Ephesians 2:1-7 – Raised with Christ

Ascension

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

In the wake of recognizing and remembering Ascension Day, Christ’s ascension to heaven, we must linger a bit with the implications of that great redemptive event for us. Today’s New Testament lesson from the letter to the Ephesians is a wondrous place to do some holy loitering.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church and gave them a theological explanation of their true position as Christians. They were once located in the realm darkness, the place of disobedience and selfishness. Now, however, as believers in Jesus Christ, they have been relocated to the realm of light, the place of love and kindness. This major relocation project is the direct effort of God’s merciful initiative. Jesus descended in his incarnation and lived at the garbage dump with us. Christ’s life and death delivered us from that putrid existence. Jesus ascended to heaven. He did not leave us in the dump.

The rich theology which Paul expresses to the Ephesians is so robust that he makes up new words just to try and communicate it. Through God’s gracious action he “made us alive together with Christ,” “raised us up with him,” and “seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul took words and smashed them together to create new compound words to try and communicate the amazing reality of the Christian’s position in Jesus Christ. In English, we need to use several words to translate Paul’s original compound words.

Paul used new words because he was expressing a new reality. Ascension is more than Christ’s own – he, spiritually, takes us with him. We belong with him. Our union, our intimacy, with Jesus is so vitally connected that what happens with Jesus happens with us. With Jesus as the Head of the Church, and we as the Body of Christ, there is absolutely no separation between the two.

The implications of this understanding are tectonic:

  • Since God’s action was done out of love, our spiritual DNA has love written all over it. We no longer feel as if we must manipulate, cajole, or twist arms to be noticed and have our needs met.
  • Since God is rich in mercy, we have a new place to live – with Christ – and no longer hang out in the shame lounge drinking cheap wine and smoking nasty cigars.
  • Since God has given us new life in Christ, we are aware of our position and now can deliberately choose to participate with him in a mind-blowing, gut-busting, heart-exploding divine/human adventure beyond what we could ever have imagined. We no longer are in the position to create selfish agendas and ignore the common good of all humanity.
  • Since God has picked us up, cleaned us up, and sat us down next to Jesus, we have a front row seat to the triune God showing kindness to us and so many others. We no longer have a truncated worldview which sees only pain and heartbreak.
  • Since God has orchestrated deliverance from the old life; since Christ has achieved that deliverance for us; and, since the Spirit has awakened us – we now have a new life thoroughly imbibed with the medicine of faith, the healing power of hope, and the elixir of love. With grace binding our lives together with God, no more judging, blaming, shaming, nor hating need occur anymore.
  • Since we belong to God, we enjoy all the love of the Father, the mercy of the Son, and the vigor of the Holy Spirit. We have risen above all the terrible muck of sin and given a new place to live. Since Jesus ascended, we ascend with him. Praise be to God!

As people, we live into who we believe we are. We are the precious children of God, redeemed and adopted into a divine family. May we live up to our position in Jesus Christ.

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep me, I pray, from returning to the pig pen of an old life. May I be ready in both body and soul to freely choose things which belong to your purposes of love; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16 – Forsaking Shame

ashamed

In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.

You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God….

My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. (NRSV)

Shame is powerful. It keeps a person locked within themselves with their secrets hidden far from others. Far too often we try and cope with our shameful words or actions through promising to work harder, pledging to have more willpower, and/or plain old complaining that life is unfair. None of this gets to the root of our shame. Unlike guilt, which our conscience identifies as specific behaviors to repent of, shame is the message of our inner critic who obnoxiously decries that we are somehow flawed, not enough, and inherently lacking intelligence.

Shame is the insidious mechanism which interprets bad events as we ourselves being bad. Shame lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets – which is why the posture of shame is to hide our face in our hands. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness.  Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name our stigma and tell our stories. In other words, throwing a bucket of vulnerability on shame causes it melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West.

In contrast to the unhealthy hiding of ourselves within prison walls of shame is seeking refuge and hiding ourselves in God. Even a cursory look at today’s psalm evidences an open and vulnerable person who wants nothing to do with shame. The psalmist unabashedly and without shame is quite forward in presenting his wants to God.

