Romans 4:13-25 – Christianity 101

It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. For if those who depend on the law are heirs, faith means nothing and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression.

Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all. As it is written: “I have made you a father of many nations.” He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed—the God who gives life to the dead and calls into being things that were not.

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. Therefore “it was credited to him as righteousness.” The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness—for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. (NIV)

Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of why we are here on this earth and what we are really supposed to be doing.  There’s just so much stuff going on around us all the time that it seems like we have spiritual attention deficit disorder and cannot focus on what is most important. Certain people irritate us, we scramble to make a decent living, there never seems to be enough time to accomplish everything, and there is adversity and obstacles all along life’s way.

There’s a lot going on in the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. At first glance, like our lives, it seems complicated. Paul had all kinds of words for the Christians such as hope, faith, righteousness, and justification, just to name a few. All those words and ideas funneled into and pointed toward a singular focus: The Lord Jesus. Everything in life comes down to Christ. 

The church was losing sight of why they existed. Within the church at Rome were both Jews and Gentiles, together as one people of God. They didn’t always see eye-to-eye on everything. The Gentiles thought the Jews were stuck in tradition and needed to move on. The Jews had centuries of history behind them of God working through them. They thought the Gentiles needed some solid Old Testament law to bolster their primitive spirituality. Would the church take their cues on life from the Gentiles, or the Jews?

“To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

thomas aquinas

Paul essentially told the church they were headed in the wrong direction. The issues and problems of living the Christian life were to take a back seat to faith in God. To prove his point, Paul went back to Abraham as Exhibit A of what it means to live with and for God. 

It went down like this: God made a promise to Abraham of progeny in his old age; Abraham believed what God said, Abraham demonstrated his faith by having the confident expectation (hope) that God is good for his promise; and God declared (justified) Abraham to have a right relationship with himself (righteousness). 

In other words, the heart of Christian faith and practice is that God makes promises; people respond to God in faith, hope, and love. Law and the willpower to keep it doesn’t even come into the equation.

Christians are the spiritual children of Abraham. All God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ. We respond to God by believing in Jesus. The redemptive events of Jesus make us just and right.  So, what does this mean for you and me?

We are not to get sidetracked with trying to make others be like us. Instead, we are to proclaim the promises of God in Christ so that others might respond by believing and embracing those promises. Furthermore, we have no need to try and get God to like us, notice us, and/or listen to us. God has already made and kept promises to us, demonstrating his love, mercy, and grace through his Son, the Lord Jesus.

Our lives are not to center in our abilities, or lack thereof, to live a godly life. Rather, our lives are to revolve around the person and work of Jesus Christ through faith, with the hope that God will always hold to his promise to be with us, which frees us to love others. This is basic Christianity 101. This is the faith we embrace.

Righteous God, you have made and kept promises to us. Our ultimate deliverance from sin, death, and hell isn’t through our ability to keep the law, but in your Son’s life, death, and resurrection. Help us, your people, to live by faith in Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us, in the strength of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 9:2-13 – Why Jesus Came

Healing by Russian painter Ivan Filichev

Some men brought to Jesus a paralyzed man, lying on a mat. When he saw their faith, Jesus said to the man, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.”

At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!”

Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, “Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts? Which is easier: to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So, he said to the paralyzed man, “Get up, take your mat and go home.” Then the man got up and went home. When the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe; and they praised God, who had given such authority to man.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (NIV)

The late Abigail Van Buren, better known as the newspaper columnist, “Dear Abby,” was the person who made famous the phrase: “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” That quote is an accurate reflection of what Jesus was doing and saying. We occasionally need words like Dear Abby’s to remind and reorient us toward why the church exists.  

The church of the Lord Jesus does not remain on this earth solely for our benefit, any more than a hospital exists for the benefit of the doctors or insurance companies! Rather, the church lives to extend the mission of Jesus through proclamation of good news with the restorative touch of grace. The church’s calling is not to find others who can help them with their tithing and keep warm seats in the pew. Instead, the church is the community of the redeemed, gathered and sent to be the continuing presence of Jesus on this earth.

Some who are reading this are not healthy. Some are sick with sin; others are heart-sick; yet others are plain sick-and-tired of being sick-and-tired. Jesus came neither to condemn nor heap a pile of unrealistic expectations on us. Christ points us to the source of healing and change and invites us to admit our need and come to him. 

