Think of the Needs of the Group (1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1)

Looking at it one way, you could say, “Anything goes. Because of God’s immense generosity and grace, we don’t have to dissect and scrutinize every action to see if it will pass muster.” But the point is not to just get by. We want to live well, but our foremost efforts should be to help others live well.

With that as a base to work from, common sense can take you the rest of the way. Eat anything sold at the butcher shop, for instance; you don’t have to run an “idolatry test” on every item. “The earth,” after all, “is God’s, and everything in it.” That “everything” certainly includes the leg of lamb in the butcher shop. If a nonbeliever invites you to dinner and you feel like going, go ahead and enjoy yourself; eat everything placed before you. It would be both bad manners and bad spirituality to cross-examine your host on the ethical purity of each course as it is served. On the other hand, if he goes out of his way to tell you that this or that was sacrificed to god or goddess so-and-so, you should pass. Even though you may be indifferent as to where it came from, he isn’t, and you don’t want to send mixed messages to him about who you are worshiping.

But, except for these special cases, I’m not going to walk around on eggshells worrying about what small-minded people might say; I’m going to stride free and easy, knowing what our large-minded Master has already said. If I eat what is served to me, grateful to God for what is on the table, how can I worry about what someone will say? I thanked God for it, and he blessed it!

So eat your meals heartily, not worrying about what others say about you—you’re eating to God’s glory, after all, not to please them. As a matter of fact, do everything that way, heartily and freely to God’s glory. At the same time, don’t be callous in your exercise of freedom, thoughtlessly stepping on the toes of those who aren’t as free as you are. I try my best to be considerate of everyone’s feelings in all these matters; I hope you will be, too.

It pleases me that you continue to remember and honor me by keeping up the traditions of the faith I taught you. (The Message)

“To know how to free oneself is nothing; the arduous thing is to know what to do with one’s freedom.”

Andre Gide

Extreme individualism wants what it wants and doesn’t give a thought about anyone else – which is why we always have such a peck of trouble in the world all the time.

We need to get a phrase into our language which will become a continual mantra we say and observe:

Think of the needs of the group.

Christianity is a religion of community, of being attentive to and meeting one another’s needs, and of caring about the common good of all persons throughout the world. Christians dishonor their Lord and buck their spiritual tradition whenever they go rogue and base everything they say and do on what sort of advantage it is for them without considering others.

Yes, believers in Jesus have freedom in Christ. The cross has released the shackles that kept us in sin’s bondage. But, no, that doesn’t mean we get to do whatever we want, whenever we want. That’s the way individualism looks at it. That’s not how a communal people, the church, are to look at it.

Freedom hinges on two very important and seemingly small grammar prepositions: from and to.

Freedom always involves two elements:

  1. Freedom from what hinders or oppresses us.
  2. Freedom to become who we are meant to be.

In Christianity, believers are saved from sin, death, and hell – released from guilt and shame. There is redemption from the pit of despair. The bonds that hindered are now broken through the cross of Christ. The power of the world, the sinful nature, and the devil are taken away.

Yet, in no way does that now mean that we now get to do whatever we want, as if we’ve finally outgrown childhood and parental authority.

The extreme individualist Christian looks at freedom solely from this vantage. As a result, such a person considers the church as nonobligatory, involvement in issues of justice as optional, the use of personal funds and resources as discretionary, and accountability to others as arbitrary.

Such individualism sees Christianity as a fire insurance policy from hell, and a ticket punched for heaven. Until Christ returns, the reasoning goes, I can do whatever the heck I want. It’s my life, not yours.

Christians, however, are still servants. Whereas we were once enslaved to the dark forces of this world, now we are slaves to Christ. We exchanged masters. Satan is no longer the deceitful and lying task master over us. We are now under new management and have a new Master, the Lord Jesus. We’ve changed allegiances.

And now, submitted to Christ, we embrace our mandate of freedom to become whom we were always meant to be: At peace with our Creator and in harmony with all creation. We are now free to enjoy right relationships with God and others, to walk in faith, hope, and love, and to bless both the church and the world.