The psalms are meant for repeated use, to be voiced aloud again and again. In doing this simple activity, we shame-proof our lives. God’s face shines upon us and takes away the shadows of shame. It is no coincidence that Jesus forsook the shame of the cross through publicly uttering the words of this psalm: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Unchecked verbal violence will eventually lead to physical violence. If wordy persecution comes from others, the primary tactic will most likely be shaming the people such persons want to control. Abusive people will frame a justification for violence because the people for whom they are leveling shame are “bad,” even “monsters.” If the verbal persecution comes from within, the shame can reach a critical mass of suicidal ideation and perhaps outright attempts at ending one’s life.

There is no living with shame. The good news is that we don’t have to. Instead, we can live in the strong fortress and the rock of refuge which is God. The Lord traffics in redeeming mercy and steadfast love, not in the demeaning judgment of shame. We can flee to God and find grace to help us in our time of need. There is no shame in reaching out for help. We all need deliverance from something. Its a matter of whether we are open to ask for it, or not.

Father God, into your hands I commit my spirit – everything I am and all that I hope to be – so that Jesus Christ might be exalted in me through the power of your Holy Spirit. I choose to leave shame where it belongs – nailed to the cross. With your divine enabling, I shall walk in newness of life through expressing my needs and wants with courage, confidence, and candor. May it be so according to your steadfast love. Amen.

Click You Are My Refuge sung by Shannon Wexelberg and Matthew Ward and allow your spirit to open.

Matthew 20:17-28 – On Being a Servant

Jesus bronze sculpture washing feet
Bronze statue of Jesus washing Peter’s feet, Pittsburgh, Texas

Now Jesus was going up to Jerusalem. On the way, he took the Twelve aside and said to them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling, asked a favor of him.

“What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (NIV)

Today’s story from the Gospel of Matthew is the very description of not being on the same page. There were two variant responses from Jesus and from everyone else because there were two different agendas.

Jesus was quite clear about how things were going to shake out. Torture, insults, crucifixion, and death was ahead for him. The disciples and the mother of James and John missed the memo on this. Christ’s words went way over their heads. It could be the disciples simply did not hear what Jesus was saying to them (repeatedly!). It is more likely that the message of Jesus got filtered through an existing agenda of how they believed things ought to go.

The disciples, along with a lot of other Jewish folk in the first century, were looking for a Messiah in the mold of King David – a strong leader who would come and beat up the Romans, exert all kinds of power and influence, and establish an earthly rule over all the people they don’t like. Submission to torture, humility before the very people they detested, and being killed by them were not factors into the disciples understanding of leadership and government.

Much like the powerful Aslan who had a thorough understanding of the world’s deep magic and submitted himself to the White Witch and death in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe – Jesus knew what he was doing while everyone else seemed clueless about the true power which exists in the universe.

So, let us be perfectly clear about what that power really is: Grace. Yes, grace. Powerful, resplendent, subversive, scandalous, and radical grace. Mercy was the missing factor in the disciples’ agenda. Jesus is not like other rulers. He does not operate by throwing his weight around to forcefully impose a crushing my-way-or-the-highway kind of rule (even though, ironically, he is The Way). No, Jesus freely and unabashedly uses grace with its merciful tools of humility, gentleness, kindness, goodness, and love to introduce and establish a new kind of rule which is not posturing for selfish power.

Power, authority, and the positions which go with them are to be used for the common good of all persons. To be in any kind of leadership is to be a servant of grace for the benefit of humanity and the world. And, if Christ’s disciples had looked a bit closer into their Old Testament, they might have noticed, for all his power and authority, King David trafficked in grace. When David was at the pinnacle of power his first act as King was to look over the kingdom and see who from the family of his enemy, the former King Saul (who was into the power thing for himself) was around so he could show grace (2 Samuel 9). It was typical of ancient kings to secure their rule and power through killing-off rivals and former family members of previous kings. Not so with David. And not so with Jesus.

