1 John 4:1-6 – Don’t Believe Everything You Hear

Christ by Carl Abrahams
Christ by Carl Abrahams, 1911-2005

My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world.

Here’s how you test for the genuine Spirit of God. Everyone who confesses openly his faith in Jesus Christ—the Son of God, who came as an actual flesh-and-blood person—comes from God and belongs to God. And everyone who refuses to confess faith in Jesus has nothing in common with God. This is the spirit of antichrist that you heard was coming. Well, here it is, sooner than we thought!

My dear children, you come from God and belong to God. You have already won a big victory over those false teachers, for the Spirit in you is far stronger than anything in the world. These people belong to the Christ-denying world. They talk the world’s language and the world eats it up. But we come from God and belong to God. Anyone who knows God understands us and listens. The person who has nothing to do with God will, of course, not listen to us. This is another test for telling the Spirit of Truth from the spirit of deception. (MSG)

The Apostle John gave some spiritually sage advice to a group of his disciples. They were being influenced by people who claimed Christian faith yet were not the real deal. Lots of people make claims, but the real muster of a Christian is in embracing an embodied spirituality that truly meets the holistic needs of others.

For John, there was no room for the Platonic Greek dualism of body and spirit. Jesus was a real man with a very real body. To deny this was to deny the faith. Ethereal musings about the insignificance of the body were flatly rejected by John. The apostle was concerned that the supreme Christian ethic of love be practiced through attention to both body and soul.  This means words are not enough; actual demonstrations of love are needed to communicate Christ to others.

I will be the first guy to insist on some deep theological reflection on the great spiritual, cultural, and social issues of our day. Yet, if our theology does not lead to tangible acts of love based on that reflection, then we have not yet been called God’s friend. Correct doctrine will always lead to loving actions of faith.

We are to glorify God with both speech and service, and never just one without the other.

The early church councils condemned the denigration of Christ’s full humanity for good reason. Not only did Jesus have a real flesh and body experience while on this earth, Christ did actual flesh and body healing and actual physical miracles. In other words, Jesus Christ met both the spiritual needs of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the needs of the body. What is more, Jesus had no ranking system, as if the spiritual needs were the real commitments whereas tangible needs were just a means to the end of meeting intangible obligations.

The Gospel is both body and soul and are equally together significant.

To exalt one above the other is, frankly, heresy. So, let’s put this in more practical terms: Love is more than an expression of good feelings and goodwill toward others; love has skin on, using both physical actions and words formed from our vocal chords to bring goodness to others.

Jesus never separated or parsed out a distinction between spiritual and physical needs. No, that would be us who have done that. To be more specific, it is the spiritual charlatan and the huckster preacher who speak out of one side of their mouths about spiritual salvation with no bodily human help or uplift. Those who are against Jesus, the spirit of the antichrist, talk a good line but when push comes to shove, they have no intention of paying attention to both body and soul.

If we go to our gut and listen to it, we know we can trust it. That feeling we cannot quite shake when we are around someone has real meaning. The spirit within us is greater than the spirit of the world.

Just because we may not be able to respond very well to another, or give clear voice to what is inside us, does not necessarily mean that the other person is okay or right.

A proper Christian response to others incorporates head, heart, and gut. The interaction and alignment of all our faculties is needed. If we draw upon our entire selves, both body and soul, we will overcome the spirit of the antichrist through loving words and actions toward those who need it most. The Antichrist wants us to get caught up in putting all our focus fighting theological battles and debating philosophical ideas – while our neighbor next door is dying of cancer; our co-worker is experiencing covert racism; and, our friend is stuck in poverty.

Since Jesus is fully human, that fact alone ought to impel us toward meeting the needs of the body – without wondering if it is the spiritual thing to do, or not. You already know this to be true. So, don’t let some esoteric preacher or teacher tell you otherwise.

God Almighty, the creator and preserver of all humanity, I humbly ask: Please make your ways known to everyone and your saving health to all nations. I also pray for the Church everywhere: That it may be guided and governed by your good spirit; that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. I lift to your fatherly goodness all those who are afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or spirit. Comfort them and meet their every need, giving them patience under their sufferings, and a good outcome of all their afflictions. This I ask for the sake Jesus Christ your Son, my Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit reign forever. Amen.

Luke 17:1-4 – A Person Is a Person, No Matter How Small

Horton Hears a Who

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So, watch yourselves.

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (NIV)

“A person’s a person no matter how small” said Horton the elephant to all the people that were completely unconcerned for the residents of Whoville living on a clover. The people were uninterested because the Who’s were invisible to them. Dr. Seuss chose to make Horton an elephant, a large creature able to hear with big ears and be attentive to the small.

Largeness can only come through becoming small.

