Romans 12:9-21 – Live in Harmony with One Another

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them. Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all!

Never pay back evil with more evil. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.

Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say,

“I will take revenge;
    I will pay them back,”
    says the Lord.

Instead,

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them.
    If they are thirsty, give them something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap
    burning coals of shame on their heads.”

Don’t let evil conquer you but conquer evil by doing good. (New Living Translation)

God’s Word is applied by God’s Spirit through God’s people.

In other words, we all need community. To live in isolation from others, doing our own thing and only keeping to ourselves, is to be spiritually unhealthy – not to mention contra God’s will. We are meant to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn.

Living in harmony with others means we possess both an attitude and action of unity. Put another way, we are to regard everyone as equals by not playing favorites or looking down on some in a condescending way. We are to avoid sticking up our noses at others.

We need a willingness to interact with and minister to every kind of person. We aren’t just supposed to hob-nob with people who can help us get where we want to go, or who feed our ambitions. Rather, we are expected to treat everyone with respect and attention. 

Unity, harmony, and working together aren’t things that simply materialize out of thin air. There must be a great deal of effort expended to maintain healthy relations. 

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV

True harmony is a humble willingness to associate with everyone, not just family and friends. This takes patience and a willingness to lovingly tolerate people’s quirks and idiosyncrasies. Every one of us is unique and distinctive, and, so, we must not think that everyone has to be like me, or that my way is the only way.

Unity and harmony are not natural to us in our fallen state. Left to our own devices, apart from the grace of God, we keep to ourselves and only interact with those whom we like, or look like us. It takes a great deal of energy to maintain harmony and good relations.

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1-4, MSG)

Conducting ourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel is to kick up a sweat for harmonious living. To do it, there must be genuine conversation, listening, and dialogue. Only spouting personal opinions at each other won’t cut it.

Holy Scripture calls us to unity and harmony because we have a nasty tendency to think better of ourselves than what is really true, and of others what is not so good. 

We often inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people. For instance, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. As a matter of fact, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and 25% rated themselves in the top one percent.

Well-educated college professors were just as biased about their abilities. In the study, 2% rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average; 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional. Of course, this is statistically impossible. Turns out, the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He says, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly and underprivileged people among us.

“If a poor man comes into your church, behave like him and do not put on airs because of your riches. In Christ there is no rich or poor. Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith. If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure. If you think you are a great person, then think others are also. If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

St. John Chrysostom (347-407, C.E.) Bishop of Constantinople

People cannot function without harmony. Consider a tuning fork. It delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard. 

Harmony is not a matter of give and take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied. Rather, harmony comes through a joint mission, a common purpose, and shared values. If we wholeheartedly pursue these values together, not in isolation, but with one another, then we will experience harmony. 

A divided community is a group which has lost its sense of mission and is confused about what values they are to embrace. However, a harmonious group of people knows why they exist, who they are, and what they will do together.

But what if someone offends or hurts me? Then, we bless and do not curse those who persecute us.

“Love to God disposes people to see his hand in everything; to own him as the governor of the world, and the director of providence; and to acknowledge his disposal in everything that takes place. And the fact that the hand of God is a great deal more concerned in all that happens to us than the treatment of people is, should lead us, in great measure, not to think of things as from others, but to have respect to them chiefly as from God – as ordered by his love and wisdom, even when their immediate source may be the malice or heedlessness of another person. And if we indeed consider and feel that they are from the hand of God, then we shall be disposed meekly to receive and quietly to submit to them, and to own that the greatest injuries received from other people are justly and even kindly ordered of God, and so be far from any ruffle or tumult of mind on account of them.”

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

Nobody needs to get all up in someone else’s grill about something they did or didn’t do, but to realize that God is working behind the scenes, providentially accomplishing divine purposes. We are to take solace and comfort in that truth, and not create division where there is to be harmony.

We are all in this life together. We are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper. So, let’s work together in a common purpose of loving God, loving one another, and loving our neighbor.

Heavenly Father, you have called us to continue Christ’s work of reconciliation and reveal you to the world. Forgive us the sins which tear us apart. Give us the courage to overcome our fears and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Acts 7:54-8:1 – Humility and Hubris

A 10th century depiction of Stephen’s martyrdom

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul approved of their killing him.