Conversely, many others today are healthy, spiritually alive, and well. It is our job to roll up our sleeves and serve, participating fully in the mission of Jesus to the world. The question I want us to grapple with is this: Why did Jesus come to this earth? The answer to that question is to also answer the question of our own purpose and existence as followers of Christ.

Jesus came to forgive sin and transform sinners.In today’s Gospel healing, it was a case where the person’s sin was connected to his paralysis – and the paralytic found in Jesus not only physical healing, but new spiritual life.

The religious insiders observed the healing. Yet there was no rejoicing by them about the transformation. Instead, they became hung up on Jesus claiming to be God. Granted, this was a hard truth for them to get a hold of. But Jesus labeled such thinking as evil – the inability to see and perceive the situation as a divine intervention, and that Jesus really is the Lord who graciously did it. Because they wrongly discerned who Jesus is, they wrongly interpreted the situation. 

Therefore, it is important to see Jesus as the Human One who extends compassion and forgiveness. If we fail to see this about Christ, we will get caught up in all kinds of silly matters of personal preference and ridiculous power plays, based in how we think things should go, rather than the gospel.

Jesus came to forgive sin. Healing the body is good but not enough. Just focusing on the physical well-being of individuals was not why Christ came. At the heart of the human condition is spiritual brokenness, and Jesus is all about taking away guilt and shame, creating a new person and a new community. It is a radical vision which seeks to encompass all persons – which means Jesus touched many people overlooked by others.

Jesus came to call the despised people of society, the “sinners.” He called Matthew, a tax collector. Tax collectors were hated. They were corrupt characters who extorted money from innocent people. Jesus not only called the despised Matthew but had dinner with him and all his unsavory buddies. This kind of behavior by Jesus was deeply offensive to upstanding citizens.

However, Jesus did not back down. He responded by saying that it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. And he backed up his social actions with Scripture by encouraging offended folks to meditate on what this biblical phrase means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6)

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.

hosea 6:6, niv

It is possible to engage in outward rituals of worship, do all the right things, fulfill our duty, yet still miss the heart of God wants for humanity. Mercy is what God wants. Jesus knew this. So, Christ entangled himself with sinners to bring spiritual healing and restoration.

When Corrie Ten Boom sought to bring deliverance of the Jews from the Nazis during World War II, she had to entangle herself with Jewish refugees. When Christian missionaries seek to be the light of Jesus to people, they must entangle themselves with the people’s culture. If we want to see God deliver people from their situations, we must entangle ourselves with them, into complicated lives that are not pretty, with persons who have been tainted by sin. 

Lots of people are in awful predicaments. Christians, like their Lord, will need to get their hands dirty and their feet wet to extend Christ’s ministry of mercy and forgiveness. The gospel was never intended to be proclaimed from afar, but up close and personal through entanglement in people’s lives. If the merciful mission of Jesus is to occur, it requires the following three activities:

  1. Intimacy with Jesus. Engaging in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, giving, fasting, reading, and meditating on Scripture are the activities which help us to know Christ better and know and how to respond with mercy.
  2. Intimacy with fellow believers. We are hard-wired by God for community. Superficial relationships can only provide superficial community. Christians need to help one another with spiritual growth. They must hold one another accountable for the mission of Christ.
  3. Intimacy with “sinners.” This world is filled with sick, needy, hurting, lonely, unhealthy people who are locked in unhealthy patterns of living. They need a merciful change of life that comes from the merciful Jesus acting through merciful Christians. 

Mercy, not judgment, is at the heart of all change. If we desire others to be different, we will need to be acquainted with the mercy of God.

Most merciful God, we confess we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, and by neglect. We have not held fast to your commandments and have strayed from your teachings. We turn from our self-centered actions and pride. For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us so that we are released from anything that seeks to keep us from delighting in your presence. Empower us with your wisdom, revelation, and discernment so that we might be your merciful hands, feet, and words to one another and those who do not yet know you. Amen.

