September 11, 2017: Love or Hate? Life or Murder? 1 John 3:11-16

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For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.  Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you.  We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death.  All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 1 John 3:11-16 (NRSV)

Today being the 16th anniversary of 9-11, we may think for a minute of where we were in those horrible hours and how we felt.

We felt violated, invaded, vulnerable, and wondering where would the terrorists strike next.

It’s easy and very human to paint with a broad brush, to assume that everyone who is a specific nationality or of a specific tradition wishes us harm and that they will perpetrate it. It’s easy to return hate for hate.  It is much harder to pray for those who wish us harm and to see Jesus even in them.

As individual people it is not our place to rain down judgment upon those who commit evil acts. Yes, from a legal and moral standpoint we are permitted to defend our families and ourselves- as self defense is a human right- but only as a last resort.

As Jesus followers we are called to love. Love leads to life.  Hate leads to murder and death, whether or not it is justified.

Martin Luther spoke in great depth on the Ten Commandments, as the Law shows us how God wants us to live, as well as the boundaries He has given us for our behavior and our dealings with Him and others.

Therefore the entire sum of what it means not to kill is to be impressed most explicitly upon the simple-minded. In the first place that we harm no one, first, with our hand or by deed. Then, that we do not employ our tongue to instigate or counsel thereto. Further, that we neither use nor assent to any kind of means or methods whereby any one may be injured. And finally, that the heart be not ill disposed toward any one, nor from anger and hatred wish him ill, so that body and soul may be innocent in regard to everyone, but especially those who wish you evil or inflict such upon you. For to do evil to one who wishes and does you good is not human, but diabolical.

Secondly, under this commandment not only he is guilty who does evil to his neighbor, but he also who can do him good, prevent, resist evil, defend and save him, so that no bodily harm or hurt happen to him and yet does not do it. If, therefore, you send away one that is naked when you could clothe him, you have caused him to freeze to death; you see one suffer hunger and do not give him food, you have caused him to starve. So also, if you see any one innocently sentenced to death or in like distress, and do not save him, although you know ways and means to do so, you have killed him. And it will not avail you to make the pretext that you did not afford any help, counsel, or aid thereto for you have withheld your love from him and deprived him of the benefit whereby his life would have been saved.” – Martin Luther, from the explanation of the 5th Commandment, The Large Catechism

The 5th Commandment sounds easy on the surface: You shall not murder. But there is so much more to murder than simply refraining from killing people (murder meaning killing another’s body– excluding killing in war or killing in self-defense.) I’m not a Jeffrey Dahmer or a Ted Bundy- but I am just as guilty of violating the 5th Commandment regularly.  We all do it.  Sin is hardwired into us.

Murder is more than causing cessation of life in another’s body without a justifiable reason. Murder includes murder of character (that bit about “employing one’s tongue to instigate (harm)” or setting someone up for failure from afar.

Humans love gossip. We also love to have a pecking order in which A. is better than B. but B. is so much better than C. or heaven forbid, D.   We all do it, whether we consciously realize it or not, and it’s murder- murder of heart and soul and character.

Withholding love is the same as active hate. If we have the means to show love to others, and we refrain from doing it, we are still living in hate.

As the writer of 1 John says:  All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 

That’s a hard truth to accept– especially when we feel compelled to help everyone, but only have the means and ability to help a few. It’s hard to love when others actively hate us and do cruel things or say cruel things about us.

The good news is that God knows our limitations and accepts our frailties.

As a Jesus follower we are called to do something radically different than what human nature expects.

Love one another.

Especially the weirdos, the haters, the tweakers, the freaks, and geeks. Love them even more.

August 29, 2017 – We Hypocrites, (but for the Grace of God) Romans 2:1-11

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Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, “We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.” Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality. Romans 2:1-11 (NRSV)

Many of my atheist friends- and I have had many atheist friends and acquaintances in the past- say that their number one problem with those who claim to be Christian or claim to follow Jesus are “such hypocrites.”

