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

Hebrews 3:7-19 – Encourage One Another Daily

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“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.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – Encourage One Another

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (New International Version)

The believers in Thessalonica were discouraged.

Jesus said before his ascension to heaven that he would return…. Christ is still a no show.

So, the Thessalonians, not knowing exactly when Jesus would come back, were finding they needed patience and perseverance. They needed to avoid discouragement so as to not lose hope. They needed to be built up in their faith so they could live each day, even a lifetime (if that is what it took) continuing in love without giving up.

After all, it can be stressful not knowing a future time schedule. We simply do not know when Jesus is returning. Until that time happens, we are not to sit on our hands waiting, but are to be active, encouraging one another and building one another up. 

This present moment is not the time for bitterness and complaining, because it just does not help us to persevere. The church is to be a community of mutual support for one another. The world can be a tough, unfriendly, and lonely place. It’s easy to get hurt.

The word “encourage” is a beautiful word (Greek: παρακαλέω and English transliteration: parakaleo). It is actually two words smashed together (compound word) to communicate a wonderful truth. ‘Para’ means to come alongside. This word is found in many of our English words (i.e., parachute, paramedic, etc.). The other half of the word, kaleo, means ‘to call out,’ that is, to exhort or tell someone to do something. 

When we put those two words together, parakaleo means to exhort someone to do something by coming alongside them and helping them to do it. Therefore, we do the dual work of saying helpful words and backing it up with helpful actions.

The phrase “build each other up,” is, in many translations, “edify.” The word literally means to build a house. The Apostle Paul was saying to the church that, just as a builder takes great pains to carefully construct a house over a stretch of time, so we in the church are in the business of constructing souls. 

We must engage in the tedious and patient work of building up the faith of one another. Not everything goes according to plan when you actually are in the building process; there are unforeseen delays and issues and problems which cause the builder to be creative, and other times to just have to submit to the wait and not become upset or discouraged about it.

You must encourage one another each day. And you must keep on while there is still a time that can be called “today.” If you don’t, then sin may fool some of you and make you stubborn.

Hebrews 3:13, CEV

When it comes to community and faith, we are not to give up when things don’t go as we think they should, or as planned. In stressful situations, we are not to tear-down one another, nor look at people as objects to be “fixed” when they don’t perform, or do, or say, what we want them to. 

Everyone needs a continual stream of encouragement to keep going so that we do not lose heart or lose hope. If we are in the habit of only pointing out things to others we don’t like, or consistently feel the need to correct people, then we really must say at least five encouraging things for every single complaint. 

Saint John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, said to his congregation concerning encouragement: 

“Do you see how everywhere Paul puts the health of the community into the hands of each individual?  Encourage one another and build each other up. Do not then cast all of the burden on your teachers, and do not cast everything on those who have authority over you. You are able to edify one another…. If you are willing, you will have more success with one another than we (pastors) can have. You have been with one another a longer time and know more about one another’s affairs. You are not ignorant of one another’s failings and have more freedom of speech, love, and intimacy. You have more ability than we do to reprove and exhort. I am only one person. You are many. You will be able to be teachers to one another.”

St. John Chrysostom

He also exhorted his fellow clergy:

“Edify one another and in this way we will have the satisfaction of seeing the church grow in strength, and you will enjoy more abundant favor from above through the great care you show for your members. God does not wish Christians to be concerned only for themselves but also to edify others, not simply through their teaching but also through their behavior and the way they live. After all, nothing is such an attraction to the way of truth as an upright life – in other words, people pay less attention to what we say than to what we do.”

St. John Chrysostom

We encourage and edify one another with Christ who is both our example and our substitute. Jesus is our example of leaving the comfort of heaven and coming alongside us in our human condition; he lived the holy life we could not live, and so, is our substitute. 

Jesus came alongside us and taught us how to live by showing the way of love and taking care of the sin issue once for all. After rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, we now have the hope that Christ will return.  Then we will no longer have to deal with the world, the flesh, and the devil dogging us at every turn, seeking to discourage us. 

The three indispensable elements of the Christian life are faith, hope, and love. We need all three in order to be encouraged and built up. We need a close, personal, and intimate faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.  We need a faith that is continually being tested and strengthened so that it stands the variety of challenges that this life has for us. 

We need biblical hope, a confident expectation that God will make good on all his promises to us. We will not try and hold God accountable to things never promised but will get to know the Scriptures to such a degree that our desires are in line with God’s desires. 

We need love. Love is to be the air that we breathe. Love is to be so common and routine for us that we put it on every day just as we put on our clothes. We need to love one another by encouraging each other through meeting needs. Love each other enough to say what needs to be said, and back it up with help so that they will not become discouraged but will persevere and keep going.

The Holy Spirit of God is referred to by Jesus as the Paraclete – the noun form of our word for encouragement.  The Spirit is the one who comes alongside us and teaches us all things by helping us. The Spirit’s work is to sanctify us and make us holy. 

God does not shout commands from heaven; the Lord comes alongside us by means of the Spirit to help us live the Christian life. And that is how believers are to function – pointing one another to Christ, exhorting and helping and edifying each other until the Lord Jesus comes again. 

Will you participate with the Spirit in this work of encouragement?

