyed all their supplies of food;

17 and he sent a man before them—
Joseph, sold as a slave.

18 They bruised his feet with shackles,
his neck was put in irons,

19 till what he foretold came to pass,
till the word of the Lord proved him true.

20 The king sent and released him,
the ruler of peoples set him free.

21 He made him master of his household,
ruler over all he possessed,

22 to instruct his princes as he pleased
and teach his elders wisdom.

23 Then Israel entered Egypt;
Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham.

24 The Lord made his people very fruitful;
he made them too numerous for their foes,

25 whose hearts he turned to hate his people,
to conspire against his servants.

26 He sent Moses his servant,
and Aaron, whom he had chosen.

27 They performed his signs among them,
his wonders in the land of Ham.

28 He sent darkness and made the land dark—
for had they not rebelled against his words?

29 He turned their waters into blood,
causing their fish to die.

30 Their land teemed with frogs,
which went up into the bedrooms of their rulers.

31 He spoke, and there came swarms of flies,
and gnats throughout their country.

32 He turned their rain into hail,
with lightning throughout their land;

33 he struck down their vines and fig trees
and shattered the trees of their country.

34 He spoke, and the locusts came,
grasshoppers without number;

35 they ate up every green thing in their land,
ate up the produce of their soil.

36 Then he struck down all the firstborn in their land,
the firstfruits of all their manhood.

37 He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold,
and from among their tribes no one faltered.

38 Egypt was glad when they left,
because dread of Israel had fallen on them.

39 He spread out a cloud as a covering,
and a fire to give light at night.

40 They asked, and he brought them quail;
he fed them well with the bread of heaven.

41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out;
it flowed like a river in the desert.

42 For he remembered his holy promise
given to his servant Abraham.

43 He brought out his people with rejoicing,
his chosen ones with shouts of joy;

44 he gave them the lands of the nations,
and they fell heir to what others had toiled for—

45 that they might keep his precepts
and observe his laws.
Praise the Lord.

My thoughts -

I love this Psalm. First because, and you'll hear me say this a lot, it opens with a command to sing. I'm big about singing and big about scripture that commands me to do what I was going to do anyway. It doesn't demand much from me, right? Sing? Okay, I can do that. I love to sing. So we're called to sing God's praises? I love to sing God's praises! This is easy, right? I love this Psalm!

Now where does the Psalmist go from there? He tells of God's wonders, of God's power, of God's mighty acts. We get the story of God holding up his end of the covenant with God's chosen people. We get a list of all of the stuff that God did and how powerful and faithful God is. It's an impressive list, too. And a little terrifying at that. But when we read things like this we like to read ourselves into the role of Israel. We like to think that we've taken on the role of the chosen and we're in the covenant now. We read these terrible things that have happened to liberate the chosen people and we din't think to much of it. Bad things happened to the bad guys for the good of the good guys. God is powerful and God is looking out for us, his people.

There's some comfort in that, but the story doesn't end there. If we're the good guys, if we're God's people what's our role? What are we to do? Take a look at how the Psalmist closes this again:
He brought out his people with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; he gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for— that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws. Praise the Lord.

God did all of this stuff for the chosen ones and God is to be praised for this. We praise God for all that God has done. We bow down and worship God because God is what we are not. God is good. God is righteous. God is holy. God is powerful. God is awesome. We've got these stories all through the Psalm pointing to this. But it demands more than a song from us. We are to "keep his precepts and observe his laws".

As we prepare for worship this morning let us prepare to sing God's praises this morning. Let us prepare to tell of God's wondrous deeds and to give thanks for all that God has done for us. But it doesn't stop there. We don't leave it at that. Let us go and do God's will in everything that we do.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What counts is the new creation

Galatians 6:12-

12 Those who want to impress others by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.13 Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh.14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.15 Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.

16 Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.

17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

My thoughts -

Paul closes his letter here hammering home the point about circumcision. We've dealt with this issue a couple of times over the last few days. This is a big deal. This is a case of the religiously powerful oppressing the vulnerable and imposing upon them a standard that no one can bear.

I find it compelling and a little bit convicting that Paul is doing this. Let me explain what I mean by that. I am not convicted in that I feel as though I have done what the Galatians have done or its equivalent. It's possible that I have. We need to, especially those of us with some authority (it pains me to admit that I might have some authority - I always try to avoid that), check our actions constantly to make sure that we are not causing undue hardships for others and that we are striving to do God's will and not anything from our own selfish, sinful nature. What convicts me here is that Paul is dealing with a very real issue of oppression and, while he's not letting anyone off the hook, he is still responding with the Galatian churches' best interest at heart.

