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.

Overwhelming Victory in Overcoming Suffering (Romans 8:31-39)

What shall we say about such wonderful things as these? If God is for us, who can ever be against us? Since he did not spare even his own Son but gave him up for us all, won’t he also give us everything else? Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.

Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”) No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (New Living Translation)

There is a way to overcome suffering; there’s a path you can follow, leading to the overcoming of your struggle.

That struggle with suffering comes in many forms:

  • Wrestling with guilt and shame;
  • Dealing with the meanness of others
  • Chronic physical pain
  • Continual financial trouble
  • Ongoing estranged relationships
  • Past bad decisions that keep coming up to bite you in the present
  • Constant feelings of angst about the state of the world’s great needs and problems
  • A crippling Anfechtung (spiritual oppression and depression)

These and a hundred other reasons for suffering in this broken old world can discourage and debilitate us.

I invite you to consider that the road ahead will likely be counter-intuitive to how you may currently be thinking about overcoming suffering. In fact, it might be so far off your radar that you might simply discard what I’m about to say to you.

But before I get to that, I’ll say first, that suffering is endemic to the human condition. Everyone suffers. Since we live in a fallen world, there is not one person who hasn’t suffered in some way, whether it is physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional. 

None of us will ever be immune to affliction. There is no way to insulate yourself from pain. If you are not currently suffering in some way, it means that you are either coming off a time of hardship or are about to enter a new period of distress.

Holiness and godliness don’t keep suffering at bay. Just the opposite. The Lord Jesus promised us that following him will involve suffering: 

“While you are in this world, you will have to suffer.” (John 16:33)

The Apostle Peter, who was part of Christ’s inner circle of followers, came to understand the reality of suffering. Peter understood that all Christians are not above their Lord.  If Christ suffered, his followers shall suffer, as well.

“Dear friends, don’t be surprised or shocked that you are going through testing that is like walking through fire. Be glad for the chance to suffer as Christ suffered.” (1 Peter 4:12-13, CEV) 

James, the Lord’s brother, wisely discerned that suffering could become a teacher for the Christian; all the adversity the believer faces are the means of producing maturity, strengthening faith, and developing patience.

“My friends, be glad, even if you have a lot of trouble. You know that you learn to endure by having your faith tested.” (James 1:2-3, CEV) 

The Apostle Paul was more acquainted with suffering than any follower of Jesus; he continually faced terrible circumstances. His reflections on the matter are sage and true:

“Anyone who belongs to Christ Jesus and wants to live right will have trouble from others.” (2 Timothy 3:12, CEV) 

“Suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope that will never disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5, CEV)

“It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” (Philippians 1:29, NIV)

The New Testament writers have a perspective on suffering which is very different than how we typically think of it. Although suffering is a part of being in the world, yet Jesus said:

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, NIV)

Now, let’s wheel back around to the overcoming of suffering. Here is the truth and the practice we must adopt when it comes to suffering: 

The truth about overcoming suffering comes not from us, but through Christ; and the practice of overcoming suffering doesn’t come from fighting against it but by sitting with it and learning from it.

Stated a different way: Jesus has overcome the world through his death, resurrection, and ascension. On the cross, he absorbed all the sin and suffering of everyone. Your suffering, then, may hurt and it might be senseless; yet no matter it’s source, that suffering will always rule over you unless you invite it to take a seat with you and have a conversation with it.

More pointedly: Quit fighting against your suffering. Stop kicking and screaming long enough to look your suffering square in the face and learn from it.

Your suffering is trying to tell you something. 

If you keep taking the stance of a pugilist trying to punch it away, it will just keep moving forward at you. You can’t beat suffering. You can only learn from it. And you’ll only learn from it, even overcome it, when you embrace it. 

So, here’s the counter-intuitive, counter-cultural practice that you might not like and might think I’m off my rocker for suggesting: Submit to suffering.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not trying to sanitize your troubles or trauma. Evil is evil, and no amount of saying otherwise will change the leopard’s spots. However, only through submitting to the process of what suffering teaches us will we ever have power over it.

Perhaps an illustration is in order. Let’s liken suffering to encountering a bear in the wilderness. The National Park Service gives us this advice if facing a bear while out hiking:

“Once a bear has noticed you and is paying attention to you, these strategies can help prevent the situation from escalating:”

  • Identify yourself by talking calmly so the bear knows you are a human and not a prey animal. Remain still; stand your ground but slowly wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you as a human. It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening.
  • Stay calm and remember that most bears do not want to attack you; they usually just want to be left alone. Bears may bluff their way out of an encounter by charging and then turning away at the last second. Bears may also react defensively by woofing, yawning, salivating, growling, snapping their jaws, and laying their ears back. Continue to talk to the bear in low tones; this will help you stay calmer, and it won’t be threatening to the bear. A scream or sudden movement may trigger an attack. Never imitate bear sounds or make a high-pitched squeal.
  • Hike and travel in groups. Groups of people are usually noisier and smellier than a single person. Therefore, bears often become aware of groups of people at greater distances, and because of their cumulative size, groups are also intimidating to bears.
  • If the bear is stationary, move away slowly and sideways; this allows you to keep an eye on the bear and avoid tripping. Moving sideways is also non-threatening to bears. Do not run, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground. Bears can run as fast as a racehorse both uphill and down. Like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Do not climb a tree. Both grizzlies and black bears can climb trees.