Acts 15:36-41 – Imperfect Relations

Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them. Paul insisted that they should not take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace. He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (CEB)

Perfect consensus, complete harmony, and perpetual peace are ideals, not reality, this side of heaven. Oh, it is not as though we ought to give up striving for such things – we just need to understand we will only experience them partially, and not fully, until Christ returns. 

Imagine if Paul and Barnabas, along with their entire coterie of people who traveled with them, decided that they would not go anywhere until there was 100% consensus on every decision to be made. It could be that they would never get anything done at all. It is sad when people cannot come together and be of one mind, but it happens, and will happen again. Sometimes we simply need to go and do what we think is best, whether others agree with us, or not.

“Honest disagreement is often a good sign of progress.”

Mahatma Gandhi

I am a bit adverse to taking sides on most things, but I admit to having a bent toward going with Barnabas. His name means “Son of Encouragement.” He understands taking someone under his wing and giving them a second chance when they screw up.  Barnabas had a soft spot for John Mark.  Barnabas seems like the kind of guy who knows about grace. This is a guy I could hang out with.

Paul, on the other hand, had much more of a Type A personality. I can just imagine Paul saying, “There are things to do, goals to reach, areas to conquer. I don’t have time for this whining and cry baby stuff.”  Paul did not want someone in the group slowing them down with fear or lack of courage. For all that I appreciate about the great Apostle Paul in the New Testament, sometimes he strikes me as being too driven and difficult to work with.

Yet, in the end, taking sides is not really the issue. It is about God working a divine, sovereign, and good will through stubborn and stupid people like me, and maybe like you, who sometimes get lost in winning an argument. 

When all is said and done, nothing is going to thwart God’s providential plans and purposes in this world.  So, rather than taking sides, I think I will rely solely on God’s grace and mercy in my life to work through me, despite my oft short-sightedness.

Holy God, you work your good purposes in and through your people, no matter what.  I want my life and work to be a joy to you and with others, and not a burden.  Create in me a clean heart.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting, through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Come, Follow Me

Come Follow Me by Argentine painter Jorge Cocco Santángelo

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:14-20, NIV)

This Gospel lesson is straightforward with two main points:

  • The call of Jesus on our lives.
  • The message Jesus gave us to proclaim.        

The call of Jesus is to pursue him, and he will develop us. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said to Peter and Andrew, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  The simple truth here is that this is neither a suggestion nor really an invitation but a command. Jesus did the same with James and John, and all the original disciples.  They listened to Jesus, dropped everything they were doing, and immediately followed him.

I am wondering what would make you drop everything to pursue an entirely new life. I am curious what could cause you to follow Jesus without any conditions attached. I am impressed that Peter and Andrew immediately obeyed Jesus. They did not question Jesus as to whether this was a short-term project or a long-term assignment.  They did not seek a contract with Jesus or ask how he would impact their stock portfolio. 

The first disciples simply dropped everything and left with Jesus. I suspect they followed Jesus for the same reason I originally decided to follow him – because Jesus is such a compelling person, so gracious, interesting, and loving that it was really no decision at all.  Everything else pales in comparison with Jesus.

Read all four Gospels and the book of Acts in the New Testament and you will find that believers in Jesus follow Jesus; and those who do not follow Jesus are not believers.  It really is that simple.  Followers follow, and those who do not follow are not Christ’s disciples.

Jesus calls us, commands us, to follow him and he will make us fishers of humanity. You might be concerned and retort, “I have no idea how to fish for people.” The good news is that Jesus said he would make us fishers of people. Jesus is not looking for people with skills he can use. Instead, Jesus calls people and develops them into fishers. Christ forms people with the ability to follow his call. 

Jesus will train us, which means we only need to answer the call to follow. When I was five years old my Dad took the training wheels off my bike and told me to ride it.  I told him I couldn’t.  He told me to get on the bike and he would run beside me.  I got on the bike and started to ride with him holding it.  When I began to panic approaching a tree I started talking to my Dad.  He didn’t answer… because he wasn’t beside me.  He dropped out from shagging me a long way back.  The same thing happened with learning to swim.  I insisted that I needed to be supported or I would drown for sure. Dad didn’t keep his hands underneath me. Yet, I’m still here – I didn’t drown.