He has spent a great amount of time and effort in this letter lamenting the breakdown in the relationship. These people have wronged Paul. These people have oppressed others in the name of Jesus. These people have been ethnocentric hypocrites. I would have no patience for them. I would have no love for them. My goal would be to remove them from their place of power with whatever means necessary. They would be dead to me, or, failing that, my mortal enemies.

As you can see, I am nowhere near the man Paul was. I may be a believer. I may be trying hard to follow Christ. I may be seeking desperately after God's will. But I am not filled with God's love. At least not enough. At least not yet.

I'm not closing this letter with anything wishing grace, peace, or love on the recipient. I'm closing it with a precision guided missile of profanity. I'm closing it not with a blessing but a curse.

So when Paul says that "what counts is the new creation" in this passage, while he's responding to the practice of the Galatians imposing circumcision and strict adherence to the law I am finding that I need to, yet again, be made into a new creation. This isn't an overnight fix. I like to say that I am being made in the image of God, not that I have been made in the image of God. Creation is a process. Re-creation is as well. I am not a finished product. There is much work left to do. And while I, when reading this, want to place myself in Paul's shoes the sad truth of the matter is the Galatian shoes would fit much better right now.

How do you follow Christ? How do you love your enemies? How do you bless those who curse you? How do you take up your own cross? How do you become a new creation?

We like to think that we have all of the answers but this isn't easy. We know that the answer is "Jesus" but that's not something that can be understood with reason. How do you let go? How do you allow Jesus to take over? It's crazy. It doesn't make sense. It isn't rational. There are no fool proof procedures, no six easy steps, no guarantees. It isn't easy. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either confused or lying. Is the longing enough? How do you do God's will when you're tainted by sin? How do you overcome sin without doing God's will? It seems that the Christian life is full of contradictions and conundrums.

So here I am again. More questions than answers. But this I do know. Grace is available to all of us through Christ Jesus our Lord. We, through Christ, can overcome all of these things. Maybe I need to stop trying to figure out exactly how that works and trust Jesus to do the work for me. I need to allow my Creator to finish me and stop fighting to take over the design. What counts is the new creation.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

For at the proper time we will reap a harvest

Galatians 6:1-10 (TNIV) -

1 Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.2 Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.3 If any of you think you are something when you are nothing, you deceive yourselves.4 Each of you should test your own actions. Then you can take pride in yourself, without comparing yourself to somebody else,5 for each of you should carry your own load.

6 Nevertheless, those who receive instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.
7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow.8 Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

My thoughts -

I like the language here in dealing with sin: "restore that person gently". Paul doesn't say that we should correct harshly, but restore gently. I feel like sometimes we miss this.

Now Paul has done a lot of "restoration" in this letter (and many others) and not all of it has been "gentle". He has some awfully strong words for the Galatian church in Chapter 5. You could make a reasonable case that when he says we are to "restore gently" here in dealing with sin he is talking about doing so with individuals caught in a specific incident and not with large groups imposing bad theology. I can go with that. I could also go with that Paul is saying what we should do, but not what we must do or what he's always done. I'm sure that Paul, in his day, did not always "restore gently". That he says we should may indicate that he's done it the other way and we should trust him that gentle restoration is better. Whatever his previous experience and intent may have been I have done it both ways (and had both done to me) and am certain that we should "restore gently". Part of the reason for this is found in the next verse:
But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.

None of us is without sin. We all need to be restored, both on an interpersonal level (our relationships with each other) and a Spiritual level (our relationship with God). It works out best for all of us if we're in the "gentle restoration" business. None of us is perfect. None of us is without sin. We've all fallen and we will all fall again. We need to be able to help pick each other back up. We need to be able to, as verse 2 says "carry each other's burdens".

Now, does that contradict what Paul goes on to say in verse 5? Can we all carry each other's burdens while also carrying our own load? If everyone carried his/her own load then what burdens would be left that need to be carried? If you dig too deeply and too literally into anything here you end up pushing the imagery to absurdity.

We need to, as Paul says "test (our) own actions". We need to be aware of what we do, and our own sin. We need to make sure that we're right with each other and right with God so that we can then help restore our fallen brothers and sisters. Not a one of us is untainted by sin. We need to know that, to guard against it, and then not deal with the sins of others too harshly so that we can build them back up and restore them rather than just beat them down.

