2Corinthians 7: I know I distressed you greatly with my letter.
The book of 1 Corinthians is almost painful to read. It’s clear the there are some sick situations there and that this church is far from being a healthy congregation. The Corinthian church isn’t a prototype of what a Christian church is supposed to look like, although how Paul deals with them is a primer on how a spiritual leader is to deal with a difficult church situation. An insight in this passage is that as Paul writes to Corinth he knows the impact his words will have on the church. Beyond that, his words impact him as well. Administrating this strong medicine is painful for Paul too. The old “this hurts me more than it hurts you” line is literally true in this situation. Paul gets no pleasure in writing to his friends at Corinth as he does. He’s frustrated with them and somewhat fearful for them. Still, he expects his strong medicine to bring about, in the long run, good results. Sometimes parents have to be disciplinarians. It would be nice to always feel warm and fuzzy about things but to do so isn’t what real love is like. In his first letter Paul steps up to the plate, telling them the facts of spiritual life even though, in his words, “I felt awful at the time.” Sometimes preachers have to be disciplinarians. As it is for Paul and as it is for parents, proper discipline should never carry with it a sense of pleasure in causing pain. I imagine tearstains on the parchment that contains what we think of as 1 Corinthians. In the same way, there should be tearstains on the sermon notes of a pastor who preaches a sermon that will cause some pain. Otherwise, that sermon should never be preached.
Take Away: Sometimes discipline must be done but it should never be done with pleasure.
I’m glad I’m part of the family of God
1Corinthians 16: And I love you all in the Messiah, Jesus.
Paul has been pretty hard on the church at Corinth and with good reason. On one hand, they appear to be a template for what a Christian church isn’t supposed to be. There are failures upon failures there and in this letter the Apostle is like a fireman trying to extinguish several blazes. On the other hand, he has a warm, fatherly, relationship with them. He’s not angrily ready to toss them aside. Instead, he sees them as worth redeeming. Beyond all that, I have the distinct feeling that my impression of this congregation is rather one sided. There’s plenty wrong there, but a lot of it is likely associated with their being enthusiastic about living for the Lord and, at the same time, are coming out of a clueless, immoral culture. The result is enthusiastic ignorance. Maybe that’s better than being knowledgably bored! Paul concludes his letter by restating his love for them. They may be an ignorant and frustrating crowd, but Paul claims them as his own. It’s a pretty good reminder of how things are supposed to be in the family of God. We may have a few who are sometimes a bit off the grid, (of course that doesn’t include you and me!) but we love them just the same. After all, we’re together in this family of God.
Take Away: As the old saying goes, “Sometimes I wonder about everyone but me and thee…and sometimes I wonder about thee.”
Giving up a free meal
1Corinthians 8: When you hurt your friend, you hurt Christ.
You’d think that today a discussion about eating meat that’s been offered to an idol can be safely skipped. However, to do so is a mistake. While the literal situation is foreign to me, the principle Paul teaches here is invaluable. In Corinth there’s lots of idol worship. Often people share a meal with their god, offering some to the idol and then having a party in the god’s honor with the rest of it. A Christian might receive a friendly invitation to the party. That’s where there’s a problem. Some Christians think it is fine to attend, that meat is meat and an idol is nothing anyway. Other Christians are just coming out of that idol worshiping culture. Not too long ago they were the ones dining with the idols and to them eating the idol’s meat is a step backwards into the old way of life. The church at Corinth has been debating this issue and now Paul weighs in on the subject. He tells them that the issue in play isn’t about meat and idols at all. Rather it’s about one Christians loving one another. Even if the more mature believer knows that idols are nothing but wood or stone he or she has the responsibility to love their fellow believer who’s still working through the issue. The principle, then, is that I’m to be willing to give up some of my “rights” for the good of my brothers and sisters in Christ. Now, I can’t resist adding here that if you know enough about this that you use this principle as a way to control me (“oh, you can’t do that because it’s against my convictions”) then you’re just trying to manipulate me. Thus, you become the one who’s guilty of disregarding this same principle. When all is said and done, I’m still left with the truth that I’m to love you enough to be willing to sacrifice a bit rather than cause you pain. If I fail here, I not only hurt you but I hurt the Lord we both serve.
