Romans 2:1-11 – Connection, not Criticism

Those people are on a dark spiral downward. But if you think that leaves you on the high ground where you can point your finger at others, think again. Every time you criticize someone, you condemn yourself. It takes one to know one. Judgmental criticism of others is a well-known way of escaping detection in your own crimes and misdemeanors. But God isn’t so easily diverted. He sees right through all such smoke screens and holds you to what you’ve done.

You didn’t think, did you, that just by pointing your finger at others you would distract God from seeing all your misdoings and from coming down on you hard? Or did you think that because he’s such a nice God, he’d let you off the hook? Better think this one through from the beginning. God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change.

You’re not getting by with anything. Every refusal and avoidance of God adds fuel to the fire. The day is coming when it’s going to blaze hot and high, God’s fiery and righteous judgment. Make no mistake: In the end you get what’s coming to you—Real Life for those who work on God’s side, but to those who insist on getting their own way and take the path of least resistance, Fire!

If you go against the grain, you get splinters, regardless of which neighborhood you’re from, what your parents taught you, what schools you attended. But if you embrace the way God does things, there are wonderful payoffs, again without regard to where you are from or how you were brought up. Being a Jew won’t give you an automatic stamp of approval. God pays no attention to what others say (or what you think) about you. He makes up his own mind. (The Message)

Claiming the moniker of self-appointed Judge will only get you, well, judged! There is only one true Judge. And Judge Jesus renders decisions which are always right, just, and fair, with no favoritism, cronyism, or malice.

A critical spirit is an evil spirit. It vaults oneself over and above others who are viewed as inferior, unworthy of love and belonging. It is the very antithesis of Christ’s way of being in the world with others.

The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, merely upheld the teaching of his Lord Jesus, who said:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2, NRSV)

Although most people would affirm that showing favoritism is a bad thing, in practice we have a difficult time avoiding it – especially in polarizing times such as ours. Political mudslinging is (unfortunately) a time-honored American tradition. And so is religious judgmentalism.

Some of the most emotionally laden vitriol comes from folks who are so heavily entrenched in their religious convictions that they believe any deviation from their way of belief is worthy of scathing criticism.

People, however, do not change because someone criticizes or judges them. They experience transformation through basic divine and human kindness.

As a hospital chaplain in a behavioral health unit, I wholeheartedly affirm this to be true. Many patients have been told repeatedly by family or friends to stop their destructive behavior or thinking, get their lives together, move on, wake up, etc. – all with the condescending edge of criticizing judgment.

Yet, when someone takes notice, is curious about them, treats them like a fellow person, offers helpful encouragement, and a listening ear without trying to fix, souls become open to receiving the healing grace of love and truth.

God shows no partiality, and neither should we, period.

God is right, just, and fair in all dealings with everyone. The Lord judges according to divine standards of righteousness and mercy – no matter one’s race, ethnicity, gender, economic status, or social standing. And it is all laced with the love and compassion of Christ.

Christians are not exempt or given a pass on being judgmental, as if owning multiple Bibles or giving lots of money exempts one from a wagging tongue and an insensitive spirit.

Our own unhealthy practices, bad habits, and angry outbursts will be treated just like any non-Christian by God. In a time when decrying the moral condition of our world is nearly a spectator sport, the New Testament lesson for today reminds us that we must first be concerned for the condition of our own hearts before we can point the finger at another.

We all equally stand in need of God’s grace in Jesus.  There is a symbiotic relationship between our actions and the state of our hearts.  A soft and tender heart toward God leads to obedience; disobedience hardens the heart and leads to God’s wrath, no matter the individual.

So, it will help if we all faithfully engage in daily spiritual practices which keep our hearts attentive and alert to God’s will and way. 

No matter how busy we are, or how we feel, to forego or ignore the Word of God and prayer on a regular basis will slowly calcify our hearts and render them unable to respond rightly to grace. Instead, we can drink deeply of the gospel throughout every day so that we may experience peace.

A critical spirit begins to melt away when the tools of empathy, compassion, understanding, and acceptance are used to forge connections and provide support.

It takes little to no practice to bludgeon someone with condemning criticism. However, it takes repeated practice to speak and act with grace, mercy, and peace, especially when we are stressed and/or anxious about our surrounding circumstances.

Instead of judgment, observe and be curious. Seek more information. Ask clarifying questions. Expand the gap between observation and conclusion.

The ability to have an awareness of one’s own emotions, to be mindful of self and surroundings, and to do it all with neither criticism nor judgment is perhaps the highest form of intelligence and spirituality.

It is kindness which leads others to repentance, not condemnation. Grace has the final word, not judgment. So, let us be blessed through a gentle spirit which spreads the goodness of God throughout the world.

O God, thank you for the gift of prayer and the grace of your Word.  May it seep deep down into my heart so that I am compassionate and kind, just like Jesus.  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.