“Little ones,” people who no one sees or notices, matter to Jesus, and so they ought to matter to us, too. Invisible people need to become visible to us. They need to become visible to us because Jesus sees them – they are not invisible to him. Jesus often mingled with little people – children, women who had no rights, social misfits like lepers, the chronically ill, religious outsiders, tax collectors, and prostitutes. Our world is filled with similar people – angry adolescents, unwanted babies, forgotten old people, the mentally ill, moral failures, immigrants and refugees, and, if we have eyes to see and big ears to hear, lots of underprivileged people who reside on the dark underbelly of society. They are around us, even if they are invisible to us.

Jesus envisioned a community that sees, honors, and protects little people. Truth be told, we are all little people before God, and he notices us. And, so, we are to become humble enough to see the little people around us. The only way to become great in the kingdom of God is to descend, not ascend, into greatness. The chief enemy of any community is a desire to be prominent, to be the Big Cheese – it is called “pride” and it will separate us from God if we hold onto it.  Which is why we must do all we can to radically cut it out of our lives.

This is a big deal to Jesus. So, here’s the deal: We are not to welcome people because they are great, wise, rich, powerful, good-looking, and look like you and me – we are to welcome others because they are noticed by Jesus. Like Horton the elephant,

Christ the Lord hears the cry from the place of smallness and is determined to do something about it.

The proud person who seeks prominence is always looking for greener pastures and impressing others. The proud connect with people who will help advance them up the ladder of success. Through that process of advancement, the proud do not care who they step on along the way. The Christ follower, however, is to be different. Christians are to give small, insignificant people of society the time of day, treat them as important, and advocate for their needs.

It was the Apostle Peter, a guy who learned the hard way about paying attention to those different from himself, who quoted the Old Testament in saying, “love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:9) That is, basic love for another prevents them from committing the sins they would have if they were unloved. If we do not love, it would be better for us to be killed in a tragic millstone death. Jesus does not want people acting like leeches, just sucking the life out of others to get what they want.

So, what do we do about it? How shall we then live? A person’s a person no matter how small. We need humility. We need to lower our sights and our bodies to see little people. We cannot truly see a two-year-old toddler unless we lower ourselves to view them as equal and important.

The way to see another requires slowing down, observing, and stooping or sitting to look them in the eye and give them the dignity of attention they deserve.

The danger of reading a post like this is the thought that all this stuff is really for someone else. After all, I don’t want to hurt anyone or see anybody deprived, so maybe the experts and professionals ought to handle it all. Yet, the fact remains that we do no one any good when we neglect getting on the floor. When we assume blessing for ourselves without the intent of giving it to others, we have come under the judgment of Christ. Perhaps we fear forgiveness – either accepting an apology from another or offering one to someone we have wronged. Out of sight, out of mind, is the approach of the one who causes others to stumble and make them fall.

Christ’s admonition is to watch ourselves, to be vigilant of both overt and covert sins against the unseen and forgotten among us. The pyramid below concerning racism is just one example of many other forms of causing others to stumble and fall:

white supremacy pyramid

Even though I write this warning, dear friends, I am confident of better things in your case—the things that have to do with salvation, deliverance, and liberation for all persons. God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped others and continue to help them. Continue to show this same diligence so that what you hope for may be fully realized; and, imitate those who through faith and patience are doing good work. May the Lord be with you.

For those deprived of their human needs and their human rights: Just God, may they may be given the dignity by others which you confer on all his people.

For all who are forgotten and unseen, especially the poor, the sick, and the aged: All-seeing God, may you move us to love them as the image of Christ.

For all who are lonely or afraid, for teenagers on the street, the elderly in nursing homes, prisoners with no one to visit them, and all whom the world has forgotten: Lord Christ, may you lead us to them.

For those who suffer mental illness or disorder: Attentive God, may we cherish the gifts you have given them, and in their lives hear the voice of your love.

For each human life: Creator God, may we value every person as you do. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Galatians 5:2-6 – Faith Expressing Itself Through Love

The Sneetches

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (NIV)

Everyone needs the grace of faith expressing itself through love. I didn’t grow up committed to learning the Bible or following Christ. I pretty much went my own way throughout childhood, and especially the teenage years. I still remember what it felt like to not follow in the way of Christ. My view of the world was jaded, believing that most of humanity were basically uncaring self-absorbed creatures. I also knew the darkness of my own heart. When people, as I did long ago, view the world and self this way, there is a tragic loneliness where no one reaches out to the other, since everyone is guarded. A person and a world devoid of grace and reliant on law is, at best, a harsh place; and, at worst, a sort of dystopian nightmare.

It seems people who have a graceless past and only looked out for themselves often have a temptation to embrace strict rules when they become Christians. They know what it feels like to not have Jesus in their lives, so they sometimes, out of fear of returning to the old life, go beyond Scripture and impose standards on themselves, and then others, to keep on the straight and narrow to avoid sin.