The Christian’s freedom came at a price: the very blood of Christ Jesus. Therefore, we are not to abuse that freedom by focusing solely on our freedoms from all that once bound us. We are also responsible and accountable for using that freedom in going to the world and proclaiming the gospel in word and sacrament, as well as loving God and neighbor.

Freedom is only freedom when it has the well-being of everyone in mind.

Think of the needs of the group.

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father: Help us to live into the freedom you have brought to us. May we exercise our freedom, with the heart of a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, to serve your purposes. Unite us, protect our sacred liberties and rights, and defend us from every evil. Strengthen your people as a foundation of moral clarity, justice, love, and gospel proclamation. Grant all this by the power of your Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord. Amen.

To the Family of God (2 John 1:1-16)

St. John the Apostle, by sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911)

From the Elder—

To the dear Lady and to her children, whom I truly love. And I am not the only one, but all who know the truth love you, because the truth remains in us and will be with us forever.

May God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, give us grace, mercy, and peace; may they be ours in truth and love.

How happy I was to find that some of your children live in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And so I ask you, dear Lady: let us all love one another. This is no new command I am writing you; it is the command which we have had from the beginning. This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands. The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.

Many deceivers have gone out over the world, people who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came as a human being. Such a person is a deceiver and the Enemy of Christ. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for but will receive your reward in full.

Anyone who does not stay with the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. Whoever does stay with the teaching has both the Father and the Son. So then, if some come to you who do not bring this teaching, do not welcome them in your homes; do not even say, “Peace be with you.” For anyone who wishes them peace becomes their partner in the evil things they do.

I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink; instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you personally, so that we shall be completely happy.

The children of your dear Sister send you their greetings. (Good News Translation)

The Pastor

Tucked away near the back of the Bible is a short little letter from the Apostle John, identifying himself as “The Elder.” This is meant to convey both his venerable leadership and his affectionate relation as the grandfatherly old man who has something important to say. In other words, John was, in our terms, a Pastor responsible for shepherding the church with care.

The Church and Christians

“The dear Lady” is a metaphor for the church. Through personifying the church, John was assigning worth, respect, and dignity to the mother with spiritual progeny.

“Her children” are the believers within the church, spiritual offspring with the church as their mother. This has been an important motif for most of Christian history – an understanding that has gotten lost over the centuries in much of the Protestant world. Yet, one of the magisterial reformers, John Calvin, retained this view of the church and its members:

“The Church is the bosom which God is pleased to gather his children… who are guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…. How useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us under her care and guidance… Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1, 4)

Indeed, Calvin was merely upholding the words of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c.200-258, C.E.)  who stated 1,300 years earlier than the reformer:

“No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”

St. Cyprian (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, ch.vi)

Love and Truth

The relationship between the mother and her children is to be always characterized by familial love. Everything within Christianity rises and falls with love because God is love.

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving.

In fact, God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

God is not okay with deceit, not at all alright with errant understandings of his Son, Jesus Christ, being made out as a mere phantom without a real flesh-and-blood body. He had to be made like us in every way. Otherwise, there is no deliverance from the deceitfulness of sin, the sting of death, and the agony of hell.

John, as the Apostle of love, consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always, insisted John. Love is only really possible when there is truth in the heart.

The true muster of mother church and of individual believing children is their love. No matter what is done – whether outreach, fellowship, or worship – it is all to be done in love and in truth. It’s not enough to be right; the rightness must be applied with the generosity, grace, and liberality of love.

The telltale sign of the deceiver, the false teacher, is that he proclaims only one without the other, either truth or love, but never both together.  

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is a red flag that impure teaching is happening. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love, neither in word nor deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and truth always go together. A mother is a mother because of her children; and a child is a child because of the mother. You cannot have one without the other.

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions, assumes we already understand their situation without hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love finds itself by carefully applying biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love.

