Pastor to people
2John: My dear congregation, I, your pastor, love you in very truth.
Compared to some books of the Bible, 2John isn’t much of a “book.” It’s more of an “email.” It’s just a few lines, written as a quick placeholder for a congregation by their pastor. He’ll fill in the material in person. He greets them by declaring his love for them. I can’t help but think, as I read this opening line, that’s it’s a beautiful thing when a pastor loves his or her congregation “in very truth.” Because of that love-based relationship John starts his note to them by encouraging them, telling them how happy he is with them. Anyone who thinks the pastor’s job is to “tell it like it is” and “set people straight” needs to spend some time here. John tells his church how much he loves them and how pleased he is with their faithfulness to Christ’s command that his followers love one another. It’s only after doing that that he moves on to warning them about some false teachers who are taking advantage of gullible Christians. He has more to say to them, but until he can be with them personally, he thinks this little “email” will do. The brevity of this letter speaks volumes about the friendly, loving relationship between this pastor and his congregation. I can’t help but think that sometimes saying less is saying more.
Take Away: Pastors need to love and appreciate the churches under their charge. Churches, on the other hand, need to love and appreciate pastors who lovingly care for them.
Loving the people of God
1John 5: The proof that we love God comes when we keep his commandments and they are not at all troublesome.
Before moving to other things John says a bit more about love in action. He’s already insisted that to be a follower of God requires more than words or even sincere desire. Again, “love,” to him is an “action” word rather than a “feelings” word. To love God is to love the Son and to love the Son is to love those he’s brought into the family of God. So what does it mean to love the children of God? Immediately, John takes us back to action. I love God’s people, not by feeling a certain way about them but, rather, by treating them in a certain way. John reminds me that God has given me some commandments concerning how I’m to treat my brothers and sisters. If I love God, I’ll keep those commandments and in doing so I’ll “love” those who are part of this great family of God. If I want proof of my love of God I’ll find it in how I treat his people. John adds that this isn’t that big a deal because this “love in action” that’s required of me isn’t all that troubling. I’m to love people as I love myself. That is, I’m to care about the needs of their lives, their comfort, and their security. Loving self isn’t about feeling a certain way about myself but is, rather, about the action I take on my own behalf. That’s exactly how I’m to love God’s people.
Take Away: To learn about your relationship with God, take a good look at your relationship to his people.
Feelings, nothing more than feelings…naw!
1John 4: That is the kind of love we are talking about.
Now I find myself at the heart of John’s letter. It’s here that I find the repeated declaration that “God is love.” The Apostle hammers his point home: God is love therefore to be in God is to be in love. If love doesn’t dominate my life then God doesn’t dominate me. If I don’t love people then God’s love is missing from my life and therefore God, himself, is missing. This “love business” demands some serious thought. What does it mean to love as God loves? If I’m not careful I wind up on the “emotions side” of love. I get the feeling that God is all about warm fuzzy feelings. Once there, I’m left with the idea that loving like God loves is to always “feel” a particular way about people whether they’re good or bad. However, I’ve taken the wrong fork in the road. John carefully describes what it means for God to be love. We know God is love, John says, because of what he does: he “sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” Love, then, isn’t how God feels about us. Rather it’s the action he takes in our behalf. The Lord doesn’t “so love the world that he” feels all warm and tingly toward us. Instead, he “so loves the world that he gives his only begotten Son.” Love is, then, an action word. To love is to take action, even personally painful action, on the behalf of the one loved…even if that one is absolutely unlovable. If I love as God loves I too will take action. John reminds me that there’s no way I can do that unless the Lord lives in me. On the other hand, if the Lord lives in me, I can’t help but act in love.
Take Away: Love isn’t how I feel as much as it is what I do.
Good for what ails you
1John 3: For God is greater than our worried hearts.