Fighting suffering is about as useful as taking on a bear. Both bears and suffering can be dangerous. We don’t blame bears if they act like bears. Likewise, we ought not be surprised when suffering hurts. But we can learn a lot about suffering and even come to the point of oddly admiring it for its large ability to teach us things we would not learn otherwise.

Face suffering like facing a bear in the wilderness of trouble. Calmly identify yourself. Talk in low tones to your suffering. Speak to it. Remember who you are. You belong to God. Treat suffering as if it is curious about you. Stay calm. Freaking-out only encourages suffering to attack. 

If you’re alone, that’s not good. Walking with others in Christian community is one of the best practices of the Christian life. Suffering is intimidated by groups of people encouraging one another and showing hospitality to each other. Keep your eye on suffering. Don’t ignore it, or pretend it isn’t there. 

Don’t run. The Lord is with you. Face suffering. Keep it in front of you. It will pass, but you must be patient and calm. Once it is gone, then you can reflect on what happened and debrief with others about the experience.

The path to overcoming suffering is to acknowledge it, respect it, submit to it, and let it pass. Then, you will be able to consider it joy whenever you face various struggles, knowing that your faith is being exercised, and perseverance developed. (James 1:2-4)

Stop fighting. Stop going it alone. Don’t be a martyr. Be silent. Listen. Change suffering from an adversary to fight to a companion to learn from.

You and I have nothing to lose. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Colossians 4:7-17 – Lead with Encouragement

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. 

Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. 

Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” (New International Version)

I was recently speaking with someone who was struggling in a relationship with her daughter. As I asked the woman to describe that relationship, it became evident to me that this mother had a habit of continually correcting the daughter. And then they would argue. Every conversation ended with a fight.

God created the human brain to operate on affirmation and encouragement. Although correction has it’s own significant place, our minds and hearts cannot bear too much of it. What’s more, the way correction is communicated is just as important as the message itself.

Today’s New Testament lesson has the Apostle Paul recognizing and affirming the good work of his fellow companions in the faith. And he only has one correction, given with such grace that we might not even notice it as such.

I’m not sure where the goofy idea originated that if we give someone too much encouragement and affirmation that their head will get too big. But I can guarantee that the lack of encouragement will deflate and discourage anyone, no matter who they are.

“Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you.”

The Apostle Paul (Ephesians 4:29, GNT)

Paul described Tychicus as a “dear brother” and a “faithful minister.” Paul was sending him to the Colossians for the express purpose of encouraging them in the faith.

That’s right. Just for encouragement. How often do we do that? When does a boss send someone to a different location, just to encourage those employees? Do we go out of our way to encourage someone or a group of people?

Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus are specifically named as those who bring comfort to Paul. While many other of Paul’s fellow Jewish believers were off doing whatever, these three wanted to make sure their mentor was encouraged. They were simply doing what had been modeled for them.

Furthermore, Paul wanted the Colossian Church to know that Epaphras continually goes to the mat in prayer on their behalf. Whereas the Colossians may not see the hard work Epaphras was putting in, Paul did. And Paul had no thoughts of Epaphras getting a big head.

It’s really hard to get puffed up in pride if your head is continually bowed in humble prayer before God.

We aren’t quite sure what was going on with Archippus. Paul probably didn’t either. The old apostle could have assumed Archippus was being a slacker. Instead, viewing the man through the lenses of love, Paul thought the best of him. He provided helpful encouragement to persevere, to keep going and see the work through – rather than believing he just wasn’t doing the work.

It seems to me that, in this day and age, encouragement is in short supply. We use our words in many ways. Often, genuine encouragement of another doesn’t make the top of the list. So, by the time we may get around to it, the receiver has a hard time listening to anything positive, or even believing it.

What to do? Lead with encouragement… always. Not as a set up to a rebuke. But letting the other know this is of first importance.

“So let’s strive for the things that bring peace and the things that build each other up.”

The Apostle Paul (Romans 14:19, CEB)

The Apostle Paul never traveled alone on his missionary journeys. At times, he had up to seventy others with him. Paul was no lone ranger. He understood the need for community. And Paul discerned better than anyone that we, as believers in Jesus, need to have a new way of being with one another and in the world.

That new way of being is to center in a continual and reciprocal interaction of affirmation, encouragement, love, goodness, kindness, and grace. The old way of pride, posturing, positioning, preening, and pontificating are to be thoroughly replaced with the way of Christ, the way of humility, meekness, and righteousness.