Take Away: Love is the guiding principle of Christianity.
Romans 6: You are dead to sin and alive to God.
The topic is freedom. When I was bound in sin, living a dead end life without hope Jesus came to rescue me. Taking my sin as his own, he carried it to death, stripping it of its grip on me. Then, in the resurrection, the possibility of new life came to me. When I join Christ at the cross I die to sin. When I join him at the tomb on resurrection morning, that resurrection life becomes mine. Now, I stand a free man, made new by the work of Christ. I’m filled with thanksgiving and forever indebted to the One who has made it all possible. The freedom I’ve received is a cherished possession, one that I guard carefully, realizing that some acts are out of bounds for me because to do them would place me back in bondage from whence I came. Instead, I willingly serve the One who gave me freedom, bound, not by sin and death, but by love.
Take Away: I’m bound…not by sin, but by God’s love.
Minding my own business
John 21: Master, what’s going to happen to him?
John finishes his story of Jesus with the account of an early morning, and private, encounter with the resurrected Savior. Our Lord and his disciples have breakfast together and then Jesus and Peter go for a walk. Peter, who denied the Lord three times, is now asked three times if he loves Jesus. Each time, as a result of his declaration of love, he’s given responsibility in the Kingdom. By the third time, though, Peter is burdened with the repeated question. Jesus responds by explaining to Peter that his love will be his source of strength in difficult days ahead. He’ll be a prisoner and will be led to places he doesn’t want to go. In the midst of such a trial, Peter will find strength in his love for the Lord. Meanwhile, following along is the disciple John. Everyone knows John is Jesus’ favorite and Peter wants to know what’s coming for him. Jesus, though, isn’t going there with Peter. Peter needs to worry about Peter and not about the beloved disciple. I think we tend to concern ourselves with what God is doing in the lives of others too much. We forget that we aren’t called to make Christian clones of ourselves but are to “feed the sheep” and let the Master handle the rest of it. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned when I see someone struggling or has even lost their way. Of course I’m concerned. Still, I need to be careful to love them and encourage them to follow Jesus and not be too focused on exactly how the Lord might want that to happen in their life.
Take Away: I love others and want to see them allow the Lord to lead their lives, but my main concern is to keep things clear between myself and the Lord.
Listening to Jesus pray
John 17: Father, it’s time.
This great prayer of Jesus has three parts. The first section concerns our Lord’s relationship with his Father. All that has happened and will happen is done for the purpose of displaying the glory of God, a glory shared by Father and Son; a glory that has existed since before the world began. Second, Jesus prays for his disciples. He’s going to depart, but they’re going to stay. His purpose of bringing glory to the Father will now be their purpose. Jesus prays that everything about his disciples will accomplish that purpose and that they’ll be protected from all that might distract from their mission. Third, Jesus prays for future believers. Again, there’s a prayer for unity of heart and purpose. Our Lord prays that the believers will give evidence that Jesus is the one sent from God because of his love for us. Jesus concludes his prayer by asking the Father to gather all believers to himself, where they can bask in the glory of the Lord, united in love for God and for one another. This passage, my friend, is holy ground. We’re allowed to listen in to a conversation within the Godhead. We witness the Son’s communion with the Father and then, we’re invited into the conversation. It’s humbling to be allowed in this place today.
Take Away: God’s people are considered “insiders.” What an honor!
Love and hate
John 15: Make yourselves at home in my love.
On this night prior to the crucifixion Jesus talks to his disciples in terms of love and hate. He warns them that the same people who hate him will hate them. That hate won’t be about them as much as it will be about Jesus. His disciples will be so much like their Lord that those who hated him without cause will hate them without cause. Jesus also encourages them to be “at home” in his love. What an interesting phrase. To be at home is to feel secure and comfortable. It’s to be with family and friends, giving support and receiving the same. Jesus tells his followers to enjoy that kind of comfort in his love. He’s committed to love us even though he already knows our weaknesses and failings. While it’s true that I stand amazed in his love it’s also true that I have every reason to depend on it and to relax in it. So, there you have it. Out in the world we’re strangers, treated unfairly by people who don’t even know why it is that they don’t like us. On the other hand, we’re upheld by the undeserved, beyond-understanding love of Christ. All in all, it’s a pretty good situation.
