“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did. That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.”
Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So, we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief. (New International Version)
Although many people do their outdoor grilling with propane and propane accessories, there are still some who go with the old charcoal grill. The key to a good hot grill is in the stacking of the briquettes into a neat pile before lighting them. If this is not done, it is likely the white hot fire will never get going. At the most, the briquettes will become warm but quickly grow cold and die.
The New Testament lesson for today operates with the same principle. We are not to stoke a fire of evil with an unfaithful heart. Instead, we are to gather together with our shared value of Jesus and warmly encourage each other every day so that we don’t become insensitive and cold to God.
Just as a pile of charcoal needs all the individual briquettes together to become hot, so every Christian needs other Christians to speak into their life every day. If this dynamic does not happen, the heart will grow cold and hard. Eventually, if left unchecked, the heart falls away from the faith.
There are some churches around the world which wisely take today’s teaching to heart. They have opportunities every day for believers to gather and encourage one another. Some even provide multiple chances to meet throughout a day.
Early in the morning they come together for prayer and encouragement before going off to their jobs and busy lives. At noon there are bible studies or prayer groups during lunch. And in the evening there is vespers, or some sort of Scripture reflection along with strengthening each other in faith.
There is a reason why many places on this earth have grown hot for God with Christians being added daily. It may be wise and necessary to re-think and re-do our spiritual practices to better accommodate and reflect an obedience to these very verses in the book of Hebrews. Consider just a few ways of potentially doing this:
Meet virtually for 10-15 minutes at the same time every morning. Take advantage of shared technology. Read a portion of Holy Scripture and offer a reflection or encouragement. Pray for one another. You might also sing or practice some silence together.
Meet physically for 10-15 minutes at either sunrise or sunset every dawn or dusk with some neighbors. Offer prayers of gratitude to God and spend some minutes in worship.
Create space in a church building through a church ministry – or in your home with a few friends or family – to read the Daily Lectionary Scriptures or some other plan.
Prayer walk through your community or neighborhood with one or two others at the same time every day for a set amount of time.
Establish a daily worship service in the church or other gathering place at the same time each day for 30 minutes. It can be as planned or unplanned, as liturgical or free as you like. I suggest a healthy combination of planning and improvising.
Get together with some other like-minded believers to brainstorm ideas of what might be helpful to daily encourage each other in the faith.
Whenever we are together as believers in Jesus, it gives us the opportunity to smile and give direct eye contact, listen to each other with focused attention, validate one another’s honest strivings toward the spiritual life, offer gratitude, and acknowledge each person’s gifts, strengths, and abilities.
May you engage in practices which soften and enlarge your heart for each other and for the world, so that a hard small heart might be far from you. Be a white hot believer who burns with grace, mercy, and love for God’s people and God’s world.
Blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – the Holy Trinity whom I serve, I have been made in your image – the image of the triune God. Help me to reflect that image every day by encouraging my fellow believers and allowing them to exhort me toward love and good deeds in the faith of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So, he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs….
It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:
“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.” [Psalm 8:4-6]
In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.He says,
“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; in the assembly I will sing your praises.” [Psalm 22:22] (New International Version)
Today is World Communion Sunday. We come to the Lord’s Table with awareness of Christian sisters and brothers throughout the world, in all nations, and in all the various traditions of Christianity. We may not all agree about a lot of things in the church and the Christian life. Yet, every Christian tradition – past and present – has and does observe communion around the Lord’s Table. It is a practice which binds us and reminds us of our unity with another.
And that unity is focused and centered in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord. Jesus is the person who holds us together. Jesus is the one in whom all the good promises of God are fulfilled. Today we remember Jesus, commune with Jesus, and express our hope in Jesus.
We remember that Jesus was made perfect through suffering – and that we, too, experience spiritual formation through suffering.
We commune with Jesus and one another because the cross of Christ achieved deliverance from spiritual estrangement and relational loneliness and gathered us into the one people of God.
We hope with confident expectation, as we celebrate Jesus at the Table along with all the saints everywhere, that Christ will return and take us to be with him forever in glory. There will be no more suffering, no more pain, no more poverty, no more oppression, no more injustice. There will be complete faith, realized hope, and absolute love for all time and forever. Amen!
