A short letter with a long reach
Philemon 1: No mere slave this time, but a true Christian brother!
Paul’s letter to Philemon is one of the shortest books of the Bible, but it would be interesting to read the long version containing the back story. A Christian man, Philemon, owns a slave, Onesimus (meaning “useful”). However, Onesimus isn’t really worth much and when he has the opportunity he escapes to freedom, apparently taking some of Philemon’s belongings with him. Somehow, Onesimus encounters Paul who’s in prison and a result of that encounter is that Onesimus becomes a Christian. Paul tells Onesimus that the only thing for him to do is return to Philemon and make things right. He also offers to write a letter to Philemon encouraging him to welcome Onesimus back. On the surface, it appears that Paul’s quite comfortable with the institution of slavery. However, Paul makes one statement to his friend Philemon that has huge repercussions. The Apostle tells him that from now on he and Onesimus are no longer master and slave but are, instead, brothers in Christ. Since Paul and Philemon consider themselves thus, the Apostle urges his friend to treat Onesimus as he would treat Paul, himself. In just a few words in this minor book of the New Testament Paul has poisoned the very root of the institution of slavery. Philemon and Onesimus, brothers in Christ, represent the new reality of the kingdom of God. Slavery, taking unfair advantage of those in less favorable circumstances, racial divide: all these are out of bounds in God’s kingdom.
Take Away: In Christ, we are one.
Mature enough to walk away
2Timothy 2: Refuse to get involved in inane discussions; they always end up in fights.
Timothy, a young pastor, is urged by his mentor, Paul, to pursue maturity, focusing on things like righteousness, faith, love, peace, and prayer. He’s told to avoid “inane discussions” because they lead only to fighting. Obviously, Paul’s not talking about having serious discussions in which people have genuine disagreements and are seeking to understand one another’s positions. Still, the principle here is a good one. Believers need to avoid bickering with one another. The longer it goes on the more the two sides get entrenched. Ultimately, there’s a fracture in their relationship in which one side or both gets hurt. Others, sometimes the most innocent people of all, are drawn in and wounded even more seriously by the immature attitudes shown by people who they love, respect, and need. So, how can this mess be avoided? It’s easy, really. “Refuse to get involved.” Some things are worth the trouble and are, in fact, rather important. Most things aren’t. Paul wants Timothy to focus on the good stuff and walk away from the bad stuff. I’ll like my church better if I do that. In fact, I’ll probably like myself better too.
Take Away: Give your energies to that that really matters, file the other stuff in the “not-that-big-a-deal” file.
Can’t we all just get along?
1Corinthians 1: You must get along with each other.
As I understand it, Corinth is a lot like the Old West of American movies. It’s a rough and tough place with lots of immorality. Paul comes preaching the Gospel of Jesus and many of these rowdy people become believers. For a year and a half (a long time for him) Paul stays, establishing them in the faith, teaching them what it means to be Christians. Now, he’s moved on, but has received word that things aren’t going very well in Corinth. One of the big problems is lack of unity. The Church of Corinth is splitting, not into two parts, but into several. In fact, if there’s an opportunity for discord, they’ve found it. Paul writes to them, saying, “You must get along with each other” and then both reasons with them and shames them into unity. As I consider this passage the call of Jesus to his followers to be one even as he and his Father are one feels quite distant. I share the Apostle’s concern as I look at the state of Christianity today. Sometimes “oneness” seems out of reach and I wonder if Paul was writing to the Church today what he would say. There is, though, a silver lining in these opening words of 1 Corinthians. It’s Paul’s sunny, optimistic approach to all this. He describes the church as “cleaned up by Jesus and set apart for a God filled life” and reminds them that Jesus “will never give up on you.” The Lord has already done a lot in their lives and Paul assures them that he’s going to keep right on working. So, as I read these words today I confess that the state of Christianity today concerns me. At the same time I’m infected by Paul’s optimistic view of the Church. It’s good to remember that God’s still at work today.
Take Away: The Lord is working inside the Church to make us one, and, as we cooperate with him, that’s just what he’s going to do.
No yarmulke or “minor surgery” necessary
Acts 15: So why are you now trying to out-god God, loading these new believers down with rules.
This is a huge moment in the life of the church with far reaching implications. Some of the Jewish Christians want the Gentiles who convert to adopt Jewish rites, specifically circumcision. Peter, Barnabas, and Paul argue that it’s all about Jesus and that faith in him as Savior and Lord is all that’s necessary to be saved. Will Christianity be a branch of Judaism or will it be a religion of its own? It’s a tough decision for this group, made up of Jewish men who follow a Jewish Savior. However, the answer’s really easy. As Peter points out, the Holy Spirit has already ruled on the issue, earlier, as he preached at the house of Cornelius. Barnabas and Paul affirm this. They’ve been “out there” and seen what happens when Gentiles simply believe in Jesus. Now James weighs in, this time with Scripture that declares God’s intention to include the Gentiles who will, indeed, have a place at the table of his grace. If these new followers of Jesus will just avoid a few things that the Jewish followers of Jesus find especially objectionable there will be, not two flavors of Christianity, but one. Obviously, this new religion will be diverse but it will, never-the-less be united.
