Psalm 50:16-23 – Follow with Both Lips and Life

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But God says to the wicked,
    Why should you recite my commandments?
    Why should you talk about my covenant?
You refuse to let me correct you;
    you reject my commands.
You become the friend of every thief you see,
    and you associate with adulterers.

You are always ready to speak evil;
    you never hesitate to tell lies.
You are ready to accuse your own relatives
    and to find fault with them.
You have done all this, and I have said nothing,
    so you thought that I am like you.
But now I reprimand you
    and make the matter plain to you.

Listen to this, you that ignore me,
    or I will destroy you,
    and there will be no one to save you.
Giving thanks is the sacrifice that honors me,
    and I will surely save all who obey me.
(Good News Translation)

God has something to say to the wicked, that is, those who claim the Lord’s Name, yet fail to honor the divine/human relationship.

One of the things people might oftentimes overlook or misunderstand is that God and humans are not on the same level. Whereas all humanity is equal, and so must be egalitarian in all they do, humans are the creatures and God is the Creator. It isn’t an equitable relationship.

That means our stance as people is to obey the Lord – without question. There’s no room for negotiation. There isn’t any way of leveraging to get the upper hand with God.

Ignorance, or outright disobedience, is manifested through trivializing or picking-and-choosing God’s commands. When a person quotes or cites instructions from the Lord, then completely disregards those divine words and does what they please, there will be a harsh reprimand.

The wicked, those who ignore the covenant relationship with God, tend to talk a good line and then turn around and participate in stealing, adultery, and slander. They glowingly cite the first few commands of the Ten Commandments, then generally flip the middle finger at the rest of the commands – doing whatever the heck they want.

The reason the Lord is so hard in today’s psalm is that the wickedness of humanity believes themselves to be like God. In other words, the people took what was true about themselves and superimposed that on God. This is the dual act of elevating humanity higher than who they are and making themselves like God, while simultaneously minimizing God, making the Lord smaller, to be just like us.

These are just some the mind tricks wicked persons play on themselves to justify their behavior. And God will have none of it. God is not some average household idol. The Lord is to be honored and worshiped as Supreme.

Wherever there is disorder, chaos, systemic evil, and injustice, the root of it is found in disparaging the divine relationship – making God a good ol’ boy who understands things just like you and me.

Wherever you see human life cheapened, taken advantage of, and oppressed, there you will find people and institutions who do not take God as holy, sovereign, and other than them.

Human life is cheapened because talk itself is cheap without the commitment to obey the Lord. So, how might we keep our lips and our life aligned together and working as a committed whole?

  • Be authentic. Embrace being genuine and real. If you’re happy, smile. If you’re sad, don’t. If you say, “yes,” do it. If you need to reinforce good boundaries, say “no,” and don’t do it. What’s more, if you have written statements in your business or organization about diversity, equity, and inclusion, then authentically and actively live into those ideals.

Jesus said, “Let your yes mean yes, and your no mean no. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37, CEB)

My brothers and sisters, practice your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ by not favoring one person over another. (James 2:1, GW)

  • Be trustworthy. Charlatans and slicksters try to make instantaneous trust so they can take advantage of another. The godly person realizes trust must be earned – mostly through quietly doing what needs to be done without complaint or bluster. Someone once said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Do what God’s teaching says, don’t just listen and do nothing. When you only sit and listen, you are fooling yourselves. (James 1:22, ERV)

Now that by your obedience to the truth you have purified yourselves and have come to have a sincere love for other believers, love one another earnestly with all your heart. (1 Peter 1:22, GNT)

  • Be obedient. Observe the Lord’s commands. Biblical instructions include both our speech and our behavior.

For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. (1 John 5:3, NRSV)

Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each one. (Colossians 4:6, NKJV)

Jesus said, “If any of you want to be my follower, you must stop thinking about yourself and what you want. You must be willing to carry the cross that is given to you for following me. (Matthew 16:24, ERV)

  • Be thankful. Words and actions which hurt and damage cannot be said whenever we are using our tongues to express gratitude. And if we keep our feet happy through dancing our thankfulness, then we will not walk into trouble.

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. (1 Thessalonians 5:18, MSG)

And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father. (Colossians 3:17, NLT)

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – Diversity and Unity

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:

first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages.

Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! So, you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts.

But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all. (New Living Translation)

“Ubuntu” is an African Zulu word for humanity. It roughly translates into English as, “I am because we are.”

In whatever way it is to be translated, the idea behind ubuntu is a belief of being connected in a universal bond of humanity. So, an authentic individual human is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental, and spiritual world.

That is precisely what today’s New Testament lesson is all about. Believers in Jesus are connected to one another, as well as having a human bond with all people, since everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

Desmond Tutu

So, then, we are all to use whatever spiritual gifts and divinely given abilities for the common good of everyone. Just like the triune G-d who is both unity and diversity, and just as an individual human body has many parts yet one person, so also believers are diverse in every way yet thoroughly unified as one Body of Christ.

The Church at Corinth had divided into special interest groups who followed a particular person. Each was continually lobbying for what they wanted, rather than seeking to work together as one temple of G-d. And each group believed their gifts were superior.