Our past, present, and future all belong to Jesus. And we are not alone, for all Christians in everyplace from every race, ethnicity, class, and gender – whether they are Pentecostals in Puerto Rico, Anglicans in Africa, Catholics in Poland, Coptic Egyptians, or Orthodox Russians – the beautiful diversity of Christ’s Body comes together in harmonious unity at the Lord’s Table. It is this sacrament which raises our awareness of both solidarity with Christ and with all believers everywhere.
The purpose of the Lord’s Table is to participate in the blessings of Christ by visually re-creating the story of Jesus. There are three different terms for the Table in the New Testament, and each term is meant to convey a different aspect of the Table’s significance.
The Lord’s Supperis a focus on remembrance, a memorial of Christ’s death that is deeply reflective and contemplative.
What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master. You will be drawn back to this meal again and again until the Master returns. You must never let familiarity breed contempt.
Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death. Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of? Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe. (1 Corinthians 11:26-28, MSG)
The Eucharistliterally means “thanksgiving.” The Lord’s Table as Eucharist means we celebrate Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell on our behalf.
While they were eating, Jesus took a piece of bread, gave a prayer of thanks (Eucharist), broke it, and gave it to his disciples. “Take it,” he said, “this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks to God (Eucharist), and handed it to them; and they all drank from it. (Mark 14:22-23, GNT)
Communion means to participate in Christ and with other Christians. This emphasizes that when we partake of the Lord’s Table, we ought to do so with unity and fellowship. We are more than individual Christians. We share in the Lord together as the community of the redeemed.
When we drink from the cup that we ask God to bless, isn’t that sharing in the blood of Christ? When we eat the bread that we break, isn’t that sharing in the body of Christ? By sharing in the same loaf of bread, we become one body, even though there are many of us. (1 Corinthians 10:16-17, CEV)
As we allow the Table to be a remembrance, celebration, and participation with each other, we engage in a ritual that helps us to know Christ better. And we are better able to realize God’s grace to us.
Participating and sharing in communion is important because we can easily be fragmented and not fellowship with one another in a local church, as well as the world-wide church. The cross of Jesus Christ has ended division. The cross has brought us peace and reconciliation between God and others.
The suffering of Jesus on the cross has restored a broken relationship between us and God, and also between one another. Therefore, there is to be no more ignoring one another, or brothers and sisters elsewhere, because we are one unified people around the good news of Jesus – enjoying solidarity with each other in both our joys and our sufferings.
One awareness needed as we share in communion together is to be mindful of others. Not everyone is the same. We must avoid coming to the Table expecting people to be the way we want them to be. Instead, we are to come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and the Church is the best place to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we’d be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two scandals of God: that he loves me—or that he loves everyone else.
The Lord’s Table is the great leveler, where we all have equal footing and accept one another according to a common confession of Christ. Communion emphasizes participation in the body and blood of Christ, as well as participation with all Christians everywhere.
Therefore, we are not alone. Communion means God is with us, and that Christ has so closely identified with us that he took our place on the cross. As a result, every believer in Jesus is linked to all the others so that, when one suffers or rejoices, all suffer or rejoice, whether it is a Pastor down the street rejoicing over a newly saved soul, or a suffering Syrian Christian trying to survive in a refugee camp.
Let us live up to what, and whom, we profess. Since we are God’s forgiven people, we are to work at living the Christian life together. This unity is symbolized by partaking together of the same loaf of bread and drinking from a common cup.
One Sunday, a group of missionaries and believers in Papua New Guinea were gathered to observe communion together. After one young man sat down, one of the missionaries recognized that he seemed to be quite upset. Then, after a while, the young man seemed to be fine.
The missionary leaned over and whispered to him, “What was it that troubled you?” The young man replied, “The man who just came in happens to be the man who killed and ate the body of my father. And now he has come in to observe communion with us. At first I didn’t think I could do that. But it is all right now. He is washed in the same precious blood as I am.” And so together they participated in Christian communion.
We have peace because of Jesus. Christ’s suffering and death has brought reconciliation not only between us and God, but between each other. As we approach the Lord’s Table, let us be aware not only of our personal relationship with God, but our relationships with one another in the local church, and our unity with the world-wide church.
May our lives be shaped and formed around the cross of Jesus Christ, as we remember, celebrate, and participate together.
Almighty and everlasting God, may this time we partake of the body and blood of Jesus unite us in the community of saints who know your love and proclaim your Son with fervor and grace to a broken and hurting world. May your healing hands be the salve for ending hurt and violence in this world, even as we prepare for the next. In the holy Name of Jesus. Amen.
Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.
But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ, you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.