Take Away: Christianity is about the Christ and any focus elsewhere is mistaken.
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!
Everyone a missionary
Isaiah 66: I’ll send them out as missionaries to preach my glory among the nations.
The final section of Isaiah’s prophecy has to do with restoration. The Lord’s going to gather his people from the exile and restore them to their beloved homeland. Then, he’ll send them out again. This time, though, it won’t be as slaves being relocated by a conquering king. Instead, it’ll be as missionaries spreading throughout the world proclaiming God’s goodness. Isaiah pictures them returning with those who’ve responded to the message, presenting these newly found followers of the Lord to the Lord as an offering gladly received by God. In this I see the heart of God. His desire is that all his Creation be gathered in love; that we experience unity with one another and with him. Jesus says the same thing when he talks about us being “one.” As a believer I’m called to participate in that missionary task; to understand the culture of my society and to go out and engage it for the cause of Christ. The day will come when, as it is in Isaiah’s prophecy, I’ll stand before God. I don’t want to do so empty handed.
Take Away: The Lord uses his people to reach out to all peoples; engaging them, inviting them, and then bringing them to himself.
That we may be one
Isaiah 60: I am God. At the right time I’ll make it happen.
Sin separated them from their Maker and destroyed their nation. God sent their enemies to conquer them and then to scatter them throughout the world. Now, the Lord is making plans to gather his people from the four corners of the earth and make them into a nation of especially blest people once again. Isaiah encourages them that it won’t be long now before it happens. What plays out in the history of Israel reflects the larger journey of humanity. We read in Genesis of the fall of the human race in the Garden and the resulting “driving out” that takes place. Later on, Cain’s sin causes him to, again, be driven out. Then, after the Flood God tells the renewed human race to fan out and populate the face of the earth. Instead, they gather at Babylon to build a tower. The Lord confounds their languages, forcing them to scatter into many different people groups. This, though, isn’t the final intention of God. When the time is right, he’ll gather his people to himself. Jesus tells his followers that God wants to make us one. He encourages us that in his Father’s house there’s room for all and that he’ll take us there. Even as Isaiah describes a reuniting of Israel, the larger picture of the Bible describes God’s plan to reunite humanity in an eternal relationship with him. Since that’s God’s plan we can be sure that he’ll “make it happen.”
Take Away: The Lord’s intention is to unite the human race with one another and, especially, with himself.
Running out of wood can be a good thing
Proverbs 26: When you run out of wood, the fire goes out; when the gossip ends, the quarrel dies down.
As a pastor I have a pretty strong influence on what happens at church. There is, I suppose, always the chance that someone will attempt to take control of a church service but that’s unlikely. I have the main say concerning the order of worship and, of course, what is said in the sermon. However, what happens “out there” during the week is out of my control. Because of that, all the efforts on Sunday to create a loving, supportive family of God can be derailed if that same crowd spends the week fanning the flames of division. Knowing this is humbling to me and it reminds me that I’m not nearly as influential in my own church as I think I am. However, it also reminds me that my greatest resource is not my leadership ability. Instead, my greatest Resource is the One I serve. It’s my desire that the Lord will help me to love people even when they’re behaving in ways that cause pain. I want to personally set an example of how a sanctified Christian conducts himself, to help people who tend to gossip understand that there’s an underlying spiritual issue, and to pray that the Lord will exhaust their supply of “wood” sooner and not later that the church might be united in love for Christ and one another.
Take Away: Some issues will simply die out and go away if we stop fanning the flames.
Can’t we all just get along?
Psalm 133: How wonderful, how beautiful, when brothers and sisters get along!
Here’s one of those “praise chorus” length psalms, just a few sentences long. It’s another of those songs sung by the pilgrims as they make their way up to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. The topic of this short chorus is “unity.” I can just imagine a family making their way to Jerusalem to worship. Maybe the kids are a little tired and irritable and start picking on one another. Mom and dad start singing this song about getting along! Not only that, but as they journey to Jerusalem the pilgrims anticipate not only worship, but the deep fellowship they will enjoy with their fellow worshipers. They’ve come from the four corners of their country to worship together and that’s a beautiful thing. In this dry, arid land, the imagery of the first High Priest, Aaron, being anointed with and overabundance of oil sounds refreshing to them, so they use that image and the picture of abundant dew falling on the parched ground to describe the refreshment they feel in their souls as they join God’s people in worship. As we go through our weeks, dealing with everything life throws at us, we too anticipate the time we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ. That, too, is refreshing to our souls.
Take Away: it’s a beautiful thing when God’s people get together in harmony.