Does this mean then, if we're all tainted by sin, and we need to gently restore each other, that there are no real consequences for our sins and sin isn't a big deal? Look at what Paul says starting with verse 7:
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. People reap what they sow. Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

This is why we all need to be restored. Sin is a big deal. It corrupts everything. And when you are corrupted by sin and live to serve your own sinful nature you are not living life the way our Creator intended it to be lived and there are very real consequences that come out of that. Lives are destroyed. Relationships are broken. Suffering is caused. Sin is a big deal. That's why we need to be restored. If there weren't consequences, if it wasn't a big deal, then we wouldn't need restoration, gentle or otherwise.

If we live according to the will of our Creator/Sustainer then we have life, abundant and eternal. When we don't have have destruction. That we are all sinners doesn't change this fact, it only adds a sense of empathy and urgency to it. We who know God know how much we need God. We know our own limitations. We know that our own will has gotten us nowhere that we want to be. When our bothers and sisters fall we know the suffering that they cause to themselves and those around them. We know that they need to be restored and we need to lift them back up in the same way that we would have them lift us back up if we were in their position.

And we need to be strong for each other while being vulnerable to each other. Strong in continuing to live by the Spirit and not tiring of doing God's work and God's will. Vulnerable in that we know, but for the Grace of God, we would still be mired in our own sinful nature and if we don't continue to guard against temptation then we're headed right back where we were before Christ lifted us out of our sin.

It is not time yet, but we will reap a plentiful harvest if we keep working and lifting each other up.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Let us keep in step with the Spirit

Galatians 5:15-26 (TNIV) -

15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.17 For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.

18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions

21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.

26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

My thoughts -

Conflict is inevitable and lamentable. Within the context of the church you would think that we would be in lock step with the Spirit and with each other and wouldn't need to hear things like "If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other." Clearly that idea of harmony is a fallacy. It's not that we don't mean well. It's not that we aren't honestly following after God and trying to do God's will. It's just that we're human, and everything we do is tainted by sin. There is nothing in this world that has not been affected.

No matter how honestly we follow in Christ those Spiritual desires are in conflict with our sinful nature. We Methodists believe in Christian perfection, but I don't know any of us that have achieved it yet. Even if some of us have, and I allow for that possibility, if we ALL haven't then it doesn't really matter. There will still be conflict.

Now, Paul goes on to list some sins as "obvious". Take a look at them:
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

This is not comprehensive list, as indicated by "and the like". There are obviously many more ways to sin. But these sins are pretty obvious, right? You won't find much of a pro-drunken orgy lobby within the church. Some of my more conservative friends may argue that day is coming but it ain't here yet.

Well, I say that these sins are obvious, echoing Paul here, and yet a few of them jump out at me. It may not be that we can't identify these things as sin in others or in an academic sense, it may just be that we have a hard time identifying them in ourselves or, perhaps more likely, we have an easier time justifying them in ourselves. Hatred is a tough one. Discord, too. How can you tell if you REALLY hate someone or if you just correctly identify them as having undesirable qualities and want nothing to do with them? And what does discord even mean? Jealousy is a tough one. It's a natural reaction. How do you keep from having those? And what about selfish ambition? Can't we use our ambition for the good of others? And how do we check against it to see what's selfish and what isn't?

We have this view of everything divided neatly in to black and white; wrong and right. And yet there is so much grey. We have a much easier time identifying what's wrong in others than we do critically engaging our own attitudes and behavior. And yet it is a far more useful thing to identify your own sin and work to correct it than it is to compel others to do so. More on this tomorrow.

So Paul has shown us what's wrong, but that's not all, How about what's right:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

I can't tell you if you hate someone or not. But you know if you love them. If there's no love there then most likely there's some hate. We need the good of God to counter the bad in us. People who are at peace aren't prone to fits of rage. People who are patient and kind usually don't struggle with anger, jealousy and selfishness. If you have self control you will probably not get caught up in sexual immorality and drunkenness.

These Spiritual things counteract our sinful natures and desires. If we pursue, with Christ, these fruits of the Spirit then we can, through the Grace we have in Jesus, be made righteous and holy. Sin is still here, but through the Grace of God we have in Christ Jesus our Lord we can overcome it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

Galatians 5:6-13 (TNIV) -

6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
7 You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?8 That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.9 “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”10 I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will have to pay the penalty, whoever that may be.11 Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.

