1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 – An Embodied Spirituality

divine dance

One final word, friends. We ask you—urge is more like it—that you keep on doing what we told you to do to please God, not in a dogged religious plod, but in a living, spirited dance. You know the guidelines we laid out for you from the Master Jesus. God wants you to live a pure life.

Keep yourselves from sexual promiscuity.

Learn to appreciate and give dignity to your body, not abusing it, as is so common among those who know nothing of God.

Don’t run roughshod over the concerns of your brothers and sisters. Their concerns are God’s concerns, and he will take care of them. We’ve warned you about this before. God hasn’t invited us into a disorderly, unkempt life but into something holy and beautiful—as beautiful on the inside as the outside.

If you disregard this advice, you’re not offending your neighbors; you’re rejecting God, who is making you a gift of his Holy Spirit. (MSG) 

Consider for a moment some of the things you have done today… For me, I arose early, had a workout, ate breakfast, showered, went to work, etc. Yeah, typical stuff we are familiar with. These things I just mentioned all had to do with the body. What is more, all of them are good and holy. Sometimes we may get a misguided notion that purity and holiness only has to do with activities that take place in a church building; or special works like serving at a homeless shelter; or, that the meeting of physical needs is merely a means to reach the soul. Yet, in today’s verses from Thessalonians, as well as the whole of Scripture, there is neither a secular/sacred dichotomy nor a dualism of body and soul.

We in the western world have inherited a long tradition of Platonic thinking. It underlies a lot about how we think of the body. Plato (c.427-327 B.C.E.) embraced a dual nature of people – an existence of body and soul in which the spirit is trapped within physical flesh. Plato considered the soul to be the true nature of a person and tended to denigrate the body as an earthen vessel which will eventually be discarded. Our physical existence was nothing more than a necessary evil for Plato.

Greek Dualism

The problem with Plato’s anthropology is that it fails to discern the holistic nature of body and soul and the need for integrity with these human dimensions. Historically, Plato’s view has tended to come out sideways through lack of care for the body and seeing bodily actions as insignificant.

Thus, sexual immorality is common in dualism because our physical selves are less significant, temporary, and disposable. In all fairness to Plato, he did not encourage misuse of the body or sexual immorality, yet, his philosophy opened-up generations of people neglecting their own bodies and inflicting harm on other bodies. In many ways, Greek dualism is the shadow philosophy behind much sexual abuse today.

When we exalt the soul as supreme over the body, we are living out platonic thought, not biblical teaching. All of life is sacramental – the body is sacred, and, so, ought to be treated as holy – with great care and careful attention to breath, movement, exercise, eating, sleeping, playing, and, yes, even sex. The body is to be celebrated as our means of glorifying God on this earth. And, at the end of the age when Christ returns, we will be reunited with our bodies to live forever as embodied creatures. What we do with our bodies now matters to God.

Inattention and/or disregard for the body God has given us will inevitably lead to a lack of boundaries in which others are open to violate us and we are unaware of violating others. We end up running roughshod over each other, spiritually and physically. An embodied and grounded spirituality helps us clarify what holiness and sanctification looks like in relationships and everyday life.

boundaries

God has not called us to impurity but to holiness in all of life, in every physical activity we do. We have not been designed by our Creator to live in any old way we want; we have been set apart and called by God to walk along the road of purity and peace.  The way in which we use our minds, wills, emotions, and bodies – aligned and in agreement with the whole person – are of much interest and great concern to God Almighty.

God cares about food and whether I eat to his glory and give thanks; or, whether I have no interest in those that are hungry but just stuff as many groceries as I can in my distended stomach.  God cares about whether I take time for rest and Sabbath and whether I isolate myself in mindless TV watching for hours.  God cares about the content of my conversations with my family and friends – whether I am using my vocal cords for encouraging and building-up others, or whether they are forming slanderous, gossipy, and unhelpful words.

Everything in all creation belongs to God – including me, you, and everything we do.  God cares about all of life’s activities and leisure time.  Whether tying our shoes or teaching a Sunday School class, it is all to be done with a sense of holiness and connection to the God that makes it all possible. Christian spirituality is embodied spirituality. So, let us engage in all kinds of good works for the benefit of the body, whether little or large, with the time and talents God has graciously given us.

Lord God, I belong to you – set apart and sanctified so that I may always walk in holiness and please you in everything I do.  Help my life today to reflect the purity you have given me through your Son, the Lord Jesus.  May he be glorified through me now and always.  Amen.