It is true that the same problems exist in Christian communities that exist in non-religious communities. Divorce happens. Poverty happens. Substance abuse, alcoholism and addiction happen. Promiscuity and unwed pregnancy happen. Apathy and indifference happen.

So how is following Jesus supposed to make a difference if all the same social ills go on in Christian homes? As one of my atheist friends put it, “What good does following God do me if I am no better for it?”

The response to that is that we are all hypocrites. There’s a saying that, “I wish I were as good a person as my dog thinks I am.” If only we could be. The problem is that we can’t. It is only by the grace of God that anything good at all can come from any of us.

We can choose how we respond when bad things happen to people though. Putting our heads in the sand and ignoring these things is not an option. Pointing the finger of blame isn’t helpful either. Those responses are what the world does. The world accepts broken homes, addiction and immoral behavior as being “normal.” The God-honoring response is not one of judgment or exclusion, because we know how human and fallible we all can be.

let love guide you

The God-honoring response is a proactive response, a loving response that comes from a heart set on God. That response is color blind. That response forgives and understands. That is a response that is merciful and kind no matter how the other person has failed or is failing. The response that honors God seeks healing and wholeness and restoration.

Yes, we are hypocrites. We fail daily at loving God with our whole hearts and loving others as we love ourselves. But God’s mercy and love show no partiality.

How does our response to our own failings and the failings of others further the cause of the Kingdom of God?

July 3, 2017- Speaking the Truth in Love- Ephesians 4:11-16

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The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. Ephesians 4:11-16 (NRSV)

Speaking the truth is generally a good thing to do. Jesus followers are called and equipped to speak the truth. But what do we do when the truth is potentially dangerous?  The Old Testament prophets certainly didn’t win any popularity contests by telling the truth.  Jonah ended up spending three days in a fish’s belly- all out of fear of what would happen to him when he confronted the people of Nineveh with news of God’s judgment. Jeremiah was thrown in prison- and later into a muddy cistern- for telling the truth, because it was a truth of judgment and of bad things coming.  Jeremiah’s message didn’t make the people in control- especially the king- very happy at all.  We humans don’t like to hear that we need to change course or that our actions are going to get us in trouble.  We don’t like to be challenged, even when we really need it.

But sometimes it is necessary- and there are times that God calls us- to sound a warning.

What do we do when speaking the truth isn’t nice?  It’s easy to get being a good Christian and being nice confused, but sometimes being loving isn’t nice.  Jesus wasn’t being nice when He toppled over the money changers’ tables in the temple, but He was acting in the cause of truth and defending what was right.  Exacting consequences upon a child who has violated rules may not seem nice, but carrying out punishments when appropriate may be the most loving thing a parent can do to prevent a child from making future and more damaging errors.

Enabling a family member or friend to continue on in a destructive habit or to endure another’s abuse may seem “nice” but those acts are neither loving nor Christian. Enabling another’s destructive habits or tolerating another’s abuse also denies the truth that we are children of God, worthy and deserving of giving and receiving love and respect.  Sometimes loving means tough love and confronting others with hard truths.

Speaking the truth is something we are called to do with humility, with the heart of Christ- always with the best interest of the other and of the relationship with that person in mind. It may be true that Uncle Bob has a big mouth, or Cousin Jack could stand to lose a few pounds, but how do we confront that person in love about their offensive or destructive habits?  How do we offer support and help rather than just cutting criticism?  How can we build another up instead of tearing another down?

Every person is an example. Some of us are examples of what not to do. It is easy to criticize but far more difficult to empathize and to walk with each other and to admit our own faults and shortcomings to God – and maybe even to a trusted Christian confidant as well- first before we dare to confront another person.  Jesus taught us that we should remove the logs from our own eyes before we go digging around trying to remove other people’s specks.  We should go to Him with an honest inventory of our own behaviors and sins and wrongs before we approach someone else about his or hers.