Paul identified some spiritual gifts – neither to give an exhaustive list, nor to rank them in importance – but to clarify that all these diverse people and their G-d-given skills are to be used for the building up of the congregation. Ideally, the people’s gifts are to flow together in common worship, fellowship, encouragement, and mission:

  • Apostles. There are two kinds. Capital “A” Apostles are the original ones. They are set apart as those who saw the Lord and were his disciples. Little “a” apostles are “sent ones” or missionaries, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed to those who need to hear.
  • Prophets. These are folks possessing a function and gift of encouragement, building up the church through picturing a special future for the ministry of the community.
  • Teachers. Explaining sound doctrine through careful application of Scripture to daily life and ministry is the function of a biblical teacher.
  • Miracle workers and healers. Yes, miracles and healing happened and still occur. These are believers with an unusual gift of faith who are able to discern with spiritual eyes what others tend not to see.
  • Helpers. A necessary element of any Christian fellowship are people who serve in all kinds of capacities: giving to others’ needs; doing acts of mercy and benevolence; and attending to whatever physical needs Christians are faced with.
  • Leaders. Men and women who provide guidance and steer the church in directions they ought to go. They are skilled administrators, able to give wise counsel.
  • Speakers in tongues (languages). It must be borne in mind that this gift is not an end in itself. It is a Spirit-given ability to help include people. Christianity was never intended to be an exclusive club of Jews or devoted solely to a particular class or race. The gospel is meant for every type of person.

Reflecting on all these gifts and abilities within the Church, Paul rattled off a flurry of staccato-like rhetorical questions. The point is to lift up all the gifts as equally needed and appreciated. The ghettoized Corinthian Church needed an understanding of this. Their individual identities were too wrapped up in their abilities, rather than in Christ.

Keep in mind that today’s New Testament lesson immediately precedes the great ode to love of chapter 13. It is the primacy and permanency of love which holds everyone together. Love is the supreme end of all the speaking and serving gifts.

The most excellent way of engaging our giftedness is expressing it with the love of G-d in Christ Jesus. Anything less than this is a mere shadow of the gospel and severely truncates Christian mission and worship.

What’s more, not only does every local church need to function in unity through diverse exercise of gifts with the individual members, so every local church must cooperate and live in harmony with all other churches. Yes, if you are reading ecumenism in this, you are correct. An ecumenical spirit is a generous spirit which pays attention to other believers in our communities, countries, and throughout the world.

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”

Mary Parker Follett

If leaders, teachers, helpers, healers, church planters and encouragers are all doing their jobs, according to the grace given them, then working together with believers everywhere simply happens. And it never seems weird to extend basic Christian mercy and care to believers everywhere – no matter whether they are in full agreement with our doctrinal statements, or not.

When Jesus prayed for all potential believers to be one as G-d is one, he wasn’t thinking of special interest groups, separated Christianized ghettos, nor some believers as being more right or special than other believers.

Diversity, unity, equity, inclusion, and most of all, love, are what characterizes the Lord. It should characterize us, too.

Methinks the Zulu were on to something with the concept of ubuntu. A person is most fully a person through other people. It seems to me it is high time to affirm the basic humanity in others through appreciating their unique difference.  

You and I are more than independent individuals. Our shared humanity is a quality we owe to each other.

I am because we are.

Lord G-d almighty, Creator of the universe, who made us different from one another in myriad ways we can see and in more ways we shall never know yet made us all in your image; fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom, that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-24 – Stop Being Stupid

As a follower of the Lord, I order you to stop living like stupid, godless people. Their minds are in the dark, and they are stubborn and ignorant and have missed out on the life that comes from God. They no longer have any feelings about what is right, and they are so greedy that they do all kinds of indecent things.

But that isn’t what you were taught about Jesus Christ. He is the truth, and you heard about him and learned about him. You were told that your foolish desires will destroy you and that you must give up your old way of life with all its bad habits. Let the Spirit change your way of thinking and make you into a new person. You were created to be like God, and so you must please him and be truly holy. (Contemporary English Version)

“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Why in the world are some people stupid and godless?

I’m sure if you asked that question to a dozen people you might get a dozen different responses.

According to the Apostle Paul, it comes from a disconnection from truth. And biblically, since the very character of G-d is truth, then ignorance and a closed heart also result from estrangement from G-d.

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ. Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus. That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other. 

We will, then, speak truthfully and live honestly, because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another. Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other. My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

When believers are firmly moored to Christ and to Christian community, then, with the enablement of the Holy Spirit, they are able to forsake the old life with its unhealthy routines of living and embrace a new life with good healthy habits of daily life.

Some people continually struggle to overcome bad habits. In part, it’s because they are living a half-truth life. They might be connected to Jesus as Truth yet remain stubborn about staying disconnected from Christ’s Church.

One never realizes sustainable holiness over time apart from Christian community. In other words, real lasting change comes from both the truth of Christ and the truth of Christ’s Church.

“No one can have God as his father who does not have the Church as his mother.”