In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. (The Message)
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 plain like.
Jesus is the person who changes it all. Faith in Christ Jesus is what 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 can truly capture his emphatic pathos 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 world.
Since the ground is level at the cross, we are to live into Christian unity with a humble attitude 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 to be 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, the committed servants and the lax pew sitters.
Rather than all of that dividing of people, energy is to be placed with living into the egalitarian society inaugurated by Jesus (and Paul). Not taking women’s leadership seriously, avoiding relationships with the poor, and being xenophobic all come from a place of immaturity. It is childish behavior. 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.
Church, 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 daughter of the Canaanite woman, all illustrate that ministry is to reach beyond our own familiar group. In short, Jesus practiced a radical hospitality.
Christians would do well to emulate their Lord, as well as take their cues on ministry from Paul, who grounded both his theory and practice 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.
My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.
Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (New International Version)
Being an Outsider
It’s awkward feeling like an outsider. As a young pastor in Michigan, I once went to make a hospital call on one of my parishioners. He was having a procedure done at Ford Hospital in Detroit. I had never been there before. I parked my car and walked into the hospital, just like I had done at several hospitals before.
Yet, there was something different that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Then, I realized, I didn’t see any other Caucasian people. Every person I encountered was African-American.
Up to that point in my life, I was never a minority in any situation. Although everyone in the hospital was polite and respectful, it was still weird for me. I distinctly remember thinking to myself in the midst of that experience, “Huh, so that’s what it feels like for my African-American friends!”
Imagine being a visitor to a church worship service. You are just a normal person trying to make ends meet, without much money or resources, and only a few clothes with none of them being very dressy. You have never been to this church before. You pull up in a fifteen year old car that has a few rattles to it and park. “Wow, that building is big! I don’t know anybody here, except Mary.”
Mary isn’t here today. You gin-up the courage to get out of the car and walk into the building. “Where do I go? Will anybody notice me? How am I supposed to act? Where do I sit?” All the things we take for granted are at the forefront of your mind.
Favoritism is Insider Judgment
Not everyone thinks or lives the same – and that is the point the Apostle James is trying to get across to us. If we are only attentive, aware, and care about people who look like us, think like us, and live like us, then we are playing favorites. And God calls that being judgmental.
The word “favoritism” comes from an idiom literally meaning, “lifting up the face.” That is, taking something merely at face value. To make a biased judgment based on only surface impressions is not good. It is not the way of Jesus, who associated with people of dubious morality and came into close contact with ostracized persons, like lepers. Discrimination based on limited understanding is soundly condemned in Scripture.
Be fair, no matter who is on trial—don’t favor either the poor or the rich. (Leviticus 19:15, CEV)
Times change; God’s heart doesn’t. The Lord cares for all kinds of people, not just insiders. Peter had to get that into his head and heart concerning Gentiles, whom he considered inferior. He took for granted they were to always be outsiders. It took a series of visions from God for Peter to get this testimony into his life:
“Now I understand that God doesn’t play favorites. Rather, whoever respects God and does what is right is acceptable to him in any nation.” (Acts 10:34-35, GW)
A poor woman once wanted to join a church. She went to the pastor, and he told her to pray about becoming a member. The pastor did not see the woman for months and then one day met her on the street. He asked her if she had been praying and what she had decided about joining the church. She said, “I did what you asked me to do, and one day while I was praying, the Lord said to me, ‘Don’t worry about getting into that church – I’ve been trying to get into it myself for the last twenty years!’”
The church the Apostle James addressed had the mistaken notion certain persons were better than others because of their ability to financially contribute and wield influence. Put yourselves in the shoes of those ancient church folks.
These are refugees trying to make it in a strange country. It was tempting and easy to suck-up to the rich persons who came to their meetings. They needed some stable donors, and not some poor people who were going to drain their already short resources. Showing preferential treatment to the wealthy only made sense to them.
Favoritism is a Heart Problem
For the Apostle James, showing favoritism reflected a terrible malady of the heart: a divided loyalty between God and the world. When things got rocky, the church turned to money and those with it, instead of coming to the Lord and seeking God’s unlimited resources. Inattention to the poor and needy might make good business sense but will result in spiritual death when Jesus comes back to judge the living and the dead.
Far too many Christians believe poor people are poor because they are lazy and don’t want to work. There are certainly lazy people in this world, and maybe we are some of them – too spiritually lazy to take the time and effort to get to know persons in poverty and those very different from ourselves.