Wherever there is posturing for position, preening for power, and a pestering for privilege – there you will find everything grace is not: reliance on making and calling-in favors; overinflated egos; unrealistic expectations; suspicion; judgment, arrogance; an insistence on recognition; compulsive control over everything and everyone; unilateral decision-making; shaming of others; hoarding of resources; coups; in-fighting; hatred; and, a demand of rights. We in the western world may not be in the habit of offing leaders and killing others to consolidate power, yet, we still too often rely on violent speech and language, partisan policies, and good-old-boy systems which are foreign to the way of Christ. In contrast to this, grace exists.

Grace is the deep magic which resides within the universe.

Wherever grace operates, there you will find the heart of a servant: attending to the needs of all persons; freely consulting and collaborating with others; focusing on responsibility; loving discipline; embracing accountability; pursuing truth; sharing power and resources; encouraging others; giving generously; and, looking for ways to show mercy.

In this Christian season of Eastertide, the Church focuses on exploring new life, and new ways of being with one another and the world. The old life is consumed with unmerciful uses of position and power. New life brings a shift to a gracious means of wielding such authority. Yes, it will likely bring some short-term suffering. It will hurt. Grace, however, results in a longevity of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. True service is being a servant of grace.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Click Make Me a Servant by the Maranatha Singers and allow it to be our prayer today and everyday.

Hebrews 4:14-5:4 – Our Great High Priest

praying

“Since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

Metaphors matter.  That is, how we picture God truly influences the way we live.

Yesterday I met with a young man who was severely distressed, depressed, and had attempted suicide several times in the past months.  After listening to his story, I asked him a question: “How do you see or picture God?”  Without hesitation, he answered, “God is my CO (Commanding Officer).”  He went on to portray and picture General God who gives commands and good soldiers who obey what’s expected of them.

As a soldier, you would never walk up to your CO and vent all your feelings.  You wouldn’t have a dialogue.  There would be no extended conversations.  In the throes of trying to deal with emotional trauma, General God isn’t a metaphor that’s helpful.

Today we are reminded and invited to consider Jesus, the Son of God.  He is pictured as our great high priest.  A priest is a person who intercedes for you with God.  He stands in the gap and effectively communicates your needs, desires, and feelings to a gracious and loving God.  When you are too emotionally tired to face another day, Jesus our great high priest has your back.

No soldier would ever have the confidence to approach General God with their abject weakness or their ongoing temptations.  There is only the giving and receiving of orders and strategies to be implemented.  Far too many Christians have such an understanding of God and think there is something wrong with them when they cannot live up to be the kind of soldier that would make others proud.

But grace and mercy are found through the confidence of approaching our high priest.  Jesus thoroughly, completely, and graciously understands first-hand what you are dealing with, and he is able and desirous to help you.  As our permanent high priest, he is uniquely positioned to hear us, empathize with our situation, and care for us in ways which truly aid us.

It’s easy to get discouraged.  It takes no effort to find yourself on the outside of happiness and on the inside of a black hole.  Living in this broken world can sting and hurt like hell.  Yet, we have a savior who has brought deliverance from hell by taking on hell itself.  Jesus knows better than anyone what brokenness feels like by absorbing all the sin of the world on the cross.

Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father in heaven awaiting your approach with merciful eyes and a compassionate heart.  Jesus is our risen and ascended Lord.  He is much more than a military officer.  He is our ample and able great high priest.  He is awaiting you now….

Ascended and living Lord Jesus, you are my colossal high priest.  You live to intercede for me.  What a privilege!  May you strengthen my nascent faith today and bolster my confidence as I consider your grace and mercy in this messed-up world.  Thank you for your kindness, empathy, and ability.  Amen.

Ephesians 1:7-14 – God Is Good

20180309_102748

Ephesians 1:8, Contemporary English Version of the Bible

“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” (Common English Bible)

Believe it or not, verses 3-14 of Ephesians chapter one, 12 verses in all, are one single sentence in the Greek language the Apostle Paul originally wrote this in.  Thankfully, and understandably, English translators have created multiple sentences for us so that we can better make sense of the text.  It’s almost as if Paul was so excited to talk with the Ephesian church about who they are in Jesus Christ and what they possess in him that he blurted out with enthusiasm and wrote with fervor without stopping to take a breath.