Take Away: I want to be comfortable in the love of Christ.
Drinking from a fire hose
Luke 6: Our Father is kind; you be kind.
Reading the Sermon on the Mount is like trying to get a drink from a fire hose. It’s not like the parables in which there’s a story followed by the lesson. Instead, there’s one wonderful, challenging, powerful concept after another. As I try to write a devotional for each chapter of the New Testament the challenge is not finding something to write about. Rather, it’s trying to dip into the huge stream of material and grab just one concept out of all the concepts and get my mind and heart around it. Right now I’m focusing in on how our Lord says we’re to relate to our enemies. I can’t help but note that Jesus doesn’t talk about how we’re to respond “if” we have enemies. He apparently takes it for granted that some folks aren’t going to like us and some will go so far as to wish us harm. What am I to do about such people? First, Jesus says, I’m to pray for them (“respond with the energies of prayer”). Second, I’m to return good for evil (“practice the servant life”). Third, I’m to have genuine love for them (“love your enemies”). Fourth, I’m to go easy on them (“be easy on people”). Fifth, I’m to realize I’m not so wonderful myself (“wipe that ugly sneer off your own face”). The key to my relationship to my enemy, according to Jesus is “kindness.” The measure of that kindness is the kindness our Father shows to us. “Oh Lord, let me live a life that reflects your kindness to me, even when I deal with people who aren’t very kind to me.”
Take Away: The Lord is quite interested in how we treat people who don’t treat us well.
You’re getting warmer
Mark 12: You’re almost there, right on the boarder of God’s kingdom.
I’ve been in a few discussions with people who want to play “stump the pastor.” The exchange usually starts with something like, “Being that you’re a preacher, let me ask you this…” and off we go to some burning theological issue like where Cain’s wife came from. In this passage, Jesus deals with the same level of discussion. The Sadducees bring him their old worn out “whose wife is she?” question that they’ve used for years. Others want Jesus to go out of a limb about paying taxes. Standing on the sidelines is a religion scholar with a question. It too is an old one that the rabbis like batting around. Of all the commandments of the Old Testament, which is the most important? Jesus looks the man in the eye and gives him a serious answer. The number one command is that we’re to love God with every fiber of our being. Jesus even goes so far as to throw in a bonus answer. The number two command is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This scholar deals with issues like this every day and he responds that he’s concluded the same thing and, in fact, he’s never heard the answer stated so well. Jesus says to him that he’s almost there, just a short step from the kingdom of God. This exchange is so refreshing. On a day when people are lining up to play “stump Jesus” we meet a man who’s on a legitimate spiritual journey. He’s done a lot of thinking about these things and needs just a gentle nudge to close the deal and commit his life to the Lord. Jesus instantly recognizes the difference between the cat and mouse game of the Sadducees and a sincere question from a real seeker of the truth. My prayer for all those who sincerely seek that they’ll find not only the answers to their questions, but, even better, as it was for this good man so long ago, the Answer to the greatest need of life.
Take Away: Those who aren’t playing games but are serious about God will find real answers in Jesus Christ.
What God expects of us
Micah 6: He’s already made it plain how to live, what to do.
This passage is one of the gems of the Old Testament. Micah asks the rhetorical question: “How can I…show proper respect to the high God?” He wonders if bigger offerings will do it: lots of rams and barrels of oil. He wonders if following the practice of the pagans and offering his child as a sacrifice will satisfy the Lord. Having asked the question he then states the answer. God has already made his desires for the human race abundantly clear. Micah says, “It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor, be compassionate and loyal in your love, and don’t take yourself too seriously – take God seriously.” Micah’s insight into God’s purposes for people is breathtaking. Some have called this the “John 3:16” of the Old Testament. I do well to take this dusty old statement of God’s purpose for humanity and use it as a guide to my life. How am I doing on the “fair and just, compassionate and love” standard set here? Do I have a handle on not taking myself too seriously while taking God very seriously? There’s nothing in the Bible any more “contemporary” than this statement.
Take Away: Am I living up to the standard of the Lord?