Romans 15:1-6 – The Responsibility of the Powerful

We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good in order to build them up. Christ didn’t please himself, but, as it is written, The insults of those who insulted you fell on me. Whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction so that we could have hope through endurance and through the encouragement of the scriptures. May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice. (Common English Bible)

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Stan Lee

Within the ancient church in Rome there existed people of Jewish descent as well as non-Jews (Gentiles) who had come to embrace Christ. These two groups had vastly different backgrounds and experiences. Now they found themselves within one church, with only their shared commitment to Jesus.

Getting along was downright hard. It took a great deal of work for them to understand one another. Throughout the Apostle Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome, he consistently went back and forth, addressing both groups.

Frankly, Paul was most difficult on his fellow Jews. He took them to task. In his view, the Jewish believers had a responsibility to set a tone of Christian equality and fairness. Since the Jewish people have such a rich spiritual history as God’s people, it was Paul’s admonition they use their power on behalf of the non-Jewish Gentiles.

There were some Jewish believers who believed it best that the non-Jewish believers become religiously Jewish. They thought that Gentiles, with no background whatsoever in Old Testament belief and practice, would need to be like them in order to become good Christians.

Paul passionately believed otherwise. The Jewish position of privilege was to be used to encourage and help, not criticize and make things more difficult for non-Jewish persons. Jesus, a Jew himself, did this during his life and ministry on earth.

It came down to a belief of whether Jews ought to hold positions of power within the church, or that power should be shared. As it still is today, it was then with the Jewish people: They have carried an inordinate burden of the world’s sin upon their shoulders. Paul wanted them to continue this special calling – not taking advantage of an opportunity to be on top – but embracing their call for the sake of Christ’s gospel.

Whether Jew or Gentile, all together were to make every effort to do what leads to peace and the encouragement of one another. Those with power were to make room at the table (and Table!) for those without power.

The ideal which Paul so adamantly struggled for was unity – to have both Jew and Gentile together as sisters and brothers in the faith. There was never to be two churches – one Jewish and one Gentile. Christ’s death had abolished all barriers to unity. Now, everyone must come together and re-orient their lives around the good news of new life in Christ. (Ephesians 2:11-22)

Since Jesus closely identified with others, now we, his followers, are to demonstrate a genuine spirit of care and welfare for all people. This is a new family relationship which did not exist before Christ. God, however, has adopted all kinds of non-Jewish people into the family. So, we have responsibilities to get along with each other.

It must always begin with those who possess the power and privilege. They have the first responsibility to initiate an egalitarian society. The onus is on the powerful to ensure that a fully inclusive Christian ethic is established and maintained. We are to welcome others just as Christ welcomed us.

The Christian ethic of welcoming, encouraging, and including is helped by being mindful of the following:

  • Listen more. Talk less. A particular temptation for those with power is to make decisions without consulting or collaborating. Basic human respect comes from listening – neither interrupting nor overtalking. The less powerful folks need to be heard. Give them a seat at the table and honor them with your ears.

People who listen when they are corrected will live, but those who will not admit that they are wrong are in danger. (Proverbs 10:17, GNT)

  • Be curious. Respect another’s contribution. Be welcoming and open, whether or not you agree. Seek understanding rather than always trying to be understood. “Tell me more.” “Help me understand.” And “I’d like some clarification…” are all simple phrases of healthy curiosity which invites others to talk.

The people in Berea were more open-minded than those in Thessalonica. They were so glad to hear the message Paul told them. They studied the Scriptures every day to make sure that what they heard was really true. (Acts 17:11, ERV)

  • Don’t assume. Not everyone has had the same experiences. We don’t all know the same things. Take the posture of a learner. Be something of an anthropologist, seeking to discover rather than superimpose what you already believe on a different group of people.

Don’t fool yourselves! If any of you think you are wise in the things of this world, you will have to become foolish before you can be truly wise. (1 Corinthians 3:18, CEV)

  • Be aware of your own biases. We all have them. It takes some work to uncover our prejudices as well as our privileges.

I solemnly command you in the presence of God and Christ Jesus and the highest angels to obey these instructions without taking sides or showing favoritism to anyone. (1 Timothy 5:21, NLT)

  • Embrace empathy. We all know how it feels to be excluded, left out, and even shamed about something. Let’s use our own experiences to realize what others might be going through. Looking down on another, or dismissing them in some way, is not the way of our Lord.

Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. (Romans 12:15-16, MSG)

  • Focus on connection, not fear. In many groups and in many places, the “other,” the one who is different, is looked upon with suspicion as someone who might upset existing societal norms or steal something we have. Seeking to establish connection with others mitigates fear and anxious feelings.

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV)

  • Be patient with others. People need our gentleness and our humble help, not our judgment and exasperation. Treat others the way you’d like to be treated.