12 As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature ; rather, serve one another humbly in love.14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

My thoughts -

Paul is calling out those within the church who were requiring that Gentile converts be circumcised and held to the entirety of the law. We saw yesterday how this had caused a rift between him and the church of Galatia. Paul has had no kind words to say about this practice and ha his harshest words to so about those who were agitating for it:
As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!

There is no love in that statement. We can walk that back and say that Paul didn't mean it literally, that he was being figurative and that the image of emasculation as the farthest logical conclusion to the zealous promotion of circumcision is an appropriate one. That works on a level but this gets me thinking about how well I deal with those who claim to love God but do not love others, and instead dish out a tyrannical gospel which presents God as something of a cosmic bully holding all to a standard none can live up to. There is no love in me for religious zealots and hypocrites who withhold grace accepting certain preconditions be met, principally that the recipient of grace look and act exactly like them.

Paul claims here, echoing the words of Jesus found in Matthew 22, that "the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Are we doing that? Are we capable of doing that? We can be as righteous as anyone has ever been, we can have a zeal and a passion for Godly things that is unmatched in this world, we can have as much wisdom and be as eloquent as anyone ever has been, and still fall woefully short here. Without love we are nothing.

Which brings us back to Paul "emasculation" desire and my own issues loving those who are religiously intolerant. Can we withhold God's love from those who withhold God's love? Isn't this something of a Catch-22? Far brighter minds than mine I'm sure have reflected on this issue. What did they come up with? What do you think? I honestly find this to be something of a conundrum.

I think we should, if we err, err on the side of loving others. I have my own issues to work out. But one thing I am convinced of is that I should share the love of God with all God's children, even and especially those I don't really like. Maybe they too have been oppressed by a rigid and unbending theology of a tyrant God and are unable to experience God's love for themselves.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One word movie review

I just took the kids to see Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Here's a one word movie review for it: Outstanding.

Seriously, it's far and away the best of the series thus far and the best movie I've seen this year. And the year's almost over...

Go see this movie. Do it now.

What has happened to all your joy?

Galatians 4:12-20 (TNIV) -

12 I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you. You have done me no wrong.13 As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.14 Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself.15 What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.

16 Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?
17 Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them.18 It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.19 My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you,

20 how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!

My thoughts -

Some of these words just break my heart. Paul is dealing with another broken relationship. We think that, because we are Christians and we share the love of God in Jesus that this wouldn't happen to us, and yet Christians still divorce, churches split, families are broken, and love is lost. Our relationships are just as fragile as anyone else's because, though we have God's grace through Jesus we are still, in spite of that, tainted by sin.

Paul is imploring the Galatian church to not live as ritualistic slaves to the law. This is obviously not the same as imploring them to live in sin, which has been previously established. It seems as though, on this point, the relationship has broken down. And this is causing Paul great anguish. Read these words again:
(Y)ou welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

Sometimes our pride won't let us be vulnerable. Sometimes our pride won't allow us to admit that we're wrong. Sometimes our pride will make something a "matter of principle" and will allow us to put some point of contention ahead of a relationship and allow us to throw everything away due to some stupid dispute.

Now, theology is important. And what the Galatian church was doing, per my understanding at least, was very wrong. They were forcing Gentiles to be circumcised and holding them to the entirety of the law, which they themselves couldn't live up to. It was a ethnocentric, hypocritical, bigoted thing to do. Paul called them on it, and in doing so he has apparently made himself their enemy. And here he is, writing to them, lamenting this, reminding them how strong their bond was previously, while standing firm on this matter.

Paul is not wrong to do this, that's not what I'm saying. The Galatians are wrong here and are apparently stubbornly persisting in this wrong. I'm just sad for both parties that it came to this. And I think this is a good reminder for all of us. Our relationships are fragile, precious commodities. Our sinful pride can destroy them, even if we are Christians. We need to steadfastly follow after Jesus and check against our own will, our own sin, our own pride, or we will destroy them.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Preparing for worship with Psalm 104

Psalm 104 (TNIV) -

1 Praise the Lord, my soul.
Lord my God, you are very great;
you are clothed with splendor and majesty.

2 The Lord wraps himself in light as with a garment;
he stretches out the heavens like a tent

3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
and rides on the wings of the wind.

4 He makes winds his messengers,
flames of fire his servants.

5 He set the earth on its foundations;
it can never be moved.

6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.

7 But at your rebuke the waters fled,
at the sound of your thunder they took to flight;

8 they flowed over the mountains,
they went down into the valleys,
to the place you assigned for them.