If, or when, that happens, the Apostle Paul has something to say about it.  Embracing certain practices to obtain or maintain righteousness mean diddly-squat in God’s kingdom.  Here is how the Common English Bible version translates Paul’s words to the church who went down the path of strict outward rule-keeping:

“You people who are trying to be made righteous by the Law have been estranged from Christ. You have fallen away from grace! We eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness through the Spirit by faith. Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t matter in Christ Jesus, but faith working through love does matter.” (Galatians 5:4-6, CEB)

A form of Christianity which ignores God’s grace in favor of controlling one’s own faith through certain rules is not Christianity at all, and Paul would have nothing to do with it. His position was clear and pointed:

“You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses but serve each other through love.” (Galatians 5:13, CEB)

Grace is the currency of God’s kingdom, flowing freely through love. God has your back. With him we need not be guarded. God’s grace forgives, and never runs out. God’s love endures and never withdraws. When we get a hold of this essential and beautiful truth about God, the only rule we want to keep is Paul’s admonition to the Roman church:

“Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” (Romans 13:8, NIV)

So, are there any practices, rules, beliefs, or doctrines you impose on yourself which are burdensome to you?  Why do you do them? Do you expect others to do them, too? What would change if you threw grace and love in the mix?

It must continually be borne in mind that love does not foster an antinomian spirit of being against the law because love itself is the fulfillment of law. Paul, again, explained his reasoning:

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:9-10, NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s issue was not so much with circumcision itself as it was why the church wanted to practice it to begin with. Circumcision has always been an outward sign of an invisible reality – for the Jewish people – a truth which seemed lost on the Gentile churches. Paul’s agitation and frustration had to do with the church’s reason for considering circumcision. Much like the star-bellied Sneetches of Dr. Seuss’s classic story, the impetus behind wanting circumcision was to leverage power and superiority over others.

A vision of a new egalitarian society of redeemed persons based in the finished work of Jesus Christ (grace) was at risk, and Paul was going to address any imposed practices of exclusion (law) which would compromise and erode true community. Methinks the Apostle Paul and Dr. Seuss would have gotten along well together:

The day they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches

And no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches

That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars

And whether they had one, or not, upon thars.

The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss, 1961

Gracious God, your love has extended so far as to give your one and only Son on our behalf.  Through Jesus, I embrace the faith and love gifted to me through his redeeming work.  Help me to daily die to myself and my propensity for outward rule-keeping, and to live the gracious life you died to procure for me in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 10:5-23 – Jesus the Troublemaker

Jesus, 12th century Romanesque
A 12th century Romanesque depiction of Jesus

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

“Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town, and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. Be on your guard; you will be handed over to the local councils and be flogged in the synagogues. On my account you will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time, you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

“Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes. (NIV)

How do you view Jesus? I trust it includes plenty of compassion. I hope your view of Jesus also encompasses taking on the establishment and causing trouble. “I am sending you like lambs into a pack of wolves,” said Jesus to his disciples. Well, my goodness, that sounds unsafe! Sometimes we might lose sight that Jesus is much less concerned about our sense of safety and security than we are. That doesn’t make Jesus uncaring; it just means he sometimes has a different hierarchy of values than we do. Those who follow Jesus will need to take his concerns and ideals into consideration.

Frankly, the Lord Jesus was often a troublemaker who continually agitated for change. And, what is more, he warned us about trouble in the world. It is not that Jesus was intentionally pressing everyone’s buttons; he was just being himself, and that sent a whole lot of people gnashing their teeth at him. Our Lord Christ got all up into people’s grill and confronted them with bold assertions about justice and righteousness taken at God’s terms, not ours.

Therefore, as Christ’s followers, we can expect opposition and trouble. We need to anticipate we are going to sometimes disrupt and upset relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and those around us. Please understand this is not about being intentionally obnoxious or callously abusive. In fact, what personally drives me batty are Christians who take stupidly stubborn stands on the wrong hills of life, thus hurting others and damaging the cause of Christ. We really must be vigilant if someone’s hackles are raised that it is not because of our own foolish words and actions based in notions which Jesus never espoused.

The model of our Lord Jesus is that he was simply himself – advocating for the lost, the least, and the lonely – challenging systems which kept people burdened, oppressed, and lacking justice. This is the kind of stuff God has always done throughout history. Those with power and privilege discern quickly that advocacy and agitation for systemic change is a threat to them. Thus, we find ourselves like little lambs in a den of wolves. By simply loving Jesus and seeking to follow him we are, at times, going to upset people – and that is okay. Facing trouble is not the worst thing to be experienced – to be separated from God is.

It is okay to rock the boat, shake the tree, upset the fruit basket, stir the pot, and make waves if you are doing it because you value the ethics and methods of Jesus. So, count the cost. Give your life away. In doing so, you will find it.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of your world as your love would have it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. Give us the inspiration and courage to build it.

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart [and especially the hearts of the people of this land] that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.