John moves to his favorite topic: love. Frankly, he sees love as a cure-all, good for what ails us. Are we at odds with our brothers and sisters? Love will fix it. Are we struggling in understanding God’s purpose for us and in grasping what Jesus has done for us? The key is love. When we see countless wrongs in the world and wonder what should be done about them John says the key component in our response is, you guessed it: love. The test of love proves or disproves our relationship to this God who is love. As his love is allowed into my life — as it’s allowed to influence how I feel about, well, everything, its then that I know I’m where God wants me. For many of us our greatest challenge is loving self. I, more than anyone else, know my faults and failures. It may be that I’ve been verbally abused and have come to believe that what was said to me and about me is true. Possibly, deep in my psyche is the belief that if anyone really knew me they’d see so many flaws that they’d never love me. John tells me that that’s simply untrue. The One who knows me best, who “knows more about us than we do ourselves” loves me with a powerful, sacrificial love. He thinks I’m worth loving, worth dying for. As I accept his love for me, and his evaluation of me my relationship with myself changes. Once again, even as I struggle with my own self-esteem, the answer is love.
Take Away: Love is the greatest.
Thessalonians 3: But now that Timothy is back, bringing this terrific report on your faith and love, we feel a lot better.
When Paul first came to Thessalonica he told them about Jesus. He told them what Jesus taught and did. He told them about the resurrection and the promise of the Second Coming. He also warned them that living for Jesus isn’t always a walk in the park. Actually, Paul’s beaten and bruised body, a result of things getting rather rough in nearby Philippi, was proof of that. They entered the Christian life with their eyes wide open. Now, years down the road, Paul has received word that his friends in Thessalonica are going through some hardship of their own. Paul lays awake at night praying for them; that they’ll make it through. Ultimately, he sends his son in the faith, Timothy, to them with a message of encouragement. The great Apostle wants to give them all the tools necessary to live for Jesus and remain ready for him to come again. Well, Timothy has completed the trip and his report on Thessalonica is better than Paul ever imagined. Timothy hasn’t found a cowed, shrinking group of believers just hanging on trying to stumble over the finish line at Christ’s return. These believers may not be enjoying the hardship that has come, but they’ve never been more in love with Jesus. Their faith has not only survived, it has thrived. Paul is relieved and thrilled. Isn’t it good to remember that the people of God don’t have to live small, pitiful, just-making-it-through lives? We aren’t always going to have an easy journey, but in Christ, we can enjoy his strength; and in that strength, we can be constant overcomers.
Take Away: The way may not always be easy; but it’s a blessed way.
Dressing like a Christian
Colossians 3: Dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you.
For many people the phrase “dressing like a Christian” dredges up a lot of old guilt and maybe resentment. We were raised in church traditions that stressed externals and the weight of that emphasis fell especially on the girls and young women. Looking back, I feel somewhat charitable toward those who stressed such things. I think, by and large, their hearts were in the right place. After all, they wanted to live holy, clean lives and our personal holiness ought to be evident even in the clothing we choose to wear. However, the years have pretty much proven that traveling that road leads to the city of legalism which is quite distant from the city of love and grace. In this passage we’re told that there’s a wardrobe that’s appropriate for God’s people but it has nothing to do with how much or little skin is shown. God’s people are to be characterized — “clothed in” — “compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.” We’re to be known as “even-tempered, content…quick to forgive.” The absolute necessity for all followers of Jesus, Paul says, is the “basic, all-purpose garment” of love. He emphasizes love by saying, “don’t leave home without it.” So, there I have it. My Christianity isn’t seen in what I wear, but it is seen as these positive characteristics are on display in my life. It was easier to focus on “covering up” but such an emphasis totally misses what it really means to dress like a Christian.
Take Away: Christ should be seen in our lives, not so much by what we wear, but by the display of Christ-like characteristics.
Paying attention to the big deal of life
Ephesians 5: Observe how Christ loved us.
So what does a thoughtful, genuine Christian life look like? What examples are good ones for me to study and then apply to my life? Paul says the place to start is by looking upward. As a child of God I study his behavior, doing all I can to make true the proverb, “like Father like son.” If I want to see those attributes “with skin on them” I look to Jesus. Whatever I see in Jesus, I attempt to copy into my life. And what do I see? I see extravagant love. Out of love my Lord gives of himself without reservation. He doesn’t use God for his own purposes. Rather, he reflects the loving compassion of the Father in all he does. The Apostle says that I get chances to live like that. Opportunities to love selflessly come my way and I need to make the most of those opportunities. Some folks miss that boat and rather than filling their lives with Christ-like love they let other things dominate their lives. I understand the problem. Everyday a thousand voices cry out to me. Like carnival front men they invite me to try their game. If I’m not careful, I wander off into their diversion. Today, I’m reminded that love is the thing. When all is said and done in my life, the big deal will be love. Have I loved God with all my heart and soul and mind? Have I loved my neighbor as myself? This passage reminds me to “make the most out of every chance I get.”