9 You set a boundary they cannot cross;
never again will they cover the earth.

10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the mountains.

11 They give water to all the beasts of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.

12 The birds of the sky nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches.

13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers;
the land is satisfied by the fruit of his work.

14 He makes grass grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to cultivate—
bringing forth food from the earth:

15 wine that gladdens human hearts,
oil to make their faces shine,
and bread that sustains their hearts.

16 The trees of the Lord are well watered,
the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.

17 There the birds make their nests;
the stork has its home in the junipers.

18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats;
the crags are a refuge for the hyrax.

19 He made the moon to mark the seasons,
and the sun knows when to go down.

20 You bring darkness, it becomes night,
and all the beasts of the forest prowl.

21 The lions roar for their prey
and seek their food from God.

22 The sun rises, and they steal away;
they return and lie down in their dens.

23 Then people go out to their work,
to their labor until evening.

24 How many are your works, Lord!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.

25 There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number—
living things both large and small.

26 There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

27 All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.

28 When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things.

29 When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.

30 When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

31 May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works—

32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles,
who touches the mountains, and they smoke.

33 I will sing to the Lord all my life;
I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.

34 May my meditation be pleasing to him,
as I rejoice in the Lord.

35 But may sinners vanish from the earth
and the wicked be no more.
Praise the Lord, my soul.
Praise the Lord.

My thoughts -

I love that, in praising God here this psalm specifically mentions what the Lord does that enables them to live and work. God provides everything. When it says that God "makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate— bringing forth food from the earth" that's not just life giving food we need to survive but also the cornerstone of an agrarian economy. God is the God of everything, including our economy. God is the source of everything in our lives. When we praise God we acknowledge our complete dependence upon God for everything.

I also like that this psalm praises God for "wine that gladdens human hearts". God wants us to be happy! God is the source of that which brings us joy. Yes, like all things alcohol can be abused and cause suffering but God has made a world in which there are wonderful things that can "gladden" our hearts and bring us great joy. When we praise God we praise the Creator of joy and happiness. It is good to, rather than fear a God that looks down angrily upon us is judgement, praise God who created the things that bring us joy.

This psalm praises God for being the source of our lives, and all life. It praises God for the order of the world, and for the diversity of life in it. It praises God for bringing us joy. It declares that the psalmist will sing God's praises for all of this life. And then it throws in one last curve ball: "But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more."

Even in all of this praise there is concern for righteousness and justice. We still have, in the midst of all that is amazing in this life that we praise God for, the problem of sin.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The righteous will live by faith

Galatians 3:1-13 (TNIV) -

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by your observing the law, or by your believing what you heard?

6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
7 Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham.8 Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

9 So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because “the righteous will live by faith.”12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “Whoever does these things will live by them.”13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

My thoughts -

What does it mean to receive the Spirit through belief? Does that get us out of any obligation to obey the law? Does that get us out of any obligation to follow the example of Christ? Does that exempt us from God's demand for righteousness and for justice? Does that exempt us from any obligation to the poor and the oppressed? In short, can we say "I believe" and stop there? Does God demand nothing more from us than this?

The answer to these questions should be obvious: Of course not! Although rigid obedience to a strict set of rules cannot redeem you, ignoring all of the teachings of Christ, of Paul, of all of our early church leaders because you can't be saved by the law but through belief is lazy, selfish, and inherently dishonest.

What does it mean to live by faith? What faith does it show that you might say "I believe" and then willfully choose to not obey? What kind of a belief demands nothing further than some kind of academic assent? Is it not nonsensical to say that you believe that Jesus is the Savior and then not allow for salvation in this life by not doing what Jesus commands? To say that we are only saved through belief ignores any possibility of redemption in this life and defers grace to the next. It is fundamentally useless to say that you are saved and then to continue in the same patterns of selfish sin anyway. You are saved? Saved from what? From eternal consequences? You've still got to live here.

And what would it say of you to claim salvation and then deny grace to others through your selfish actions or inaction? The idea that we are only saved through belief and that all that God demands of is is belief ignores these very words: "The righteous will LIVE by FAITH." How does one live by faith if that faith does not allow that God's way is better than our own and we should obey that which we claim to believe in? It's nonsensical, selfish, arrogant, and quite frankly not Scriptural, no matter what Biblical text may seem to support it.