Christians have been transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of light. So then, we are to live like it, by encouraging and building up one another in our common faith. It’s the best way of completing the ministry given to us by God – even if there is a need for correction.

O Lord our heavenly Father, whose blessed Son came not to be served, but to serve: We ask you to bless all who, following in his steps, give themselves to the service of others. Endue them with wisdom, patience, and courage so that they may strengthen the weak and raise up those who fall. And, being inspired by your love, may all your servants minister with encouragement to the suffering, the friendless, and the needy; for the sake of him who laid down his life for us, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Corinthians 13:5-10 – Examine Yourselves

Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test? And I trust that you will discover that we have not failed the test. Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. 

We are glad whenever we are weak, but you are strong; and our prayer is that you may be fully restored. This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (New International Version)

God is in the restoration business. Sometimes, we might lose sight of that reality.

In the Gospels, whenever Jesus miraculously healed a person, it was for far more than taking away a disease or correcting a disability. The Lord sought to restore a person’s life by including them in the community. For example:

  • Leprosy put a person on the outside, both literally and relationally. Ceasing to be a leper meant that a person now had no obstacles to full participation in communal life.
  • Blindness reduced a person to being a beggar in order to survive. Having sight restored meant that the person can now work with others, make a living, and contribute to the needs of others.
  • Incarceration was (and still is) a complete removal of a person from society. Being in prison severs much human connection. Release from jail opens the way to reconnection and an opportunity to have a different way of being with others.
  • Poverty encumbers a person and weighs them down so heavily that it limits their ability function socially and relationally. Without poverty, a person is able to establish healthy patterns of giving and receiving within the community.

Those who are physically whole, mentally sharp, emotionally satisfied, and spiritually redeemed are free of obstacles and impediments to communal life.

So, it is a travesty whenever the people who enjoy full inclusion in the community, turn around and separate themselves, keeping relational distance from certain persons, and do not participate in the common good of all.

The type of examination of faith the Apostle Paul was talking about was not to obsess over whether one is a true believer, or not. He was referring to the person who claims faith yet maintains separation from others. In other words, to exclude others is the kind of behavior that unbelievers do, not Christians.

Yet, there are many sections of Christianity and entire Protestant denominations who pride themselves on such separation. They believe they’re being holy and keeping themselves from impurity. However, far too many of them are really putting a sanctified spin on their own sinful predilections to avoid people they don’t like.

Paul has no tolerance for calling exclusion of others “holiness” and naming the maintenance of an insider/outsider status as “sanctification.” The Apostle knew this was all poppycock and wanted nothing to do with it.

Christ didn’t die on a cruel cross, take away the obstacles to faith, open the way to know God, and create peace through his blood for a pack of so-called Christians to then erect imaginary concrete border walls to keep others out of Christian community and fellowship.

In God’s upside-down kingdom, the privileged insiders are really the outsiders; and the underprivileged outsiders are actually the insiders.

The so-called privileged believers are in just as much need for restoration as the leper, the blind, the poor, and the prisoner. The path to their inclusion is solidarity with the entire community of the redeemed – rather than picking and choosing who is in and who is out.

All this, of course, is another way of stating that Christianity is as beset with cliques as anywhere else – with individual believers, local churches, and particular traditions following their pet theologians and pastors and not associating with others who follow a different sort of folks.

The ancient Corinthian church was a train wreck of opposing groups and clique-ish behavior. The Apostle Paul had had enough of it and called the people to do some serious self-examination. And he was careful not to degrade or discourage them but to try and encourage the church to tap into the Christ which dwells within them.

Restoration, for Paul, meant specific behaviors which intentionally include people. To be inclusive means we actively work toward grafting people into community, as well as discourage behaviors that create division. Here are three ways of doing that:

  • Practice hospitality. The word hospitality literally means, “love of stranger.” A hospitable believer goes out of their way to invite another into their life, to give them the gift of relationship and fellowship.

Take care of God’s needy people and welcome strangers into your home. (Romans 12:13, CEV)

Above all, show sincere love to each other, because love brings about the forgiveness of many sins. Open your homes to each other without complaining. And serve each other according to the gift each person has received, as good managers of God’s diverse gifts. (1 Peter 4:8-10, CEB)

  • Nip bitterness in the bud. In an ideal world, everyone holds hands and sings kumbaya together. We live, however, in a fallen world. Harmony, unity, and peace take copious amounts of energy. Like an attentive gardener, we must do the work of identifying weeds and uprooting them, so they don’t take over the garden.

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. (Hebrews 12:14-15, NIV)

  • Seek to encourage and learn how to do it. Encouragement is both a gift and a skill to be developed. To encourage another is to come alongside and help someone with both affirming words and willing hands. It’s what Jesus did (and does) for us.

Christ died for us so that, whether we are dead or alive when he returns, we can live with him forever. So, encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing. (1 Thessalonians 5:10-11, NLT)

Hospitality, harmony, and help are all forms of love. And love is to be the guiding principle and practice of church and community.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen. – A prayer of St. Francis of