Philippians 4:4

_

“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice!”

_

Do we have the right to be joyous? After all, there is so much wrong with the world and our lives, it hardly seems right to speak of joy. It’s a bit like a family preparing to gather for a wedding only to receive the news that the bride has come down with cancer. A pall is cast over everyone. How can there be room for joy in this?

When the Bible gives us the picture of Adam and Eve, before disobedience ravaged them, three things are apparent. First, and most importantly, they were absorbed in the goodness and greatness of God. Secondly, they found delight in the garden, in the creation. Thirdly, they were lost in one another, Adam in Eve and Eve in Adam. What is important to see here is that Adam and Eve lacked self consciousness. They were not self conscious, they were conscious of what was outside the self. When sin entered in, all they could see was themselves. They hid their nakedness and literally attempted to hide from God. And among the great casualties in all of this was joy.

Jesus Christ came to restore us to God, to the creation and to one another.  This means that if joy is to be found in this life, it will be found on these three fronts and not in an intensification of self-discovery. This is precisely why there is so little joy in the world today. The more the self looks to itself, the more elusive joy becomes.

St. Paul, sitting in a Roman jail cell, could encourage Christians to “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice.”  In the Lord Jesus, Paul had been restored to God, the deepest source of joy. The difficulties in the temporal circumstances of his life could not overwhelm this joy.

Focusing on the self, at the expense of everything else in life, is a formula for chronic unease and joylessness. Multiply these selves into the millions and you have some idea as to why human life in general, and perhaps your life, look the way they do. Without Christ, life is a joyless, hopeless quest to resolve myself within myself. With Christ, life rings with an authentic joy now – rooted in Him – that will be brought to perfection in the life to come.

 _

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

Romans 13:8-10 ~ The Frightening Gift

__

8Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. “

__

I’d rather have rules. So would you. And it is not just civil society that advocates rules. Even the most criminal of organizations have just that, organization. We are all familiar with the dynamics of the mafia. Strict codes apply to every member. The rules must be followed. Living outside the rules is not to be tolerated.

The Pharisees of Jesus day were what we might call the law and order folks. They were very much concerned with the orderly conduct of society, as you may be. They were not libertine, willful people who equated freedom with license to do as they pleased, as some of you may do. They recognized that living outside the law posed a risk not only to the person who did so, but also to society as a whole.  This was certainly in the mind of the high priest at the trial of Jesus, when he declared that it was better that one person die than the whole people perish. The apparent lawlessness of Jesus might spread like a virus. 

There has always been something of the Pharisee in the churches. Most comfortable, middle class congregations nod approvingly at the Bible’s call to love sinners, until the sinners show up on the doorstep. This was the thrust of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. The older brother was outraged that his younger, whore loving, money squandering brother who brought shame on the family, was welcomed back with open arms.

Churches today are filled with people and preachers whose Christianity is little more than a law and order project veiled in the thin veneer of the language of faith. Christianity is hawked as a life conforming to ‘Biblical principles’ on the one hand or to the social agenda on the other. In either case there is a tendency to look with disdain on those who do not share their particular passion for law keeping.

Love does not live outside the rules, it lives beyond the rules.  I am not thinking here of the appropriate use of rules or law within civil society. Those laws are important, even crucial. As citizens we all have a stake in upholding these laws and seeing to it that new ones are developed as needed. To live beyond the rules is to recognize that love is the fulfillment of every rule, every law.  This is the frightening, unknown territory where faith lives. The law and order folks, in the world and in too many churches, fear this territory and are reluctant to go there. 

But Jesus was not and is not afraid to go there. And if you claim Him as your own, this freedom he has won for you at the cost of His life, is on your hands. It is a frightening gift, to be sure. But faith has no other territory in which to establish itself. You may remain in the land of dead certainties or you may venture into the frightening freedom of faith, as our Lord did, where love knows no boundaries. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

__

 

2 Thessalonians 3:16

 

_

“Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way.”

_

While in Florence, Italy, several years ago I spoke with a woman who had made her first visit there. I asked her if she planned on returning. “Why?”, she replied, we’ve been here for a week and have pretty much seen everything.”  On that same trip to Florence we met a man in the Uffizi gallery, which contains one of the world’s great collections of art. He was visiting from England and had been sitting in front of paintings in one room of the gallery, eight hours a day, for a week.