Cheap grace, grace that demands nothing but academic assent and provides nothing but relief from eternal consequences, is WORTHLESS in this life, and ultimately probably worthless in the next. Grace that does not remake you; grace that does not transform you; grace that does not lift you out of the patterns of sin and despair in this life; that grace is no grace at all. It is worthless. In fact, it is less than worthless. It is damning.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!

Galatians 2:11-21 (TNIV) -

11 When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.12 For before certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
15 “We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles

16 know that a person is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
17 “But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!

18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
19 “For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

My thoughts -

Sin, grace, and the law are all difficult to grasp. I wish I had some great insight on them to share but I am no scholar and certainly no trained theologian. That said, I will take a shot a this in sharing what I believe Paul is saying here.

Paul is, first of all, taking a shot here at those who would hold others to a standard that they themselves can not live up to. When we hold others to a standard we can't live up to we become the worst kind of hypocrites. You see this all the time, though. There's always some story in the news about the gay bashing pastor or politician who's having an affair. A lot of us enjoy telling others what they can't do, especially sexually, while being completely unable to control our own desires. We love to hold others accountable but fail to be able to do so for ourselves.

When I think about sin, the sin I'm most concerned with is my own. It does no good for me to call others out for what they do if I can't even get my own life in order. My relationship with God is such that I find myself constantly convicted of my own sin and my own failures. But that relationship doesn't stop there. Christ in me enables me to not wallow in that sin but to, through grace, overcome it. That doesn't mean that I'm perfect, but I'm striving for it.

As a fallen creature I'm not sure what being without sin is like, everything in this life is tainted by sin, but grace reveals my own participation in this and enables me to improve. This is a daily process. I didn't ask Jesus into my heart and then have God, through some act of magic or something, remake me into some kind of perfect entity. There was no magic incantation and there were no immediate results. Following Jesus, it turns out, is an awful lot of work. But it is work that is well rewarded both in this life and in the one to come.

Jesus didn't live and die so that we could be exactly how we are. We are called to come into a relationship with him and to allow grace through him to change us. We have died to our own sinful will and desires and are alive in Christ. But just acting a certain way and lording our actions over others spits in the face of Christ's life and sacrifice. Having a rigid, legalistic view of the nature of God does not allow others to participate in a relationship with God until after they have met criteria that, without God's grace, we would be condemned by. Jesus lived and died for all. We must make that grace available for all while also allowing grace to work in us to bring us closer to God.

No, we are not supposed to sin. Jesus died so that we wouldn't HAVE to be stuck as slaves to our own sinful desires. That's what salvation looks like. We're saved FROM sin. We don't have to be separated from God through our sins any longer! It's grace and not the law that saves us. And what it saves us from is sin. If we were to continue to live in our sins we render grace powerless. If we are to require obedience to the law in order to receive grace then we render grace powerless and force a standard on others that we know would be impossible for ourselves.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval?

Galatians 1:1-12 (TNIV) -

1 Paul, an apostle—sent not with a human commission nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—

2 and all the brothers and sisters with me,
To the churches in Galatia:
3 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father,

5 to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—7 which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God’s curse!

9 As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God’s curse!

10 Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.
11 I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.

12 I did not receive it from any human source, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

My thoughts -

What an introduction! The first 5 verses are a fairly polite introduction. Paul states his name, his calling, a little blessing about grace and peace and then WHAM! You guys have deserted Jesus! Paul's not wasting any time getting right to the point, is he?

What would Paul write to our churches? See how he contrasts himself from a "worldly" perspective, even as early as verse one ("an apostle—sent not with a human commission nor by human authority, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father") and especially in verses 10 and 11:
Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin.

What we have is not of this world and not to be dictated by the superficial wants and desires of this world. We are not here to please people but to do God's will and give what they need. My kids would eat white bread and candy and drink root beer all day i I only fed them with what they want to eat in mind, but there are no nutrients there; it's not what they need. We are called to do God's will and it seems as though God wants us to eat our vegetables, otherwise junk food would be nutritious. I've probably run that metaphor into the ground.

Here's the deal, the good news about Jesus isn't a get out of hell free card. Jesus didn't live and die for nothing. Grace doesn't get you out of the penalty for sin but frees you from the bondage of sin. You don't HAVE to be stuck in a worldly pattern of narcissistic selfish abusive sin; but you also don't GET to. Grace requires action. Following Jesus is a lot of work. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something, and you don't want to buy it!

And read what Paul says about those who are selling it:
Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let that person be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let that person be under God’s curse!

