Ephesians 2:11-22 – Included

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit. (New International Version)

There is perhaps no better explanation in the entire New Testament about what the Church truly is than here in today’s lesson.

The redemptive events of Jesus – especially the crucifixion of Christ – has completely changed everything. The cross is the mid-point of history, the fulcrum in which all things in heaven and on earth hinge.

The cross has totally transformed our status from being:

  • in Adam (fallen and separated from God) to being in Christ (now lifted and in union with God)
  • in the flesh (driven by our immoral and unethical impulses) to being in the Spirit (now driven by moral and ethical desires)
  • a Jew or a Gentile (defined by race, ethnicity, etc.) to being one people of God, a new egalitarian society, the community of the redeemed, the Church.

We were once far from God. Now we are brought near through the blood of Christ.

We are included, not excluded; graced and loved, not shamed and shunned.

And our status isn’t based on physical circumcision but on circumcision of the heart, that is, by faith.

There was a time when we were estranged from God, as if we were migrants from another country, or aliens from another world. We were strangers with no visible hope in anything or anyone.

But now, because of Christ’s cross, we have become near to God, gained an inheritance in Christ, and are seated in the heavens as royalty. Everything has mercifully changed. All is incredibly different – a good different.

Jesus Christ himself is our peace. He is the superglue who has bonded us to God and to one another as the one people of God. Because of this gracious union, there is no more anger and malice toward each other. There is, instead, peace.

The Lord Jesus has torn down the walls of separation between people, stripped the armor off of those who used it to keep a distance, and obliterated all obstacles to genuine relational connection – including the obstacle of the Law.

By his crucifixion, death, and resurrection, Christ Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. Therefore, the Law of Moses is no longer needed. Those who love one another and carry one another’s burdens are the ones who fulfill the Law of Christ.

The reason for abolishing all the laws and layers of separation is so that Christ could create one new people from the disparate groups – thus making peace through the cross.

Just as two people come together in marriage and create an entirely new relationship – one new person from the two – so Christ has joined Jew and Gentile together and formed an entirely new society of unity and one-ness.

We are, then, on equal footing with one another. One group is no longer privileged over another. There is no such thing as an underprivileged people-group in God’s new society.

The Church is to be the one place on earth where all are privileged, all are included, and none are left behind.

There is reconciliation. The situation isn’t of people simply not fighting with each other, not at one another’s throats and sitting with a grumpy affect and arms folded. Quite the opposite. It is a restored relationship, harmonious interactions, and working together in loving fellowship.

Christianity is distinct from all other religions and all other ethical systems because everything is based, tethered, and moored in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. In Christianity, enmity, hate, and rage aren’t managed; they’re put to death – nailed to the cross and done away with.

Unfettered access to God, through Christ and the Spirit, means that we have an open channel to receiving the faith, hope, and love needed to address the darkness of this world and those still stuck in chaos, disconnection, and shame.

Christ himself is the cornerstone to the superstructure of peace and love which has been erected – the very things we have longed for throughout our personal lives and throughout history.

Jesus is the King who brought radical amnesty and hospitality to the entire country by making us all fellow citizens, enjoying all the rights and privileges thereof.

The Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who welcomed us into God’s family, embracing our adoption and making us full-blooded brothers and sisters, and giving us a prominent place at the Table.

All of these things about Christians and the Church aren’t ideals; they’re reality.

Anytime we are spiteful, ignorant, prejudiced, or unkind, we are not living in reality – we’re living in an old evil world that isn’t ours.

Therefore, we are called to fully live into God’s new society – a community of equals – loving and leading like Jesus, living into his words and ways, embracing our new status as children of God, offering radical mercy and grace because that’s exactly what our Lord did for us.

Creator God, who made us different from one another in myriad ways, yet all made in your image: Fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom so 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.

Galatians 3:23-29 – A Ministry of Equals

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So, the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

So, in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (New International Version)

So far, this year…

we have journeyed through Advent to see the Christ child…

followed the light of Epiphany with Jesus as the light of the world…

traveled in Lent to see ourselves in the light of Christ…

experienced Holy Week with the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ…

exulted in the spiritual victory of Easter(tide)…

observed the Lord’s ascension to heaven…

and celebrated the incredible giving of the Holy Spirit to us as believers in and followers of Jesus.

Now…

we have entered the longest Christian season of the year: Ordinary Time or Proper Time.

Armed with the redemptive events of Jesus and with the Spirit as our Teacher, Guide, and Advocate, it is the ordinary ministry and proper life of every Christian to utilize our identity and belonging to spiritually grow and mature in Christ – and spread the seeds of the Gospel everywhere we go. This is simply the normative behavior of every Christian.

We are to bring…

faith, hope, and love to a world in need of God’s grace and peace – a world so often characterized by the chaos of hate, conflict, war, and unrest…

connection where there is disconnection, restoration where there is fragmentation, and inclusion wherever there is exclusion.