Lord Jesus, as the great Day of your return approaches, help us to speak your words of life and hope and healing to those who need them the most. Help us to bring your hands of mercy to bear in tangible and timely ways. Put before us names and faces who need the encouragement you alone can bring. Amen.

1 Samuel 23:14-18 – Encouraging Others in Hard Times

David stayed in hideouts in the hill country of Ziph Desert. Saul kept searching, but God never let Saul catch him.

One time, David was at Horesh in Ziph Desert. He was afraid because Saul had come to the area to kill him. But Jonathan went to see David, and God helped him encourage David. “Don’t be afraid,” Jonathan said. “My father Saul will never get his hands on you. In fact, you’re going to be the next king of Israel, and I’ll be your highest official. Even my father knows it’s true.”

They both promised the Lord that they would always be loyal to each other. Then Jonathan went home, but David stayed at Horesh. (Contemporary English Version)

Encouraging with Help

There is an old Hasidic story of a rabbi who had a conversation with the Lord about Heaven and Hell.

“I will show you Hell,” said the Lord, and led the rabbi into a room containing a group of famished, desperate people sitting around a large, circular table. In the center of the table rested an enormous pot of stew, more than enough for everyone. The smell of the stew was delicious and made the rabbi’s mouth water. Yet no one ate.

Each diner at the table held a very long-handled spoon – long enough to reach the pot and scoop up a spoonful of stew, but too long to get the food into one’s mouth. The rabbi saw that their suffering was indeed terrible and bowed his head in compassion.

“Now I will show you Heaven,” said the Lord, and they entered another room, identical to the first – same large, round table, same enormous pot of stew, same long-handled spoons. Yet there was gaiety in the air; everyone appeared well nourished, plump, and exuberant.

The rabbi could not understand and looked to the Lord. “It is simple,” said the Lord, “but it requires a certain skill. You see, the people in this room have learned to feed each other!”

We as humans are hard-wired for community. Ideally, we seamlessly move between being providers of help and receivers of help. A healthy life is a balanced life consisting of consistent rhythms of giving and receiving. And where we are all participating together, there is Heaven.

Encouraging through Friendship

For sure, there will be times we become discouraged. To remain optimistic and encouraged, all the time, is difficult. We need help to keep going and not give up hope. Sometimes we just need a darned good friend.

David, a man who seemed fearless, became afraid. And understandably so. I can only imagine what it would be like to be hyper-vigilant, too scared to shut your eyes and go to sleep, wondering if this might be your last day or night on earth. It’s one thing to die. It’s altogether another thing to be hunted like an animal so that another person can snuff out your life.

Of course, David was scared. And in this state of fright, Jonathan enters. The friend par excellence. True friendship is resilient and reliable. Jonathan did what a loyal friend does: encourage. David was emotionally drained and spiritually weak. So, Jonathan came to David’s side, was present with him, and helped him find his faith and strength in God again.

Encouraging by Affirmation

The helpful encouragement came in the form of truth and affirmation. Those are two indispensable elements to encouragement. Real friendship is built upon the solid foundation of truth, with continual overtures of affirming loyalty and commitment.

Two peas in a pod. Fits like a hand in a glove. Littermates. Cut from the same cloth. Whichever way you choose to say it, Jonathan was the warm gravy to David’s cold mashed potatoes. There was no way Jonathan was going to sit on the sidelines, knowing his best friend was on the run from danger. He proactively took action and was there to help feed David when there was nothing but a long-handled spoon to eat from.

Take note of the four encouraging and affirming truths Jonathan told David to help encourage him and strengthen his faith:

  1. Saul will not find you, despite his paranoid persistence. The sovereign God is in control – not King Saul. Your capture is not in the Lord’s plan.
  2. You will be king. You have been anointed as such. It will come.
  3. I will be second to you. I am with you, all the way. I am your humble servant. I am your faithful friend.
  4. Saul himself knows the truth, which is why he’s so zealous to take you out.

Through Jonathan’s encouragement, David gained newfound optimism, fresh hope, with affirmation and confirmation of the truth. And David needed this to face the upcoming cat and mouse games he would be playing with Saul.

Encouraging the Truth

In the New Testament, the verse, Romans 8:28, is still true. Yes, it gets overused by some as a mere platitude which sometimes invalidates a person’s experience and emotions. Yet, it remains nonetheless true:

And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.

Romans 8:28, NLT

The year, 2020, was a kick in the pants for a lot of people. For some, it felt like the disease was hunting them down, trying to take their life. And it did, as of this writing, for 3.5 million people worldwide. The economic and social toll is inestimable. Add to this grim reality that all the socio-economic problems, political issues, and other diseases and disasters of the world have continued, unabated, throughout the pandemic.

It can be difficult to see how any of this could work for good. Yet, this is when friendship is found to be at its best – giving incredible encouragement while in the teeth of terrible circumstances.

Ultimately, death and disease do not have the last word. No matter what happens, we are and will remain children of the King. Jesus steps in and calls us “friend,” acting on our behalf. And God’s Spirit is forever with us, vigilant to support us when we can no longer stand.

God of all encouragement, when evil darkens our world, give us light. When despair numbs our souls, give us hope. When we stumble and fall, lift us up. When doubts assail us, give us faith. When nothing seems sure, give us trust. When ideals fade, give us vision. When we lose our way, be our guide! May you help us find serenity in your presence, and purpose in doing your will. Amen.