The human scramble to outrun boredom has reached a new level of intensity in our time. In Southern California where we live, frantic activity is part of the character of life. There is actually very little community here. The perpetual motion of this place creates the illusion of community, that is all. As people pile experience upon experience, however, it becomes apparent that this does not decrease boredom but only intensifies it. Our shallow revulsion of the routine masks a deeper anxiety. The new and the novel, devoid of vision, passion and meaning reveal an emptiness that all the experiences in the world cannot address. What are we looking for anyway?

Three stonemasons were hard at work. Each was asked what he was doing. The first grumbled, “I am cutting stone.” The second answered with indifference, “I am making money.” The third man smiled with a bright eye and said, “I am building a cathedral!”  For him the routine of laying stone had a kind of glory attached to it. With each stone he saw the larger vision emerging.

When the love of God in Christ opens the heart our restless anxiety is brought to rest. The routine and the ordinary are invested with eternal meaning. The scope of life shifts. The little things matter. Knowing we are loved gives us back to ourselves and to others with new eyes. The routines of life become the little liturgies by whose repetitions life unfolds as the ever-new and renewing gift of God’s grace.

 __

 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

__

Romans 12:5

__

“So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”

__

As a Christian what excites you about the Church? It’s a good question to ponder. As you do so, let me tell you what excites me.

First, I am gripped by the message of the Church. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have everlasting life.” The Christian message is the grand story of God’s love, seeking to rescue His lost and fallen family from the power of the enemy. At the center of it all is Jesus, in whose life, death and resurrection God has worked this miracle of our salvation by His sheer grace and mercy. For some, this story is a fanciful tale, easily discarded. For people of faith, it is life and salvation and is non-negotiable.

Second, I am awed by the scope of the church. Jesus said, “I have sheep that are not of this fold.” Across the world and across the generations the Church has taken root among virtually every people. The multiplicity of denominations and traditions can be challenging, even troubling. Some Christians are so preoccupied with this challenge, and have doctrinally defined the church so narrowly, they are the only ones in their Church. Others, rather disingenuously, call themselves ‘non-denominational’ in an effort to minimize differences, as if doctrine is not important. But God has made us this human family so that we are all unique, right down to our fingertips. And while family life can be challenging and troubling, that does not make you any less a member of the family.  In some mysterious way, by the power of the Holy Spirit given in baptism, Christians share in the fellowship of the “one, Holy, Catholic and apostolic Church”. 

Finally, I am humbled by the unity in the midst of the diversity of the Church. This is not to say unity of doctrine, though doctrine matters greatly. Nor by this do I mean unity in worship. The stately liturgy of the Orthodoxy, the exuberance of the Pentecostals and the ordered worship of many Lutherans, along with many other forms, are all part of the Church’s worship. What is truly humbling for me is the knowledge that Christ is the mysterious center of the Church’s life. He has chosen us, we have not chosen Him. When Christian people gather around the Word and sacraments it is not our traditions, shared interests or the color of our skin that unite us, it is Jesus Christ Himself. 

As I reflect on the life of the Church, I find it helpful to keep these three things in mind. I trust you will find them helpful also.

 __

 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

__

Romans 7:9

__

“I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died;”

__

Once there was a young man named John who enjoyed the piano. And while he had never received formal training, he considered himself to be on the level of a concert pianist. In fact, he could not read music and what he did play by ear was at the most elementary level, and not very good at that. For a time his friends indulged him. John had no family and the piano was his principal avocation, so they tolerated his fantasy. But as time went on his illusions began to dominate his life. John spent hour upon hour playing, never advancing in his ability. He was losing himself in his illusions. He began to speak of his plans to give concerts, to go on tour. In preparation John went deeply into debt and purchased an expensive concert grand piano for his home and invited his friends over for a ‘concert’ on the new instrument.

The appointed evening came, the friends gathered and the man stumbled through several songs. The quality of the instrument could not compensate for the embarrassment of his poor playing. Then, his best friend introduced a young woman who had accompanied him. Would John mind if his guest played something? Reluctantly, the host slipped off the piano bench. The woman took her place and for the next half hour the piano came alive with the extraordinary sound of Mozart. Her playing was at the highest level. In fact, she was a concert pianist. John was shattered. All his illusions collapsed.  When John heard the woman play, it was not beautiful, it was the sound of death to him. This was precisely what John’s friend had hoped for. Getting John out of his illusions was a necessary step toward sanity.