Love must have its way, or it isn’t love.

Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Hope and Happiness

Hope is a confident expectation that promises will be kept and realized.

Happiness is the result.

Hope and happiness go together like bacon and eggs, Tom and Jerry, the moonwalk and Michael Jackson, Friday and fish fry, Harry Potter and Hogwarts, salt and pepper, Adam and Eve, Jesus and the Spirit, and well, I think you get the picture.

Unhappiness is the inevitable result of feeling hopeless. Hope and happiness are both relational terms. They come from having good relations based in love and truth.

Love and truth are very much relational terms, being realized because of mother church’s nurturing.

And the chosen mother came into being because of the Father’s gracious will.

So, tell me, what is your takeaway from this quite brief reflection on John’s little letter?…

Live Into Your Calling (2 Peter 1:1-11)

Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ,

To those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours:

Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (New International Version)

The deepest yearning in every human soul is to become whole again, to return to their spiritual source, to experience belonging and union with the Beloved.

In the beginning, all of creation was a vessel filled with divine light. Then, it broke, and the shards of holiness were strewn across the earth. Those broken pieces are all around us. Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, we don’t see them because of our own darkness.

My friends, we have a simple but profound task: To bend down, find the broken shards, and pick them up.

This work of making a real and lasting contribution to humanity confirms our vocational calling and is made possible by divine power.

And yet, so many of us feel like a tiny Who on a speck of dust, with such a small insignificant voice, that nobody can hear us.

But somebody does hear us – and that somebody has very large elephant ears which are attuned to listen.

A person’s a person, no matter how small. A person has light, no matter how dim.

A great deception which befalls humanity is the lie that we aren’t enough – that somehow we lack voice and light in our core personhood.

This leads to another deceitful thought: God is holding out on me; I got the short end of things; I was never given the sort of voice which can be heard, or the kind of light which can burn bright.

Those deceiving vampires only suck the life out of us. What we need, instead, is to imbibe deeply of robust theology which empowers us to live faithfully in this world of corruption.

We have everything we need to grow in grace; God’s provision for us is total and complete.

By grace, we can discern between truth and error; endure hostility and hardship; persevere with patience as we await the new heaven and new earth; and confront anything in this present life with confidence and hope. We can do it because we’ve been equipped for it all.

Core to all this provision is the very life of Christ. Jesus is the source of the power; and his is the grace needed to live life to the full. The same resurrection power which raised Christ from the grave is available and provided to us.

God’s supply for us is sufficient. It is enough. We have everything we need to walk with boldness through any dark alley. The believer’s confidence is in carrying the cross – which keeps the deceiving vampires of guilt, shame, doubt, and distrust at bay.

Sheer cognitive belief, however, is insufficient. It’s only half the equation. The other half is to let our light shine, be the salt of the earth, and take up the gifts given us by God and use them.

Therefore, put significant energy into your faith development through knowing your call to bless the world and not curse it.

Confidently using faith, fully participate in God’s divine power through the qualities of:

  • Goodness. Cultivation of moral excellence is both helpful and needed in all our relationships. Goodness is like a seed planted. It proper amounts of water and sun, as well as continual tending to keep the weeds away.
  • Knowledge. There are two words in the ancient Greek for knowledge: one is a reference to acquiring information; and the other refers to actively using the information provided. The Apostle Peter uses the latter – an experiential knowledge which is wise, discerning, and discreet.
  • Self-Control. This is the ability to get a grip on yourself, to avoid controlling others and focus on all things within your own control. Ultimate control belongs to God; self-control belongs to you and me.
  • Perseverance. To see the big picture, to look ahead and keep your eye on the goal, is the lived practice of endurance. Everyone has patience. The real issue is whether we will tap into it, or not.
  • Godliness. The heart of godliness is a growing awareness of self, others, and God – rightly relating to them all with wholeness and integrity.
  • Mutual Affection. Basic human kindness is the basis of any healthy community and every relationship.
  • Love. This is the Christian’s consummate virtue. Whereas affection is to be mutual, love can always be done whether someone loves us back, or not. Genuine love can be directed at the unlovely, even enemies.