Paul heaps word after significant word on top of each other in a flurry of provided spiritual blessings the believer in Christ enjoys.  Redemption, forgiveness, insight, protection, inheritance, and salvation are just some of the blessings given.  If that wasn’t enough, God has graciously given us his Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the one who comes alongside and helps us to live into the blessings we possess because of the person and work of Christ.

redemption

It’s as if we came to Christmas day expecting a package of underwear and found instead a bunch of big boxes with some of the most lavish and expensive gifts we’ve ever seen!  This says much more about the giver than it says about us.  It was according to God’s good pleasure in Christ that believers in Jesus have such privileges.  Like the parent who sits back and watches the unpackaging of presents happen with great joy, so God delights and is pleased with what he has given to us.

First and foremost, in the entirety of Holy Scripture, all the stories and narratives, teachings and writings, are about God.  He is both the subject and object of each book of the Bible.  Every good thing we have in this life is because of God’s grace.  Each positive experience is a direct result of God’s steadfast love toward his people.  All good gifts come from a good God who is pleased to give them.

Not a one of us purchased our own gifts and stuck them under the tree.  God bought them all with the precious blood of Jesus and sent the Spirit to deliver them to us.

Take some time today in a quiet place and reflect on just one of these words in the text.  Think about redemption or forgiveness, salvation or grace, or any of the words which grab you.  Say it over and over, quietly and loudly, thoughtfully and with flavor.  Consider what God did to bring you that gift.  Contemplate the way(s) in which you have received the gift.  Plan one way in which you might share your gift with another person.  Then, give glory and praise to God for his grace to you.

May your meditation lead to a deeper appreciation of what God has done for you; and may that revelation result in praise, honor, and glory to the One who accomplished so much on your behalf.

Gracious God, you have revealed and made known the way of deliverance from the power of darkness and brought me into your marvelous light.  Help me to better understand all the ways you have acted on my behalf so that my life might reflect your grace and steadfast love to the world; through Jesus Christ, my Savior, in the enablement of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Romans 3:21-31 – 8 Words That Can Change Your Life

cross of christ

“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because… he himself is righteous and he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.” (NRSV)

500 years is a long time.  It was that long ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door.  It sparked the flame of Reformation, a legacy we still live with today.  Protestant Christians have a rich spiritual heritage in acknowledging and affirming the veracity of Holy Scripture and its central message of Christ’s good news of salvation.

8 words changed Martin Luther’s life, changed the course of history and Christianity, and can change our lives, too.

1. Law

The role of the law is not to save nor to sanctify, but to reveal the true state of our hearts.  The law can only condemn; it cannot save you.  Obedience is important yet cannot be done by sheer willpower.  Deliverance does not come by turning over a new leaf; that approach only gets you caught in cycle of regret, promising not to do it again, and returning to it.  Law makes us feel the great weight of our darkness.  We need to feel and know what that darkness really is….

2. Sin

Sin means missing the mark, falling short.  We must agree with God about what sin really is, without sugar-coating it.  We tend to think of sin as some terrible action like assault or murder, yet sin is primarily thought of in Scripture as not giving God his due – of de-godding God and replacing him with something else.  You and I need to be realistic about the bad news of sin before we can ever receive the good news of forgiveness.  You can’t be forgiven unless you can admit that you have done, or not done, something that warrants needing to be forgiven.  Moving forward in hope can only happen when we possess…

3. Righteousness

Righteousness means right relationships; unrighteousness means broken relationships.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships.  Like illegal aliens who cannot make themselves citizens, God grants us spiritual amnesty because we can’t make ourselves legal or righteous.  Through righteousness God has made it possible for us to live in harmony.  Holding onto bad relationships is like a dog returning to its vomit; there is no need for it because God has given us…

4. Justification

This term is a picture of the court of law.  It communicates for us that righteousness comes because God justified us, that is, he did for us what the law could not do – he sent his Son to be a substitute for us.  You can’t justify yourself by obeying the law or simply by being sorry.  Without the next word, we will wallow in our guilt because we need this for our justification to really live….