St. Cyprian (c.210-258 C.E.) and St. Augustine (354-430 C.E)

The magisterial Reformer, John Calvin, upheld the ancient teaching of the Church:

“The Church is our mother, inasmuch as God has committed to her the kind office of bringing us up in the faith. This method of education is not to be despised…. She has the milk and the food by which she continually nourishes her offspring. This is why the Church is called the mother of believers. And certainly, the one who refuses to be a child of the Church desires in vain to have God as Father.”

John Calvin

This is a consistent understanding throughout Christian history. That’s because the ancient church fathers (and mothers!) knew people are hard-wired for community and, what is more, truth is located not only in the Head of Christ but also in the Body of Christ. Decapitating head from body is to sever the truth in half. They have always been meant to go together as one.

To know the truth intellectually and cerebrally is only half of personal transformation. There also must be a bodily living of the truth – and to do that takes the Body of Christ. Life in Christ is life together as Christians.

Just as it was not our choice to be born into our biological family, so we are born again into a spiritual family, the Church. And just as that crazy uncle, obnoxious cousin, bossy big sister, as well as the entire family system can be difficult in our biological family, so it is the same in our spiritual family. We can choose to be estranged from them, but this in no way diminishes the truth that we need family and community.

Yes, both biological family and spiritual family can be (and are) toxic for many people. I am not suggesting we passively submit to abuse and allow ourselves to remain in abusive relationships. What I am saying is that doing away with community altogether is an awfully bad idea.

As much as I, in the past, have wished to run away and live alone in the woods with only bears and raccoons as my friends, I didn’t do it, mainly because I knew better. I knew I needed a supportive community of redeemed people if I was every going to truly honor G-d and experience becoming holy as G-d is holy.

If we want to participate in the life of G-d, it comes with community.

It is, therefore, necessary to hold one another accountable, as well as help each other to be truly holy. We need to embrace the teachings of the New Testament toward one another: Love one another (John 13:34); Be devoted to one another (Romans 12:10); Encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11); Exhort one another (Hebrews 3:13); Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16); along with dozens of other “one another” references.

A lack of self-awareness, empathy, and understanding comes from being disconnected from community. Yet, when we wise up to embrace the truth of Christ and Christ’s Church, we aren’t fooled by evil, and we discover the strength of life together in the Spirit.

Grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth, live together in your love, and reveal your glory in the world. Guide the people of all nations in the ways of justice and peace; that we may honor one another and serve the common good. And guide us to live together as countercultural models of goodness and reconciliation, in our neighborhoods and beyond, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Ephesians 4:1-16 – Unity through Spiritual Gifts

Celtic unity knot by Kristen Fox

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
    he took many captives
    and gave gifts to his people.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So, Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (New International Version)

Unity is more than a good idea or something nice to aspire to. It’s absolutely necessary.

The whole unity thing is quite important to God. It isn’t just an ancillary or side issue to the real work of the church and the Christian life; it is very much at the center of Christianity. 

Christians have been fashioned through the Holy Spirit into a single harmonious religious community of redeemed people, called to exemplify a counter-cultural presence in the world. 

There is a solid theological reason for this: God is one. Just as the triune God exists as one deity in three persons, so the church is to reflect God’s image through its unified oneness.

Although unity has been accomplished through the finished work of Jesus on the cross, the practical implications must be daily worked out. This is why we are to strive, or to put significant effort, into realizing and maintaining the unity we possess. 

Simply getting along but harboring animosity toward another is not unity. Just because two people are not at each other’s throats doesn’t mean there is peaceful unity. Unity occurs when the Body of Christ works together in its diverse gifts toward a common goal of knowing Christ and making him known.  

When Jesus ascended to heaven, ten days later the Day of Pentecost happened. The Holy Spirit came upon the small band of believers and the church became a full-fledged phenomenon, growing and expanding. 

The gracious gifts of the Spirit are given to each and every Christian so that we all may grow and be strengthened in love. Each gifting might be different from person to person, but every one of them is meant to be used in love for the benefit of the entire church.

The Body of Christ, the Church, will experience disunity, weakness, and ineffectiveness if they don’t have any bones or skeleton. It might look like a church – yet will not be able to do any good in the world. 

It is quite necessary that every individual Christian learn what their spiritual gift(s) are, then use them in love to build up the Body. This is the God ordained means of realizing a mature, unified, and functionally healthy group. 

Toward that end, it is good for us all to ask ourselves the following questions and discover the answers:

  • What is my passion and desire for Christ’s Church? 
  • What issues stir up my emotions? 
  • What group of people do I feel most attracted or compelled to reach with the love of Christ? 
  • What area of my faith community or volunteer organization do I most want to influence? 
  • Are there people I see and “get” but others seem to ignore or misunderstand? 
  • How will I step out in faith? 
  • How will I speak and serve as a faithful believer?

 May your journey be blessed, and your pilgrimage of faith be rewarded.

Blessed Holy Trinity, the God whom I serve, may your visible church on this earth be unified and one as you are One. I pray our unity of love and purpose will transform individuals, churches, organizations, systems, and the entire world to the glory of Father, Son, and Spirit.

Loving God, you have graced me with spiritual gifts for the sake of Jesus Christ. Use me for the gracious strengthening of the Church, and for positive influence in the world. Amen.