Effectiveness in living a virtuous life is not a matter of more but better.

It doesn’t happen on an industrial scale with a mass production of spiritual resources for the busy Christian consumer.

Rather, it occurs in the soil of God’s grace, mostly below the surface of the ground, slowly but surely germinating with faith, rising in hope, and producing a harvest of love that blesses both church and world.

A little bit of Jesus is enough to turn the world upside-down. You don’t need a big loaf of bread; a miniscule communion wafer will do.

A tiny mustard seed of faith can move a mountain.

A kernel of goodness can produce a harvest of righteousness.

A bit of knowledge and awareness can uproot the weeds of bigotry and hate.

A grain of self-control can grow into a field of peace.

A simple insight can create a cascade of transformation.

A single act of kindness can alter the course of another’s life forever.

A few seconds of attention can change the world.

A teensy amount of love can feed everyone on the earth.

We have everything we need to realize the new society Christ has made possible. We are in want of nothing. We are enough because Christ is enough. So, live into your calling with courage and confidence.

Heavenly Father, you are the One ever-present on this earth in your only Son and through your Spirit:
May your Name be shown forth as holy through us, your people.
May your gracious and benevolent reign come, establishing peace and justice, hope and life; and may your moral and ethical will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven.
Give us what we need for today; and adjust our vision into a clear 20/20 awareness of others’ needs.

Forgive us of our great and many sins, for the immoral and unethical things we have said and done, and for the good words and good deeds we have failed to say and do; forgive us, just as we forgive those who have egregiously sinned against us.

Don’t let us amble down a dark path of temptation, of hardening our hearts and closing our minds; but instead, deliver us from the machinations of evil, and set our feet upon the lighted path of righteousness.

To You, everlasting God, belongs all sovereign decrees of  justice and truth;
To You, almighty God, belongs all powerful deeds of righteousness and goodness;
To You, holy God, belongs all glorious displays of love and compassion;

Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with You and the blessed Holy Spirit are one God, now and forevermore. Amen.

The Necessity of Mentoring Relationships: Paul, Tom, and Timothy (2 Timothy 3:10-15)

Orthodox icon of St. Paul
Orthodox icon of St. Timothy

You’ve been a good apprentice to me, a part of my teaching, my manner of life, direction, faith, steadiness, love, patience, troubles, sufferings—suffering along with me in all the grief I had to put up with in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra. And you also well know that God rescued me! Anyone who wants to live all out for Christ is in for a lot of trouble; there’s no getting around it. Unscrupulous con men will continue to exploit the faith. They’re as deceived as the people they lead astray. As long as they are out there, things can only get worse.

But don’t let it faze you. Stick with what you learned and believed, sure of the integrity of your teachers—why, you took in the sacred Scriptures with your mother’s milk! There’s nothing like the written Word of God for showing you the way to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (The Message)

Paul and Timothy had a special relationship. Paul, the Apostle and mentor in the faith; and Timothy, the apprentice.

Together, they saw it all – and experienced it all. And through it all, the Christian tradition was passed on because of Paul’s purposeful mentoring of others, especially Timothy, by both verbal teaching and life example. In this, Paul helped set Christianity on a trajectory of modeling the words and ways of Jesus.

Faith is a gift given by God through Scripture and faithful people – and then received by us. Christianity is designed for community; it is not merely a solitary affair between the individual and God. Anyone trying to go it alone in the Christian life will soon discover they are overwhelmed and in over their heads with trouble.

Contemporary pastoral ministry still needs to follow in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. Just one of the many reasons why churches in the West are in such decline is that Christian leaders are not intentionally focused to passing-on a solid body of teaching, along with a consistent example of how to put it into practice, through close relationships.