Romans 15:14-21 – Paul the Missionary

Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev
Apostle Paul by Ivan Filichev

My brothers and sisters, I know without a doubt that you are full of goodness and have all the knowledge you need. So, you are certainly able to counsel each other. But I have written to you very openly about some things that I wanted you to remember. I did this because God gave me this special gift: to be a servant of Christ Jesus for those who are not Jews. I serve like a priest whose duty it is to tell God’s Good News. He gave me this work so that you non-Jewish people could be an offering that he will accept—an offering made holy by the Holy Spirit.

That is why I feel so good about what I have done for God in my service to Christ Jesus. I will not talk about anything I did myself. I will talk only about what Christ has done with me in leading the non-Jewish people to obey God. They have obeyed him because of what I have said and done. And they obeyed him because of the power of the miraculous signs and wonders that happened—all because of the power of God’s Spirit. I have told people the Good News about Christ in every place from Jerusalem to Illyricum. And so, I have finished that part of my work. I always want to tell the Good News in places where people have never heard of Christ. I do this because I don’t want to build on the work that someone else has already started. But as the Scriptures say,

“Those who were not told about him will see,
and those who have not heard about him will understand.” (ERV)

Paul was an Apostle – a person commissioned by God for a specific purpose. His task was to go to the Gentiles – non-Jewish people. Although a Jew himself, Paul was sent as the missionary to places where Gentiles were the dominate culture. Through the Apostle Peter, and then Paul, the good news of Jesus spread to persons that were beforehand considered unreachable. Paul viewed himself as having no limits as to who could hear and respond to the gospel of new life in Jesus Christ.

The Apostle Paul understood himself as standing between heaven and hell, interceding, and pleading on behalf of people in need.

It is quite likely there are persons in our sphere of influence for whom we think would never respond to the message of Christ’s redemption. In these dog days of summer’s ordinary time in which we may be just trying to beat the heat; and, we might see family that we typically don’t throughout the rest of the year; it could be easy to lose sight that attending a virtual meeting, family gathering, and/or interaction with a person outdoors, there are those who need the kind of life which Jesus invites us to – and we will never know if God is wooing them to himself unless we share life with them.

Perhaps we need to see ourselves as Paul did – standing in the gap and always trying to find ways to speak good news to people who need deliverance from empty ways of life. The cousin or uncle, co-worker or friend, neighbor, or new acquaintance, can be forgotten by us as to their very real need to discover faith and the spirituality which resides within.  We, my friends, are the conduit that God has ordained to bring the life-giving message to people all around us – people for whom we might have already written off as unreachable.

Sometimes the Apostle Paul gets a bad rap as moving beyond the bounds of his apostolic authority in dedicating his life to reaching the non-Jewish person, as if Gentiles were not really on the radar of Jesus. Yet, Paul took pains to demonstrate biblically that his mission was really God’s mission. Indeed, Paul did not fabricate including Jew and Gentile together as one people of God. Romans 15 is filled with Old Testament quotes pertaining to God’s agenda that all peoples of the earth would come and worship together.

It has always been God’s vision to restore humanity, Jewish and Gentile alike, to a life-giving place of beauty and joy in the Garden.

So, Paul had a healthy pride in his work as an Apostle sent from God to the task of reaching the vast numbers of non-Jewish people. I sit here today, two millennia later, the spiritual progeny of the Apostle’s great effort. Because Paul kept pioneering new churches, pushing ever farther into places which knew little to none about Jesus, and being concerned for people very different from himself, Christians today enjoy a rich legacy of faith and works to draw upon in our own lives.

Yes, as an historian I am quite aware of the complicated history between the Jewish people and their Gentile neighbors. I perhaps know more than the average bear about how the Church has far too often brought harm and not help to the world. Yet, this in no way mitigates the incredible new life which has occurred for so many people and cultures throughout the past two-thousand years of Christian history. In fact, in the light of today’s New Testament lesson, it behooves us Christians to establish gracious and loving connections with our Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as all of humanity. Their pain of persecution and difficulty through the centuries is our pain, as well.

May the power of God’s Spirit come upon us all. May we all become a community of priests and prophets proclaiming peace, love, and joy – the life we are all meant to experience and share together.

We praise you, O God, for the ministry and success of your servant, the Apostle Paul, through whom we who are Gentiles owe our own faith and calling.  Grant us a vision like his, the conviction and commitment to pursue it, and the grace which confirms and prospers it.  Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:4-13 – For the Common Good

spiritual gifts

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (NRSV)

A gift is meant to be unpacked. It would be weird if someone was given a gift, then let it sit unopened. Instead, we typically receive the gift, rip it open, and express gratitude for the thoughtfulness. Then, we use and enjoy it.

The Spirit, likewise, has been marvelously given to God’s people. Each individual Christian is specially provided a gift to open, use, and enjoy. Spiritual gifts graciously given to us are meant for the common good of all. And this use for the common good is where the gift is different than Christmas or birthday presents.