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. (New International Version)

Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, or Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by the people of God.

They weren’t simply unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council truly believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if it were upholding God and God’s Law.

The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora. Many believers in Jesus now found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.

I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying.

Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up.

Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. I’ve been there. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.

Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with metaphorical stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.

So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to hermeneutical hubris in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses it’s authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.

And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.

Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.

Insisting, for example, that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say. 

What I am stating is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).

Far too often churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture itself never calls them to fight.

The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.

Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was death and diaspora.

Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin.

Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Galatians 3:23-29 – A Ministry of Equals

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.

Luke 11:14-28 – Replace the Bad with the Good

Jesus was driving out a demon that was mute. When the demon left, the man who had been mute spoke, and the crowd was amazed. But some of them said, “By Beelzebub, the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.” Others tested him by asking for a sign from heaven.

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them: “Any kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and a house divided against itself will fall. If Satan is divided against himself, how can his kingdom stand? I say this because you claim that I drive out demons by Beelzebub. Now if I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your followers drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own house, his possessions are safe. But when someone stronger attacks and overpowers him, he takes away the armor in which the man trusted and divides up his plunder.

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.”

He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” (New International Version)

You have likely heard the old adage that nature abhors a vacuum. That is, when a loss or change leaves a hole in something, that hole will quickly get filled with something else.

To stop doing one thing is only half of a necessary process. To start doing another thing is crucial.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a story about a demon-possessed man. He was delivered of his oppression. However, a problem arose because the man had no replacement for the demon. He simply did nothing after the demonic expulsion.

It didn’t take long for a group of demons, seemingly seeking such a situation as this man, and took full advantage of his vulnerability. In the end, the man was worse off than before – all because of the vacuum created without the hole being filled.

We are meant to hear God’s Word and obey. Both are necessary to the process of deliverance, growth, and spiritual development.

Whenever the process is only half-baked, we have double-minded people, divided in their loyalties between God and money/power or something else.

Getting rid of judgmental spirits is important but it’s only half the process. The other half is to intentionally make space for genuine inquiry, listening, and dialogue. Without the focus on helping one another through mutual discussion, a group of folks will inevitably degenerate into discouragement, even despair, as the demons of judgmentalism come back in full force.

Kicking hate to the curb only truly works if it is replaced with a spirit of love, concern, and compassion for one’s fellow human. An environment in which people feel free to share of themselves and their feelings is the result of deliberately seeking to do so. Simply policing hate in others eventually causes the demons of hate to establish themselves even deeper than before.

Attempting to eliminate a culture of secrecy and shame can only really come through courageous acts and words of creating a climate of openness which carefully and compassionately enables individuals to boldly name their shame and destroy the blood-sucking vampire feeding on them in the demonic shadows of night once-and-for-all.

A zombie apocalypse won’t happen, that is, unless the only thing we’re concerned about is getting rid of zombies. If our end game isn’t the thriving and flourishing of real live people, our planet will be overtaken with the living dead.

“We look forward to the time when the Power of Love will replace the Love of Power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”

William Gladstone

We live in a divided world, polarized chiefly around things we are against, rather than crafting a vision together of what we are for. It does little good to kick people out of power either through force or elections, only to have no collective and compelling cause to rally around and place our efforts.

I’m all in for the cause of living Christ’s Great Commission through making disciples, embodying the Great Commandment of loving God and neighbor, and taking up the Great Challenge to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly. It is these activities which motivate me to put away hate, hubris, and half-baked ideas so that a healthy process of spiritual formation can happen.

If our lives are already filled with a good spirit, there will be no room for any bad spirit to enter. And if we’ve picked up one, let’s make sure to not only expel it but occupy the space with the grace and goodness which comes from knowing a good and gracious God.

Be intentional about replacing the bad with the good. If a hole is created, fill it with mercy.

O God, the source of all health: Fill my heart with faith in your love, that with calm expectancy I may make room for your power to possess me, and gracefully accept your healing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

**Above engraving of Jesus healing a demon possessed man, by an Italian artist, 1591.