Anyone who has been in the pastoral ministry gig for a long time, remaining consistent and faithful, has most certainly had a good spiritual teacher and guide shepherding them through their Christian experience. A good long ministerial life isn’t happenstance; it’s the result of a solid foundation through a Paul-and-Timothy sort of relationship.

Mosaic of Paul and Timothy, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, Italy

By God’s grace, I’ve had several persons influence my life in profound ways in such a relationship. One of the earliest and longest was with Tom – a campus minister on my university who built into my life as an undergraduate and a very young Christian. We remained connected and became good friends for nearly four decades until his untimely death.

Tom knew what he was doing with me. To this day, even with multiple academic degrees and many professional ministry experiences, I attribute most of what I know about Christian faith and practice as simply saying and doing what I saw Tom say and do. And, I might add, Tom consistently saw my true self, even when I didn’t see it myself.

A good model in the faith has the same qualities and insights as the Apostle Paul of old. For example, here are just a few of the important things I learned from Tom:

  • Christian ministry is interpersonal; time must be spent with others, getting to know them and building relationships. Doing pastoral ministry from afar is an oxymoron. From what we know of Paul, at times he had a team of up to seventy persons following him around on missionary endeavors.
  • There are always going to be charlatans and bad apples around. Don’t simply ignore them. Confront them in grace and truth. I still remember a time when I went along with Tom, not knowing where we were going or what he was up to. In retrospect, he probably knew I would bolt if I caught wind of what he was about to do. We went to the dorm room of a believer whom Tom flat-out confronted on his talking and living being inconsistent with his professed Christianity. My eyes got huge when Tom said, “In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you and I call you to repent.” This was said in a gracious and conversational tone, not in anger, which communicated concern and love for this individual student.
  • Develop relationships. And the best way of doing this is by having the Timothy tag along with the Paul. Tom continually brought me along to whatever he was doing, whether it was a weekend retreat he was leading, or going to the grocery store. We cannot learn from others if we aren’t around them, and Tom understood this better than most. As a result, I learned more than lessons; I learned a life.
  • It’s not about me. Tom never took himself too seriously. And because of that, I observed him never becoming overwhelmed or obsessing over the trouble he would sometimes get into. In fact, he typically welcomed the trouble whenever he saw it was not of his own making.
  • Openness and vulnerability are necessary. More than once, Tom strolled into a bible study with me and some other guys, flopped down and said, “Man, I really blew it today…” and then went on to explain some boneheaded thing he did. We unpacked the entire situation together. Not once do I ever recall Tom trying to look like the perfect Christian leader. He embraced who he was and was always willing to shine the light on the shadowy places of his heart.
  • Holy Scripture is central to Christian life and ministry. Inevitably, Tom’s question to us, after describing his bonehead move, was to ask, “What are you learning in God’s Word? Do you have any encouragement for me?” On a daily basis, without fail, Tom asked this question of me: “So, what is God teaching you in the Word?”

Through both Holy Scripture and the significant relationships I’ve had throughout my life, I can confidently state that there are two indispensable elements to effective Christian ministry:

  1. It must be firmly grounded in objective theory derived from God’s Word.
  2. It must be intentionally practiced with subjective experience derived from interpersonal relationships.

Objective theory without lived practice leads to being puffed-up with knowledge and no love – because love requires people. And subjective experience without a grounded theory is nothing but a form of spiritual A.D.D. in which whatever shiny thing we see grabs our attention.

I always considered Tom as my spiritual father (and his wife as a dear spiritual mother!). They have shown me not only how to live the faith, but also how to be a spiritual father myself. And as a result, my own dear wife and I have many spiritual children scattered throughout the country.

This is the consummate Christian: Coming to faith by God’s grace, mediated to us through actual flesh-and-blood people; being taught and mentored in that faith by proven Christians; and then, simply saying and doing what you have seen and heard from holy leaders and Holy Scripture.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not abstract art. It’s a life. It’s relationships. And it’s absolutely necessary in order for both the church and the world to be blessed.

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
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 6:8, MSG)

Soli Deo Gloria. Amen.