There's nothing that this world has to offer that can even come close to comparing to what we have in the grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Nothing. And yet it seems as though we want to dilute this grace, to reduce or eliminate what demands following Jesus places on us, in order to appeal to people who have been taken in by all of the shiny junk in this world. Maybe we have good motivations. Maybe we want to reach more people for Jesus. Maybe we're just meeting them where they are. I don't know. But it seems to me that when we water down grace we end up with some kind of half-assed spirituality that compares unfavorably to both the shiny junk and the Gospel.

I can't say for sure that's what the Galatian churches were doing that Paul was responding to here. But I am convinced it's what many American churches are doing and I'm pretty sure that Paul would call us to task for it. If it weren't we wouldn't have "Christians" calling out our President for not saying "God" enough. We'd have them calling out ALL of our leaders for the disparity between the rich and the poor and the disproportionate influence of money in our political process. God demands righteousness and justice. We got stuck on just belief.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Guest post on Theology in Worship

I just wrote a guest post for Jonathan Powers' blog Theology in Worship. You can read the post here.

Our prayer is that you may be fully restored

2 Corinthians 13 (TNIV) -

1 This will be my third visit to you. “Every matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”2 I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others,3 since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.

4 For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God’s power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God’s power we will live with him in our dealing with you.
5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?6 And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test.7 Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong. Not that people will see that we have stood the test but that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed.8 For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.9 We are glad whenever we are weak but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored.

10 This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down.

11 Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.
12 Greet one another with a holy kiss.

13 All God’s people here send their greetings.

14 May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

My thoughts -

Paul's had some pretty harsh things to say in this second letter to the church in Corinth and he's closing it with some of the harshest yet. He's telling them they've been warned. He's already dealt with a false gospel there. He's also addressed their giving. Now he's telling them about their sins and how they will not be overlooked.

He called them out at the end of chapter 12 for "quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder" as well as "impurity, sexual sin and debauchery". Now, it seems as though he is addressing these concerns over perhaps just a handful of people within the church. But he has also called out the entire church for the sins of a few earlier for so easily tolerating false prophets and a false gospel. It seems clear (to me, at least) that Paul would like for the church in Corinth to make all of its people responsible for any of its people's sin and to correct the matter. He's the same guy who told the Roman church that the strong ought to build up the weak. He's big about the church being one body.

So Paul's calling the church in Corinth out. He's letting them know he's coming back to town and that he's bringing his big stick. They want proof that Christ is speaking through him so he's bringing it. And apparently Christ is going to be pretty powerful in dealing with this stuff.

But this isn't just a threat. Throughout both letters to the church in Corinth Paul has used some of his most beautiful language about love. And he is imploring this church to receive his love for them through Jesus. A lot of this second letter really reads like a love letter begging for reconciliation and affirming what good there still is in the relationship. Even here he is imploring them to examine themselves to see Christ in them. He wants nothing more than for this church that he so clearly loves to earnestly follow Christ and to grow stronger and more mature in their faith. Like a parent he only wants what is best for this church, his beloved child.

So he's using a little bit of tough love here. Sometimes that hurts but it can bring about growth. Those of us with children know how difficult parenting can be. If you really love you child you cannot allow that child to just do whatever he/she pleases because that will create a monster. You have to set boundaries and sometimes, when your child pushes up against those boundaries, you have to punish him/her. And that's no fun for anyone. But it helps to shape this growing child into a fully functioning responsible adult, provided that it is done in love.

But look how Paul closes out the letter. It isn't all bad. See verse 11:
Finally, brothers and sisters, rejoice! Strive for full restoration, encourage one another, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you.

Everybody wants peace and love. No one wants conflict. At least, no healthy person does. This sucks. Calling people to task for what they do wrong sucks. Fighting over stuff like this sucks. It really does. But if you want to have a healthy church, or a healthy family, or healthy relationships you have to deal with stuff like this. You have to do it proactively, consistently, openly, and most importantly in love. When you can do this then you can restore these relationships and the God of love and peace will be with you.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

For my power is made perfect in weakness

2 Corinthians 12:6-10 (TNIV) -

6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say,7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

My thoughts -

Ever since I first read this passage as a kid I have wondered what Paul's thorn in the flesh was. It seems that no one really knows. Maybe I'm missing something and some scholar among you has a good answer but I don't know of one that is universally accepted.

There are a couple of schools of thought on Paul's thorn in the flesh could have been that I am aware of. One is a person who tormented him; the other some kind of physical malady. Either can become a nuisance quickly and can be quite humbling.