5. Faith

Faith is a gift given by God.  We do not generate faith within ourselves because sin estranges us from God.  We need God to act.  God’s righteousness can only become operative through faith.  You must hold out your hands and receive a gift to possess it.  You must come to the end of yourself to exercise faith.  You need to see that your sin is bad enough to have made your life unmanageable and that you have dug yourself in a hole too deep to get out of yourself.  If you think you can handle it, you are going back to the law, living in denial and not by faith.  We also need…

6. Grace

Faith must have an object, and that object is the cross of Christ.  It’s grace which gives faith and saves us.  Our denial is so great about our sin that we can’t reach out to God unless God acts.  Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us.  Opening the gift given to us, we find that we are given…

7. Redemption

Redemption is a word referring to a slave market.  We are slaves to sin.  We need someone to purchase our freedom.  The blood of Christ paid for my sin.  He bought me through his death.  Jesus has taken care of the sin issue through…

8. Propitiation

“Sacrifice of atonement” is the meaning of propitiation.  It is the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin.  Because God loves, God has wrath; he is not okay with sin running amok in this world.  We are forgiven through the blood of Christ.  We are free to live into the gracious joyous life of God in Christ.  Yet, not all of us do so.  For example:

If the institution that gave me my car loan came along and forgave or satisfied the debt I have on my car, it would be weird if I kept making loan payments.  But that is what many people keep doing with their lives because they don’t really believe they are forgiven and loved by God.  We think God is constantly upset or, at least, agitated with us since we screw-up so often.  So, we live by law hoping that God will applaud our sincerity and our effort, wishing that everything will be okay.  But everything won’t be okay with that approach because God wants our faith, not our promises to be better.  His question to us is:

Do you trust me?  Do you trust me to deliver you from your sin?  Do you trust me to work out the situation that you’ve made a mess of on your own?  Do you trust me to provide for you everything you need? 

Live into your spiritual heritage. Don’t return to the law. Bask in the gracious gift of your freedom in Christ.  Live and enjoy Jesus because you have been made righteous, justified, and redeemed through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Ephesians 2:1-10 – Saved for a Reason

 

“You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith.  This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed.  It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. We are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.” (CEB)
 
            Christians are not saved so that they can just sit in a worldly holding tank until Jesus comes back.  Deliverance is only one dimension of God’s plan.  We are saved for good works to be done in the here-and-now.
            A Christian knows that he is saved from his sin through the forgiving work of Jesus Christ.  It’s an act of sheer grace on God’s part.  A believer is not born again through her effort any more than a baby’s birthed because of her own doing.  It is thoroughly the work of God.  Even the faith needed to believe is a gift graciously provided by God.
            But that’s not the whole story.  God also has some plans and purposes in mind for his people.  Christians were birthed into a new spiritual community with new commitments to do all kinds of good deeds.  It’s as if sin were a weight or an obstacle that has been removed so that living a life full of goodness can now plow ahead and do its work.  To be saved is to be freed for a vigorous moral life.
            The great problems of our world are spiritual problems which require believers in Jesus to take the lead in agitating for change.  Expecting human governments or corporate systems to take the lead in moral transformation is like asking the fox to guard the hen house.

            Christians, churches, and spiritual communities are to labor at the gates of hell for the lives of women caught in sex trafficking; provide uplift and the tools to a better life for those in grinding poverty and hunger; challenge the idolatry of the American gun culture; and, hundreds of other realities of living in a fallen broken world.
            At their core, these are not political, social, or cultural issues – they are spiritual.  Mass murder violates God’s command to not kill.  Hunger and poverty too often result from greedy leaders in power who covet resources for themselves, violating God’s commands to provide for the poor and needy.  Sexual slavery treats persons as chattel property and not as image-bearers of God.
            God has delivered you from sin so that you can take on the immorality of your world.  Perhaps you have a boss who is nothing more than a master of a small world and bullies and manipulates his employees.  Maybe your local municipal authorities simply aren’t seeing or purposely turn a blind eye to moral evil in their town.  It could be that within your own family there are problems of addiction which need to be graciously confronted and dealt with.
            God has placed you in the place you are right now for just this time so that you can do good works, both big and small, taking on an immoral establishment as well as little acts of kindness.  Doing good comes in all sizes, and all of us are to share our lives for the betterment of others.
Saving God, you have only good plans for your world and your people.  Use me today and every day to be an agent of blessing and goodness, working for the benefit of others who need the power of Christ’s resurrection in their lives.  Amen.