Spiritual gifts are designed by God to be acts and words of service, dispersed for the benefit of others. They are not meant solely for personal satisfaction. So, if a person’s spiritual gift is teaching, they do not stand in front of a mirror and talk at themselves. Instead, they jump into the fray of learning and explaining, and do it in such a gracious and loving way that the enabling of the Spirit is evident.

If a person’s gift is faith, they do not merely step out and act with unusual courage for the purpose of personal betterment in a holy belief from God. They also demonstrate faithfulness to God’s people and to God’s world. The gift is for the common good of all persons.

Spiritual gifts are intended by God to be shared freely for the common good of all people so that everyone is supported for the rigors of daily life in the world.

Therefore, we are to take initiative in identifying our gift(s), unpacking them, and indiscriminately using them.  Spiritual health and wholeness can only truly be realized through everyone’s active participation in distributing their God-given abilities. Spiritual gifts are neither to be hoarded, nor miserly dealt to only people I like or my own little world of groupies and friends. Any and every ability comes from God, and is, therefore given for the benefit of all persons. Underprivileged groups need the gifts of others, as well as discovering their own resources so that everyone is built up in a society of redeemed persons.

In addition, mavericks are not helpful here. The Lone Ranger is not to be the model of aspiration. Christians are the Body of Christ, meant to function as one. Just as the Holy Trinity of divine three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – work together in unity of purpose and harmony of being, so the persons of the Church are to unify and act as one in the mission of God. Diversity of gifts are to be expressed in unity of building up others and extending Christ’s love to the world. When we harmoniously coordinate our joint efforts in utilizing our collective spiritual gifts, the world is turned upside-down with kingdom grace and ethics.

Sometimes we might succumb to “gift envy.” We observe the talented gift of another and secretly wish it for ourselves. The proper remedy to such a malady is gratitude. When we give thanks to God for the gift(s) we truly possess, then envy has nowhere to reside and slithers away. None of God’s gifts are “sexy” in the sense that they come easily without effort and always look appealing. On the contrary, our gifts are meant to be received and developed with lots of daily mundane work so that we live into the special endowment bestowed upon us. This, in fact, takes a lifetime of development because the Spirit’s gifts are so generously large – much bigger than we originally observe at first glance. Like an engagement ring in a tiny box, receiving the gift and putting it on will involve commitments and challenges we cannot at the time perceive.

Whatever it is you do well, do it to the glory of God. Allow God to activate it and energize it for the prevailing needs of a church and a world which is in want of seeing spiritual fruit manifest in kindness, goodness, and love.

O Lord, you have taught me that without love, whatever I do is worth nothing.  Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 – Good Friday

CrossChrist
Depiction of Christ on the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin

The Lord says, “See, my servant will act wisely.
People will greatly honor and respect him.
Many people were shocked when they saw him.
His appearance was so damaged he did not look like a man;
his form was so changed they could barely tell he was human.
But now he will surprise many nations.
Kings will be amazed and shut their mouths.
They will see things they had not been told about him,
and they will understand things they had not heard.”

Who would have believed what we heard?
Who saw the Lord’s power in this?
He grew up like a small plant before the Lord,
like a root growing in a dry land.
He had no special beauty or form to make us notice him;
there was nothing in his appearance to make us desire him.
He was hated and rejected by people.
He had much pain and suffering.
People would not even look at him.
He was hated, and we didn’t even notice him.

But he took our suffering on him
and felt our pain for us.
We saw his suffering
and thought God was punishing him.
But he was wounded for the wrong we did;
he was crushed for the evil we did.
The punishment, which made us well, was given to him,
and we are healed because of his wounds.
We all have wandered away like sheep;
each of us has gone his own way.
But the Lord has put on him the punishment
for all the evil we have done.

He was beaten down and punished,
but he didn’t say a word.
He was like a lamb being led to be killed.
He was quiet, as a sheep is quiet while its wool is being cut;
he never opened his mouth.
Men took him away roughly and unfairly.
He died without children to continue his family.
He was put to death;
he was punished for the sins of my people.
He was buried with wicked men,
and he died with the rich.
He had done nothing wrong,
and he had never lied.

But it was the Lord who decided
to crush him and make him suffer.
The Lord made his life a penalty offering,
but he will still see his descendants and live a long life.
He will complete the things the Lord wants him to do.
“After his soul suffers many things,
he will see life and be satisfied.
My good servant will make many people right with God;
he will carry away their sins.
For this reason I will make him a great man among people,
and he will share in all things with those who are strong.
He willingly gave his life
and was treated like a criminal.
But he carried away the sins of many people
and asked forgiveness for those who sinned.” (NCV)

We all suffer.  In some way, whether a chronic physical condition, emotional or moral distress, mental illness, or spiritual oppression, everyone faces living in a fallen world with its pain and heartache.  Presently, the entire world is suffering the scourge of the COVID-19 virus.  Every person in my neighborhood, city, state, and nation is impacted and affected.  Not only do many suffer because of disease and death itself, all are enduring either lost wages, limitations, loneliness or more.  Suffering that seems to have no reason, the senseless kind, the type where nothing good appears to be going on at all can be very troubling to our souls.