In the third century, a church deacon named Lawrence was in charge of the church’s treasury (benevolence fund) in Rome. One day the prefect (mayor) of the city asked Lawrence to gather up and give him “the wealth of the church.” Lawrence sent back a message: “I will bring forth all the precious things that belong to Christ, if only you will give me a little time to gather everything together.” The prefect agreed, as he dreamed of what he could do with the money, gold, and silver.
For three days, Lawrence walked through all the alleys and squares of Rome and gathered the church’s real treasure—the poor, the disabled, the blind, the homeless, and the lepers. The people he gathered included a man with two eyeless sockets, a disabled man with a broken knee, a one-legged man, a person with one leg shorter than the other, and others with grave infirmities.
Lawrence wrote down their names and lined them up at the entrance to the church at his appointment with the prefect. “These are the treasures of the Church of Christ!” Lawrence declared, as he presented the ragged crowd to the astonished prefect. “Their bodies may not be beautiful, but within these vessels of clay they bear all the treasures of divine grace.”
The ground is level at the foot of the cross. Jesus was not an upwardly mobile and tech-savvy Jew; he was a king who chose to serve and get into the lives of the poor, the pitiful, the wretched and the marginal folks of society – just as he did with the rich and influential.
Growing up, I had a dog named “Sam.” Sam loved being on the farm. One time he tussled with a skunk. I could barely get close enough to him to clean him up because he stunk so badly. Favoritism stinks, and God has a hard time getting close to us when we show partiality to others. And he is going to clean us up when he smells the stench of discrimination on us.
Showing favoritism to some over others is evidence that the dog is running away from the bath of grace. To develop relationships and interact with people the way God wants us to, we must be free from prejudice.
Three Reasons Why Favoritism Stinks
1. A theological reason: Jesus doesn’t show favoritism to the rich.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:18, NIV)
In the Old Testament, God said:
There will always be poor people in the land, so I command you to give freely to your neighbors and to the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:11, NCV)
God is looking for humble persons, giving grace to people who cannot offer something in return. It is easy to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. It is altogether a different thing to give without any expectations of response.
2. A logical reason: Favoritism comes from a materialistic heart.
Money does change us. Research by the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management found that even the mere suggestion of getting more money makes people less friendly, less sensitive to others, and more likely to support statements like “some groups of people are simply inferior to others.”
Another series of studies from the University of California at Berkley concluded that wealthier people tend to be less compassionate towards others in a bad situation than people from lower-class backgrounds.
Some people are willing to put up with being treated unfairly, just so they can be the recipients of a rich person’s wealth and position. Favoritism ignores the sin in others in order to gain something from them. That is stinking thinking.
3. A biblical reason: Favoritism is a violation of God’s law.
The entire law is summed up in two commands: Love God. Love neighbor. Favoritism is a violation of loving our neighbor. Therefore, to discriminate on any basis is to disobey God.
Who is my neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan tells us that any needy human being we encounter – no matter their social or economic status, their ethnicity, race, gender, religion, or anything identifying them as different – is to be helped when we have the opportunity to do so.
Ernest Gordon was a P.O.W. who wrote a book about his experiences in a Japanese concentration camp in 1942. The Japanese were ruthless and horribly treated their prisoners. With barely any food to survive, the law of the jungle ruled amongst the prisoners. But a Christian prisoner operated with a different set of rules. He continually shared his food with other prisoners to the point where he actually starved to death because of it.
The other prisoners could not understand why this guy would do such a thing, until they found a Bible in his few belongings. One by one the prisoners read his Bible and found in it the principle of love and not showing favoritism. Eventually, the entire camp changed and came to know Christ because of one man’s humble spirit to be generous with what he had.
Speak and Act with Mercy
Words are important, and are to be full of grace, seasoned with salt. An active faith without merciful words is not really faith at all – it is an excuse to keep a galloping tongue going. Showing mercy, instead of favoritism, is the way love expresses itself.
The stench of showing favoritism goes away with a cleansing bath of God’s mercy in Jesus Christ. God is the expert in:
Turning people from only associating with those they are comfortable with, to lovingly reaching out to people very different from themselves.
Changing people from the stinking thinking about what they can continually obtain and consume, to people who are loving and generous with their words and their physical resources.
Putting to death a proud spirit that looks to get ahead and accomplish an agenda by any means possible, to giving new life through humble repentance.
Let’s make it our goal to give grace, to be like Jesus. Amen.