 (Jesus said): “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Matthew 7:3-5 (NRSV)

Every human being alive is a fallible and fallen sinner. This is the most important thing to bear in mind before approaching anyone to speak a hard truth. Love is the key.  Love for the other person that reflects the heart of Christ, and love that says, “I am in this struggle with sin and missing the mark right along with you.”  Love that says, “Let’s get closer to the heart of Christ together.”

March 13, 2017 – Discernment and the Fruits of the Spirit – Matthew 7:15-20

 

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(Jesus said): “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?   In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them by their fruits.”  Matthew 7:15-20 (NRSV)

 

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines discernment as:

1.:  the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure :  skill in discerning.

2    : an act of perceiving or discerning something

Jesus speaks so much to us here about discernment.  We are not only supposed to be discerning regarding our own hearts and motives, but we should be discerning of the people we associate with and align ourselves with also.

We should strive to be good “fruit inspectors,” beginning with our own fruits.  Do our lives bear the fruits of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul speaks of in Galatians 5:22-25-?

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.   If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 (NRSV)

This “good fruits” test applies first to ourselves and our own conduct, but it also applies to those who we choose to look to as our spiritual leaders and those who comprise our faith community. While no church or faith community is perfect, and any church is just a rag tag collection of sinners, Jesus is telling us to also discern the fruits coming forth from our leaders and our communities.  That discernment is not for the purpose of judging others, or for making excuses against being involved in the church, but to be sure that we are listening to and participating in a community that is following Jesus and is not being deceived by false teaching.

Many people are lured into the false cults of prosperity theology (“believe and you will receive”) or of exclusionary theology (only certain special people can be saved,) or of brownie points theology (you can earn your way to heaven by doing good deeds.)

All of these false teachings are contradictory to Jesus’ teachings. Being a Jesus follower means that we will have to pick up and carry our own crosses, not that we are entitled to Porsches and champagne and the good life. While God is our Provision, and He always makes a way to fulfill our needs, earthly wealth and security are not guaranteed to us.

Anyone who God calls to Him can be a Jesus follower- there are no special prerequisites. No one is excluded on the basis of their race, gender or the habitual sin they tend to prefer.  When Jesus was here on earth He sought out the very people that the world despised- prostitutes, tax collectors, dirty fishermen and so forth.  No one is too bad- or too good- to be a Jesus follower.

No one can earn or deserve God’s grace, as it is intended to be a gift to be received, priceless, yet given to us without cost. The gifts that we return to God are not given to earn brownie points or make ourselves look good, but are in response to the immeasurable gifts He gives to us every day.

Martin Luther taught that the Bible is “like the manger holding Jesus.” The Bible, discerned and taught correctly – and Christian communities- should have Jesus inside. Those good fruits- the Jesus inside- coming forth from a healthy Christian community should be evident everywhere the people of that community leave a footprint.

Good fruits are all those things that show Jesus being lived out in our lives- grace, forgiveness, compassion, serving others, and most of all, love.

Are we exclaiming to the world, “We are Jesus followers!” by bearing these good fruits, not just as individuals, but also as a community?

January 23, 2017- The Pursuit of Wisdom, James 3:17

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But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. James 3:17 (NRSV)

The interesting thing about the pursuit of knowledge (opposed to the pursuit of wisdom) is that pursuit of knowledge often places an undue emphasis on being correct.  Pursuing the correct technique or procedure or even the correct theology can become so paramount that the heart and purpose of the endeavor is lost.

Life becomes a hollow endeavor when our dealings with ourselves and others are cold, calculating, unforgiving and lacking mercy and love.  When we are more worried about appearing squeaky clean at all times, or whether or not we are in all the right activities with all the right people at all the right times, than we are about whether or not we know and spread the joy of the love of God, then maybe we are doing it wrong.

Is it more wise to put emphasis on being correct, or to seek gentleness, forgiveness and peace?

There is a subtle difference between knowledge- as in knowing facts, and wisdom, which is the art of applying knowledge to live life more fully.

God grants wisdom to all who ask for it.  (James 1:15)  It is always a good time to ask.