In his letter to the Romans St. Paul describes the life of natural man and woman prior to knowledge of God’s law. “I was once alive apart from the law”, he writes. The life he refers to here is the life of one who is a law unto himself, who lives by following one’s natural appetites, desires and inclinations. But when God’s law was revealed to Paul, his illusions about himself and life before God were shattered, died. With the perfect law of God placed alongside his life, he was now aware of the vast chasm between what he was and what he had been created to be.

Left to ourselves, life becomes an exercise in self-definition. We steal our existence from God and live within the framework of our own self-serving illusions. But like John’s friend, God loves us too much to leave us to ourselves. He uses His law to bring us to spiritual sobriety. But his goal is not to leave us there.  In the months that followed, as she had opportunity, the concert pianist voluntarily became his tutor. John slowly and with difficulty emerged from his illusions.  He came under the structure of her discipline. More importantly, he came to see how much she cared for him. He came under the influence of her love. In time, they married.

The path to seeing the greatness of Christ begins at the place of your great need. God’s law exposes that need. To shatter you? Yes. But more importantly, to bring you to see the extraordinary greatness of God’s love for you in Christ Jesus.

 __

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

__

Galatians 5:1

_

“For freedom Christ has set us free.”

_

If you have read the novel or seen the movie’ Ben Hur’, you will remember the insight it gave you into the life of a galley slave, chained to his oar, year after year. If the ship should sink, he would drown like a rat with no way of escape. Freedom is what the slave longed for. Death in bondage is what usually came.

In the case of Ben Hur, the events that freed him from a pitiless life did not result in true freedom, not right away. He went on to be adopted by the Roman admiral whose life he saved. Power and wealth now accompanied his freedom from the galleys. But he was not free. His life was consumed by hatred of the man who had unjustly condemned him to the galleys, and his thirst for vengeance. He remained bound to sin.

Freedom is not being able to do what you want, having independent wealth, or simply following your appetites and desires. To be truly free is to be set free from our bondage to sin. Ben Hur did not know what freedom was until the grace of God in Christ took hold of him. Author Lew Wallace was making this seminal point in his great novel. 

In the novel, which the movie does not portray, Ben Hur goes on to become a member of the Christian community and eventually assists in bringing support to the persecuted Christians in Rome. He and some fellow-Christians form an underground church in the catacombs outside the city where they gather to celebrate, in the midst of death, the life and freedom that is theirs in Christ.  

This is how the Christian, born a slave to sin, regards the Gospel of Christ. In Jesus Christ we find and celebrate our true freedom from sin’s captivity unto death and our new life as children of God even unto eternal life. 

 __

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

__

Romans 8:33-34

__

“It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?” 

__

Two young people were walking along in front of me in a local retail store. They were speaking quietly when suddenly, one of them turned to the other and in a loud voice exclaimed, “Don’t you judge me!”

No one likes to be judged, of course. In fact, we can construct vast systems of rationalization to justify our own thoughts, words and actions which tend to deflect, in our minds, the need to be judged. You might need judging, but not me! Most criminals, even when buried under an avalanche of condemnig evidence, will insist on their innocence. But if our lives are not worth judging, they can’t be worth much. 

Animals don’t build courtrooms and hold trials. Creatures who live according to unerring instincts, and to which they are bound, cannot be held acountable for anything, really. The same cannot be said for you. You were created in the image of God. Simply, this means you have attributes which enable you to share in the management, the stewardship of creation. Although limited, God has given you power and knowledge which are of such importance that you are held accountable for how you use them. Among the parables of Jesus in the New Testament, parables addressing stewardship are the most common. And the motif of judgment is in them all.

Last summer Linda and I spent part of a day at the Orange County Fair. We strolled among the exhibits and enjoyed the people watching. At one point we stopped for a break at one of the many refreshment stands. We chatted with the woman who waited on us as she prepared our food. She asked me what I did for a living. I indicated that I was a pastor. She immediately commented about what the last judgment might be like. Obviously, it was on her mind. I looked her in the eye and said, “Remember this. The One who will judge you is the One who died for you.” Her mouth fell open. “I’ve never heard that before,” she said with a smile.

Left to ourselves there is little upon which to base a gentle judgement at the end of life. There is simply too much evidence against us. But your friend and brother will be on the bench and He has already spoken; “Father, forgive them…”

 __

 “May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

__