Paul's response to this "thorn" is one I can identify with: he asked God to take it away. Our first response when we encounter some kind of hardship is to ask God for relief from it. Sometimes we receive that blessed relief but a lot of times we do not. That does not mean that God doesn't care. That does not mean that God is trying to test or to punish us. I don't know why we suffer. I don't know that the "why" matters all that much, at least not while we're suffering. What matters is how we can endure the suffering.

God did not remove Paul's "thorn", at least not as of the writing of this passage. Instead, God provides for Paul grace to endure this affliction and perspective to turn what the world may view as a negative into a positive. Paul may have to endure this affliction but in doing so he is (almost forcibly) made to be humble and to rely on God for strength. This is an opportunity for Paul to mature and grow in his faith and to acknowledge his dependence upon God. While that may not be the most pleasant process the results of that process produced one of the great pillars of our faith.

Paul endured a lot of hardships for his faith. Paul was a man who was acutely aware of suffering in the human condition. He was beaten, shipwrecked, stoned, starved, imprisoned, and ultimately martyred for his preaching. Following Jesus faithfully is no guarantee that you will not face hardships and suffering. But God's grace is sufficient. God gives us the strength to endure whatever comes our way and the hope to persevere through adversity. Whatever Paul's thorn may have been God enabled Paul to not allow it to hinder his ministry and to ultimately use what, from a worldly perspective would seem a weakness, as a strength.

I don't know why we suffer. But I do know that through grace it can be endured and ultimately redeemed. We Christians are in the redemption business.

Monday, December 6, 2010

I have been cold and naked

2 Corinthians 11:16-31 (TNIV)

16 I repeat: Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting.17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool.18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast.19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!20 In fact, you even put up with any who enslave you or exploit you or take advantage of you or push themselves forward or slap you in the face.

21 To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about.22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

29 Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?
30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, who is to be praised forever, knows that I am not lying.

My thoughts -

This passage reveals to me a bit how my education is lacking. Earlier in chapter 11 Paul refers to people who preach "a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached" and a "different gospel from the one you accepted". He tells the church in Corinth that their "minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ". He laments that the church in Corinth "put(s) up with it (the false gospel) easily enough". He calls out those that are preaching it, saying they are "are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ".

Now, here's where my education is lacking. I don't know to whom Paul is referring or what this false gospel they were preaching is. But look at how he contrasts himself and the gospel he is preaching to this "false" one the church in Corinth is tolerating. That's what he's doing in this passage. And he is doing that by specifically listing what he has endured for the gospel. Sure, he starts with what they have in common, establishing his own credentials, but where they deviate Paul sure gets intense. Look at this again starting with verse 23:
Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own people, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.

Not knowing for sure what the "false gospel" Paul is railing about here is (and that is my own lack of education and it will be corrected soon) I would venture a guess to say that whatever they are preaching removes the cost of discipleship from the equation, otherwise what Paul is saying here doesn't make a lot of sense. No one can (or better, no one should) say that following Jesus is easy. It isn't. We are called to not look at things from a worldly perspective. I struggle with this because, quite frankly, there's an awful lot here that I really like. But we are called to acknowledge that what this world has to offer, even at its absolute best, whatever good it has, pales in comparison to that which is eternal. And, let's face it, nothing here will last. We don't get to keep any of it. Ain't no one driving no limo up to the Pearly Gates and getting in with all their stuff.

If someone preaches that following Jesus will give you more worldly success my guess is, if Paul were there to hear it, he would punch them in the face. Well.. he'd at least write a very sternly worded letter railing against that doctrine. I'm not saying that we all have to endure exactly what Paul endured, but we do have to cast aside our cares and worries of this world and all of the material distractions in it. We are called to "lose our lives" to gain new life in Christ. That's an intense message. There's no hedging our bets here. The old is dead. We don't live according to our own will and sinful desires any more.

If we don't know what it is to suffer how can we enter into the suffering of others and work for their redemption and restoration? And what did Jesus mean we he commanded his followers to take up their cross and follow him? If we follow the pattern of this world and "look out for number one" how are we following the example of Christ who laid down his life for us?

I know I say this a lot but what we believe is crazy. I'd like to see us act like we're a little crazy, too. Are we called to be believers or disciples? Are we called to be just knowers or doers, as well?

What would our churches look like if they were filled with people that literally did not care about the things of this world? How would we allocate our resources? What could we accomplish for Christ? I honestly don't know but I would love to find out.