Ever since…

the fall of humanity, people have had the predilection to organize themselves in groups that keep them distinct from other groups. Whether it is high school peer groups or office politics; whether class warfare or church cliques; there has always existed a tendency to think better about the groups we identify with, and to look down and believe the worst about those we don’t understand or just don’t like.

But Jesus…

is the person who changes it all. Faith in Christ makes each of us equal with each other, whether Jew or a Greek, in bondage or in freedom, a man or a woman. The cross of Christ not only brought deliverance from sin, death, and hell; the work of Jesus Christ ushered-in a new egalitarian society.

I’m not sure the English translations of the Apostle Paul’s phrasing to the Galatian Church truly capture his passion about this issue. For Paul, Christ’s cross has done so much more than bring personal salvation; it has completely eradicated prejudice, discrimination, and division. 

Therefore…

the Church is to be the one place on earth where divisions no longer exist. It is to be a foretaste of heaven. The Church is to be a new society, a community of the redeemed, based in equity, diversity, and inclusion, from every people group, race, ethnicity, and gender.

Together as one, just as God is One, the Church lives the kingdom values of Christ’s words and ways in a fragmented and chaotic world.

Since then…

the ground is level at the cross, we are to live into our Christian unity with humble attitudes and loving actions. To do otherwise is to be immature. We (hopefully) expect kids to be kids and not be like adults. They need teaching, training, and tutoring to learn. When kids grow up and get into adulthood, we then expect them act like an adult. If they continue in childish behavior, they are immature.

Many adult Christians are still stuck in spiritual childhood. The evidence of this is seen in trying to stratify church society into insiders and outsiders, those who have always been in the church and newcomers who haven’t, or the committed servants and the lax pew sitters, or the givers and the takers, or the theological conservatives and theological liberals.

Rather than…

all of that dividing of people, our spiritual energy, powerfully given to us by the Spirit, is to be placed with living into the egalitarian society inaugurated by Jesus (and Paul). Not taking women’s leadership seriously, or avoiding relationships with the poor, or being xenophobic, or excluding gays, all come from a place of immaturity. It is childish behavior. And Jesus expects better.

Embracing an egalitarian society neither means we are all the same nor should act alike. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of people help make a rich mosaic of support for one another in the Body of Christ.

Being egalitarian means…

all people are created in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions. All persons, therefore, deserve morally equal treatment, respect, and justice. A just and good Christian ethic ensures all believers are handled with love, given sound instruction, and are free to explore their gifts and abilities within the church.

Pursuing equality means more than acknowledging our differences and saying we include others. We need the further step of becoming curious about other cultures, ethnicities, races, and peoples of all kinds.

We need curiosity…

about class differences, health disparities, and political views. It is good for us to actively seek to learn about things like gerrymandering and why its so important; or about what white privilege is and why that’s a big deal; or about mental illness or poverty or crime or any issue that impacts the human condition around us.

In other words, we become curious simply because, as Christians, we care about people.

The Church is…

at its heart, is a community of equals. Thus, the Church, as an egalitarian community, must actively reject racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination while purposefully seeking ways to create and maintain a unified community without divisions.

Jesus reached out…

to the misfits and marginalized in society who were suffering from political, cultural, gender, and religious oppression and discrimination. The community of persons Christ formed included people of all ages and backgrounds. Children were welcome. Women sat down with men to learn and became active participants alongside one another.

Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter, all illustrate that ministry is to reach beyond our own familiar group. In short, Jesus practiced a radical hospitality. He loved and welcomed the stranger.

We Christians…

would do well to emulate our Lord, as well as take our cues on ministry from Paul, who grounded both his theory and practice of Christian mission and service in a Trinitarian theology of equals.

Gracious God, you have abolished barriers through the redemption of Christ. Prevent me from erecting walls that would divide and use me to be a bridge so that others may experience equality in Jesus. Amen.

Ephesians 4:17-5:1 – Living into Truth

“I am the way, the truth, and the life.” –Jesus (John 14:6)

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children. (New International Version)

Where is truth?

Truth is ultimately not found in a system. It is supremely discovered in a person. At the beginning of this Christian Epiphany season, we are reminded that Christ embodied truth. “I am the truth,” Jesus said. (John 14:6)

Jesus modeled a life of truth. He lived and spoke in love. He had a handle on the appropriate use of anger. He never evidenced a wagging gossipy slanderous tongue. There was no bitterness in his heart. He forgave others and was consistently compassionate.

Following Jesus in this way of life can often be difficult and challenging. Why, despite knowing better, do we have such a doggone hard time following Christ’s example of holy speech, pure words, and radical forgiveness?