Be humble and gentle in every way. Be patient with each other and lovingly accept each other. (Ephesians 4:2, GW)

“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Jesus (Matthew 7:12, NIV)

That about sums up exactly what Paul intended to say. Now go and do likewise.

O God, in accepting one another wholeheartedly, fully, and completely, we accept you. Fill us then with love and let us be bound together with love as we live our lives, united in this one spirit which makes you present in the world, and which makes you witness to the ultimate reality that is love. Love has overcome. Love is victorious. You are Love. Amen.

Philippians 4:10-20 – Be Generous

I’m glad in God, far happier than you would ever guess—happy that you’re again showing such strong concern for me. Not that you ever quit praying and thinking about me. You just had no chance to show it. Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am. I don’t mean that your help didn’t mean a lot to me—it did. It was a beautiful thing that you came alongside me in my troubles.

You Philippians well know, and you can be sure I’ll never forget it, that when I first left Macedonia province, venturing out with the Message, not one church helped out in the give-and-take of this work except you. You were the only one. Even while I was in Thessalonica, you helped out—and not only once, but twice. Not that I’m looking for handouts, but I do want you to experience the blessing that issues from generosity.

And now I have it all—and keep getting more! The gifts you sent with Epaphroditus were more than enough, like a sweet-smelling sacrifice roasting on the altar, filling the air with fragrance, pleasing God to no end. You can be sure that God will take care of everything you need, his generosity exceeding even yours in the glory that pours from Jesus. Our God and Father abounds in glory that just pours out into eternity. Yes. (The Message)

“It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.” 

Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Who is “you?”

That’s a question more significant than “you” might think….

In the English language, the words “you” and “your” can be either singular or plural. One must determine which it is by the sentence and surrounding context. 

In the language of New Testament Greek, however, this is not the case. We clearly know which words are singular and which are plural because they aren’t spelled the same, as in English. 

It is important to know that in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians, all the “you” pronouns are plural. Yep. Every single one of them. This is significant because the theme of unity and solidarity runs powerfully and affectionately through the entire book.

Everyone in the Philippian church, not just an individual or two, shared in Paul’s troubles with him. They partnered with him through financial resources, prayer, and ministry. Paul was quite confident that every need the Philippians encountered would be supplied by the riches of God because they had learned a valuable lesson from Paul and discovered a vital lesson about their church. 

The Philippians were taught by Paul that the practice of contentment in all circumstances would bring unity, not division. In fact, contentment eases a group’s normal anxieties. And contentment comes from the practice of gratitude. What’s more, the Philippians also experienced firsthand the seeming paradox that through the practice of giving they become rich. 

Trying to do any of this as a single solitary individual will not work – because gratitude, giving, and contentment are bonded to community. It’s a lot like spiritual gifts. We aren’t gifted with a speaking gift just to stand in front of the mirror and talk at ourselves. We aren’t gifted with serving gifts just to serve ourselves. And so, it is with giving and receiving, gratitude and thanksgiving, peace and contentment. They’re meant to be done in the context of a group.

We are not to be islands only operating at the level of individuation. Believers are designed by God and hard-wired into our spiritual DNA to know the blessing of partnering and working together in the unity of the gospel.  Learning contentment and generosity go hand-in-hand. 

Hoarding actually creates anxiety, whereas a collective generous spirit leads inexorably toward satisfaction and joy. If we want to be free of division and of having that constant uptight feeling, then we must be wildly generous. 

Generosity comes in all shapes and sizes. The big idea is that it is meant to bless others. Here are some ways anyone can be generous:

  1. If you can tip generously, do it. If not, be effusive in offering gratitude to others who serve you. If in doubt, always be on the side of grace and say thanks for everything.
  2. Share your knowledge, expertise, or ability. Hoarding doesn’t just have to do with money or stuff. People can also hoard their wisdom and abilities. Generously and freely sharing is a way to loosen up the gratitude and contentment so that burdens don’t become too heavy to bear.
  3. Give yourself to a cause or organization you believe in, either through donating time or money. Most places can’t have enough volunteers. Just be willing to let them dictate what needs to be done. Generously listen to their needs and wants.
  4. Compliment at least one person every day. Be generous with words of encouragement. It is a myth that complimenting another will give them a big head. Just the opposite is true. A lack of genuine encouragement causes a person to feel small.
  5. Give blood. It truly saves lives. Need I say more?

Go ahead, try it; you’ll like it. Be generous with your money, generous with your words of encouragement toward others, and generous with your gratitude to God.  Find out whether or not this changes your level of contentment in life.

Whether you do something big or small, the impact an act of generosity can have on someone else may be life changing. And it can completely change a group dynamic from stingy and critical to open and affirming.

Who ought to be generous? Yes, “you!”

Generous God, your storehouse of grace and mercy is infinite and unending.  Help me to partner with you in a manner that my generosity flows in the same way that yours does so that Jesus Christ is glorified, and his church is edified.  Amen.