Take Away: Love is the thing.
A secret to the victorious Christian life
Ephesians 4: I don’t want anyone strolling off, down some path that leads to nowhere.
God never calls people to be half-hearted, costing along, distracted followers. He’s given us everything we need, in fact, abundantly more than we need to live victorious Christian lives. With this in mind we’re to take it all and run with it. There’s no need for fits and starts, stumbling and struggling back to our feet. Rather we’re to confidently move forward on our spiritual journey. Some folks don’t get it. Rather than moving forward they wander along, taking detours in which they’re in real danger of totally losing their way. So, how can I best get on and stay on track? The Apostle frames it in terms of relationships. He describes the victorious Christian life as one filled with “acts of love” and in which things that strain our connection to our brothers and sisters in Christ are quickly recognized and resolved. After all, he reminds us, we’re traveling this road together and we’re connected in our mutual love for our Master, Jesus. If I fail to love and allow little things to fester in my relationships with God’s people, I become one of those half-hearted, distracted Christians who are in danger of wandering so far from the path that I become lost in the darkness.
Take Away: We really do need each other.
Responsibility of seasoned saints
Galatians 6: So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good.
The church is, obviously, an imperfect body. After all, it’s filled with imperfect human beings. Within its number are mature, settled saints and new, raw believers and folks everywhere in between. It’s a challenge to be a part of such a diverse family. The Apostle reminds the “trained” and “mature” believers that they have a responsibility to enter into “a generous common life” with those who’ve gone before and at least implies that they’re to do the same with those who are trailing behind them on their spiritual journey. He knows that this kind of communal living takes effort and can be a real energy drain so he frames the issue using a familiar crop growing illustration. The farmer works the fields, not because he likes what he’s seeing right at that moment but because of what he believes is coming. As “seasoned saints” patiently love and encourage others within the body of Christ they do so with two truths in mind. First, they remember where they came from and how others accepted them when they were young, frustrating, inconsistent believers. Second, they anticipate what the Lord’s going to do in the lives of these folks. The language he uses is that of self-responsibility: “Let’s not allow ourselves…” he says. Some folks haven’t yet gotten beyond the children’s end of the pool. Those who are experienced, capable “swimmers” are to, in Paul’s words, “Work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.”
Take Away: There are people at all stages of spiritual growth in the family of God.
Galatians 5: Love others as you love yourself.
Freedom isn’t free. For one thing, it’s expensive to obtain. That’s true on national levels. Wars are fought and lives are lost for the cause of freedom. It’s also true on the spiritual level. Jesus goes to the cross, giving his all to set us free from the dominion of sin. Freedom is also difficult to retain. Again, on national levels, once freedom is gained it’s often under attack from without and within. Vigilance is necessary if freedom is to be retained. Otherwise, it will gradually erode and be ultimately lost. Paul warns his readers that spiritual freedom must be guarded and allowed to mature. In his case, some are urging the Christians at Galatia to exchange some of their freedom in Christ for Jewish rules and regulations. He tells them that if they do that they’ll be “cut off from Christ” and “fall out of grace.” He also explains that freedom will actually destroy itself unless it’s harnessed. Otherwise, freedom becomes destructive and, in the name of freedom, people tend to “bite and ravage each other…annihilating each other.” If freedom is to survive it must be harnessed, placed under some controlling principle and authority. The Apostle doesn’t leave us to figure this out for ourselves, but plainly states that authority: “love others as you love yourself.” Spiritual freedom, then, might be thought of as rather fragile. On one side, it can be choked off by rules and regulations that seem to draw us like moths to a flame. On the other side, it can, itself, become a negative, destructive force that causes pain and ultimately consumes itself. The only hope is for our freedom to be placed under submission to love. It’s no wonder that Jesus, who paid the ultimate price to obtain our freedom insisted that his followers love one another. Otherwise, what he obtained for us is ultimately lost by us.
Take Away: Even freedom as great as it is must be made a servant to love.