Perhaps it seems ironic, maybe even cruel, that Christians would observe a day called “Good” Friday.  Considering the hard circumstances of so many people, to call today “good” appears awkward, as if Christ’s followers have their heads in the sand.  Even for Christians, at first glance, “Good Friday” might seem a oxymoronic for a day observing the torture and death of an innocent man.  Some would argue that Christ is no longer on the cross and we need to give all our focus on the resurrected Jesus and the victory he achieved.  No need for all this suffering stuff.  Yet, the Resurrection only has meaning because of this very day, Good Friday.  Without the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is no King Jesus.  For Christians everywhere, this day is very good in the sense that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ means the redemption of the world.  On this day we remember and commemorate the events that led up to the cross; unpack those events and interpret them with profound meaning and significance; and, worship Jesus with heartfelt gratitude because of his redeeming work of the cross.

16th St Baptist Church Crucifixion Stained Glass Window
This stained-glass window was donated to the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church of Birmingham, Alabama by the people of Wales after the church was bombed in 1963.

The bulk of the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are given over to the final week of Christ’s life, especially leading to the cross.  Good Friday observances often take a somber form due to the brevity of Christ’s experience on the cross.  Christians remember the last words of Christ, and recognize the significant impact his death had on the immediate persons around him.  Believers also contemplate the lasting results of that singular death as an atoning sacrifice; perfect love; reconciliation between God and humanity; victory over evil; and, redeeming all creation.

Sadness, then, is far from the only emotive expression on this day.  It is appropriate to feel wonder, gratitude, and deep satisfaction for the accomplishment of deliverance from the power of sin.  There is the recognition that something profound and meaningful has truly happened in the egregious suffering of Jesus.  Thus, we not only remember the anguish of Christ, but what that horrible torment accomplished.  In fact, the cross of Jesus is so significant that an eternity of considering its import and impact could never plumb the depths of its far-reaching effects.

With all that has been said, one would think that Good Friday is a hugely observed day on the Christian Calendar.  Yet, for a chunk of churches and Christians, it’s not.  The bottom line is that the cross is not popular.  Maybe it’s because neither Christian nor non-Christian wants to ponder something that appears so icky and bloody.

Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge has adroitly put her finger on the issue: “Religious people want visionary experiences and spiritual uplift; secular people want proofs, arguments, demonstrations, philosophy, and science.  The striking fact is that neither one of these groups wants to hear about the cross.”  Indeed, as the Apostle Paul has said, the cross of Christ is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).

A personalized religion which leaves the cross out of the picture (too much blood and violence) might seem appealing yet will only leave us bereft of the communion of the saints both past and present.  Consider the ancient witness of the Church:

“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord… he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell.” –Apostles’ Creed

“For our sake he [Christ] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.” –Nicene Creed

Christ suffered “in both body and soul – in such a way that when he sensed the horrible punishment required by our sins ‘his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.’  He cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’  And he endured all this for the forgiveness of our sins.  Therefore, we rightly say with the Apostle Paul that we know nothing ‘except Jesus Christ, and him crucified;’ we ‘regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.’ We find all comforts in his wounds and have no need to seek or invent any other means than this one and only sacrifice, once made, which renders believers perfect forever.” –Belgic Confession, Article 21

And let us consider further the New Testament witness:

“Jesus suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.  Therefore, let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured.” (Hebrews 13:12-13, NIV)

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NRSV)

6a7f0-thecross

The extent of Good Friday goes far beyond just a day on the calendar; it is the fulcrum upon which all of Christianity hinges.  Because Christ suffered, our suffering has meaning.  Each situation of trauma; every case of disease; all adversity and wholesale hard circumstances make sense, in the Christian tradition, when they are viewed in solidarity with Jesus Christ crucified. So, today, let Christians everywhere contemplate the cross, observe the salvation accomplished through Christ’s death, and offer prayers and petitions for those who need deliverance from the power of evil.  In short, let us worship God in Jesus Christ because of the suffering on the cross.

Along with all believers everywhere we pray:

Jesus, Lamb of God, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Bearer of our sins, have mercy on us.

Jesus, Redeemer of the world, grant us your peace.  Amen.

Click Were You There performed by The Vigil Project as we station ourselves near the cross.