If there was a simple answer/solution to the acerbic tongues of others, it would be easy to avoid using our words like a hot knife through butter, toasting others with subtle digs and cranky words. Simply telling ourselves (or others) to stop their bellyaching is only a manifestation of our own belligerent spirit running amok.

Gentle words are a tree of life;
    a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit.

Proverbs 15:4, NLT

Rather, we need a solid practical approach to those nagging white lies we keep putting out there and the bending of truth to suit our own selfish purposes. Neither sheer willpower nor hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions will get the job done.

When we go to the doctor, we want them to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we want to know what it is and how to deal with it. Doctors who avoid the truth so to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings are performing malpractice, not healing. We need a solid diagnosis and prognosis framed in a caring way. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about ourselves from a spiritual doctor is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself.

The truth will set us free. Yet, it will make us uncomfortable. We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love and to wrap our heads and hearts around it. This can only happen if we are open, honest, and real with each other. We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

What is truth? 

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is 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 revolves around the truth of Jesus.

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Colossians 3:12, NRSV

Therefore, 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 speak truthfully because we belong to each other. Just as Jesus closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other so 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.

We are to put off lying and put on truth. Too often, we are in the habit of pretending and being plastic. Acting as if we are okay when we are not, or even pretending life is hard, when it is not, is an untruthful presentation – it is a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretention, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

Why don’t we speak truth? 

Habits of lying come from the enemy of our souls who whispers in our ears that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic – we can’t do it. Buying into that snake oil thinking believes we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine because it’s not worth the risk.

We might become convinced we’ll be rejected, lose face with others, or be a victim of gossip. Shame then takes the steering wheel instead of speaking truthfully to one another. So, we avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

Why are we to speak truth? 

Because we are responsible to one another. We are not meant to hide in the shadows but to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful. When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community (Acts 5:1-11). Lying undermines and erodes true community.

How do we speak truth? 

We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other. That is what God does with us. Communities which love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing. There is assurance that members will not abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.

Truthful communities are sacred spaces of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real. No one should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether they will be forsaken. We must have a refreshing openness with each other since we belong to one another. 

“Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God. What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Lewis Smedes, The Power of Promises

Where do we go from here with truth?

I harbor no delusions: Being transparent and real is scary. Yet, if we are to be the true humanity we are designed to be by our Creator, we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor project our problems onto others using untruthful accusations. We will do the hard work of learning to communicate by speaking the truth in love. 

There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward: complacency and mediocrity.

When it comes to relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment. We need to make and keep promises to God and to each other; live into our baptisms; and renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  This means we will allow God to invade our hearts; we will let our mouths say what needs to be said; and be open enough to let others in. 

Though there are many of us, we are one body in Christ, and individually we belong to each other.

Romans 12:5, CEB

Some folks have putrid spiritual abscesses from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love. Spiritual healing comes through spiritual surgery. God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all our unhealthy ways of relating to each other – and together sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers around truth.

Putting off and putting on – that is the prescription for realizing truthful speech and life. It is not easy. It’s hard as hell. And it takes us all as a human community to do it. Sometimes things are messy before there can be order and peace. That is the price of authenticity and truth – and that’s okay.

Creator of all that is good and true, help me so to put aside falsehood and put on truthful living and speaking that love and compassion shine in and through me to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign forever together in a Holy Trinity of Truth. Amen.

Philippians 1:3-11 – Better Together

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joybecause of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. (New International Version)

The need for a medical intervention means there is ill health in the body. And the need for a spiritual intervention means there is ill health in the Body. Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. Bodily sickness prevents us from doing normal activities. Illness causes us to need care and to have an inability in caregiving to others.

Spiritual health in the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort into keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there is an inability for service and mission, a lack of unity, and an absence of joy. It was in such a situation that the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians as a spiritual intervention meant to help restore their spiritual health.

In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity, joy, and fellowship through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others. Paul emphasizes throughout his letter that the church is to be a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others.

“We are only as strong as we are united, and as weak as we are divided.” 

J.K. Rowling

Every pronoun, “you,” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing, avoid tattoos, or vote Republican.

The Apostle Paul knew without a focus on mission, on encouraging one another with the good news and sharing the gospel with others, the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people will nit-pick one another to death with their various opinions and wants. Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find complaining, arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the gospel of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

“The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes, when we are facing hard circumstances, we need to recall past days when this was true of us and remember why we were joyful.

In difficult times of injustice, we need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another. When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the hope of Advent and the anticipation of Christ’s coming, give us a way to understand our past and order our steps in the present so that the rule and reign of God is planted in our hearts and spread throughout the world.

O God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace to set aside our cranky unhappiness and divisive spirits. Take away all hatred and prejudice, and everything which hinders us from godly union and connection: that, as there is but one Body, and one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all; so we may be all of one heart, and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and love, and with one mind and one mouth to glorify you, through Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.