We are not called to follow Jesus based on our skills, but on the lack of them so that Jesus will do in us a work of total allegiance and loyalty to the kingdom of God.  Jesus will make sure to develop the competence we need to do what he has called us to do. We only need to hear and answer the call of Jesus to follow and to make us fishers of people. 

The Fishermen by Cuban sculptor Rafael Consuegra, Petrozavodsk, Russia

The following is a parable about the church and being fishers of people:  “Now it came to pass that a group existed who called themselves fishermen.  Week after week those who called themselves fishermen met in meetings and talked about their call to fish, the abundance of fish, and how they might go about fishing.  They discussed the importance of fishing and that fishing is the task of every fisherman.  They listened to special speakers talk about fishing and they promoted fishing and looked at all the latest equipment for fishing.  They built large buildings called ‘Fishing Headquarters’ so that they could tell as many people as possible about fishing.  They organized boards of people to send out fishermen to other places.  They offered teaching and classes on how to fish and the best and latest fishing methods.  With much training a good many persons got their fishing licenses and became upstanding members of Fishing Headquarters.  There was just one thing that they did not do: they didn’t fish. When one person dared to suggest that those who do not catch fish are not really fishermen, the group became angry and kicked that crazy person out their group.”

The call is not for a few but for everyone to embody and proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. Therefore, we are to repent and believe this good news. Even though this is a simple straightforward message, it deserves some attention because we do not typically use this kind of language. Instead, we tend to say something like “Accept Jesus into your heart and someday you will go to heaven.”  That sort of language you will not find Jesus saying.  So, let’s stick with what he did say.

For Jesus, the word “kingdom” means God’s intentions and will for this world to come true. When Jesus said the kingdom is near, every pious Jew understood. They anticipated a coming Ruler (king) with themselves as the ruled (subjects) and a realm (land).  They thought beyond a mere spiritual kingdom and did not use kingdom as a synonym for heaven. Instead, Christ’s disciples considered Jesus as King, ruling his followers over the sacred space of the entire world. 

Thus, Jesus was saying he is creating a new society, thoroughly biblical to the core – which meant Caesar was not Lord and that people’s loyalty was not ultimately to the Roman Empire.  It is the kingdom of heaven, God’s dream society, which will eventually spread across the entire earth so that the whole world is God’s sacred space, devoted to love, shaped by justice, living in peace, and abounding with wisdom. Jesus encouraged us to pray consistent with this idea by encouraging us to pray, “May your kingdom come, and your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

If we find ourselves not really working toward Christ’s idea of kingdom, then we need to repent and believe the good news that God is working toward restoring all things to their original beauty and luster. “Repent” means a change of mind which leads to a change of behavior. “Believe” means to put all our eggs in God’s kingdom basket.

None of this is a suggestion.  It is a forthright call to follow Jesus in his kingdom building enterprise on this earth. And so, it would be a travesty to just think about the message for a while and follow Jesus if we feel like it or get around to it whenever.

We are being called to live for Jesus continually each day by fishing for people – and to make this our life’s work. Wherever you are, Jesus wants to make you a fisher in your family, workplace, neighborhood, and all the places within your normal sphere of living:

  1. Go where the fish are. Fishing would be easy if we could put a basket by the water and have the fish jump into them! But that is not how it works. Rather, we need to intentionally choose activities that put us in contact with people in our communities.
  2. Cast the nets. Peter and Andrew did more than take their boat out to the middle of the lake. To catch fish, they threw their nets into the water. Here is what I believe this means for us: We do what is fair and just to our neighbors. We extend compassion to them and are steadfast in our love, even when others are unlovely. And we do not take ourselves too seriously—we take God seriously, instead.
  3. Obey Jesus and walk with him. After Christ’s resurrection, Jesus came to some of the disciples, who had fished unsuccessfully all night. He told them to throw their nets on the other side of the boat – which seemed like nonsense, but they did it anyway. It brought a great catch (John 21:1-14). During the three years of Christ’s earthly ministry, the disciples did everything with him – they walked, talked, and ate with Jesus. And when he ascended to heaven, they acted on the Great Commission given to them by Jesus to make other disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

May God cleanse our lips and our lives so that we might proclaim the good news of Christ’s kingdom with glad and sincere hearts to the glory of Father, Son, and Spirit. Amen.