Galatians 6:11-18 – What Counts is the New Creation

See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!

Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your circumcision in the flesh. May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.

From now on, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen. (New International Version)

Motives matter. The interior life of a person is important. Life is neither a mere getting things done nor doing what is needed on the exterior. A house may be beautiful and orderly on the outside, with careful landscaping, a manicured lawn, and attractive appearance – yet on the inside it might be disorderly, full of relational discord, and completely discombobulated.

The exterior life of a person is also important. But it’s only half the person. And, unlike God who sees the heart, we aren’t always privy to what’s going on inside someone.

Folks who are enamored with outward displays of spirituality and righteousness tend to be compulsive about maintaining appearances – for both themselves, and everyone else.

Policing outward forms of righteousness through clear identifiable means is really nothing more than old fashioned judging of one another. It’s antithetical to grace. And it smacks of the snooty superiority of Star-Bellied Sneetches.

Rather than a star on the belly, in the Apostle Paul’s day it was circumcision. Those who had it were “in” and those without it were “out.” Never mind the interior life. A hard outward boundary of righteousness was established by false teachers who made the Christian life easy by simply holding to readily observable forms, like circumcision.

It wasn’t that circumcision was a bad thing. The issue was making it a necessary part of the Christian life. Not circumcised? Not a Christian, insisted the false teachers. In other words, one had to become Jewish before becoming a Christian. I can picture the Apostle Paul doing a hand to the forehead, saying, “Oy vey.”

For the Christian, one must be vigilant not to exaggerate baptism. On the one hand, I would argue far too many believers underestimate the significance and importance of baptism. Flippantly making it a personal choice, as if the individual is in complete control of one’s own salvation, is not only wrongheaded – it’s downright blasphemous.

Yet, on the other hand, a preoccupation with getting a person, especially a child, baptized, as if the world might end if it doesn’t happen, betrays the same problem as Paul faced with circumcision in the first century.

The proper approach, it seems to me, is to embrace the full spectrum of Christianity – both outward and inward – the whole person. And Paul addresses this by anticipating a question of the Galatian congregation: What, then, is of central importance?

The answer is: a new creation. To be transformed by the power of the Spirit is what really counts. The grace of God in Christ, applied to a person, brings a change to inner motives and attitudes, as well as outer behavior through loving actions.

We must always keep in mind that the sign points to the substance. It would be weird if I were traveling to Milwaukee on I-94 and pulled over on the interstate next to the sign marking the city is ahead, crawl all over it, and say, “I’m here!”

The overall thrust of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that they were debasing the true worship of God into an outward show, honoring Christ with their lips but not holding him in their hearts.

Christianity is fundamentally not about what we do for God but what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It is divine grace which saves people. We belong to God. Just as we neither chose our own parents nor the time when we were born, so akin to this is, before we chose God, God chose us. We don’t “born again” ourselves; God does the rebirthing.

And since it is solely the work of God in us, there is zero reason to boast about the circumstances of our new birth and becoming a new creation in Christ. We didn’t save ourselves. It would be something like getting a COVID-19 vaccine and then bragging about how we stopped the pandemic.

Instead, we are to bear the spiritual marks of Christ’s crucifixion on our inner selves. No one is saved because they deserve it but simply because they need saving.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, grant us the faith to accept your saving work in the cross and to be so transformed by it that we will not be without excuse on Judgment Day. Help us not merely walk at your side, with mere words to offer. Convert us and give us new life in you so that in the end we will not be dry wood, but living branches in you, the true vine, bearing fruit for eternal life. Amen.

Hebrews 11:4-7 – Let the Future Shape Your Present

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith. (New International Version)

Faith is important. It’s part of us. We are all people of faith – maybe not sharing the same faith – but it is faith, none-the-less.

Belief transcends time. Faith is rooted in the past, experienced in the present, and future-oriented. In Christianity, faith is historically moored to the redemptive events of Christ’s incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. This historic faith has continuing ramifications into the present time. And it is a faith which believes Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead.

All of this means our salvation encompasses past, present, and future. So, it is appropriate and accurate to say the Christian has been saved, is being saved, and will be saved. Deliverance from sin, death, and hell was achieved on the cross. We are presently in the process of being delivered from our sinful nature and the effects of a fallen world. And we will be completely delivered at the end of the age when there will be no more disease, death, or grief-stricken crying.

The New Testament brings out all these dimensions of time. Whereas the Apostle Paul tended to continually look back to the past of God’s action in history, the author of Hebrews consistently looks ahead and brings out the future orientation of our faith.

And that is what the great Hall of Faith in chapter eleven of Hebrews is about – giving repeated examples of individuals who transcended their present hard circumstances through realizing what will be eventually coming. All of them acted particular ways in the present time because of what they believed would happen in the future. In other words, people of faith allow their belief in what is coming to shape how they live now in daily life.

Abel took the absolute best of his flock and made it an offering, with the intent of giving God an appropriate gift. Whereas his brother Cain cobbled together some of the leftovers from his vegetable harvest and gave them a nonchalant toss to God. Then, he got upset when God looked with disfavor on it.

Abel’s actions demonstrated the attitude of his heart. His belief and his practice worked together. And the gift he gave to God cost him his life, as Cain was inflamed with anger and killed his brother. Only by looking ahead and seeing that God’s reward is better than anything this world can offer, can we endure hardship.

Enoch focused on pleasing God through his three-hundred year life, knowing he would then enjoy an eternity with the Lord who provides good rewards. Enoch displayed his faith through obedience to God. He believed God existed and that God is good.

Noah, despite the jeering of his neighbors, took one-hundred years of his life to build a big ark, believing without a doubt that God’s judgment was coming. The daily grind of constructing an ark for such a long time was made possible because Noah was looking ahead. His present actions were shaped by his forward thinking faith.

In each individual’s life, their daily actions were a result of their unshakable belief in what was to come.

Faith enables us to persevere patiently through any kind of adversity. Knowing we have a better reward ahead; realizing our present trouble will not last forever; and believing Christ will eventually make all things right in this world which has so much wrong – forms the foundation of our faith in such a way as to buoy us so that we do not drown in a sea of injustice, microaggressions, unhealthy power dynamics, as well as plain old meanness and insensitivity from others.

So, when we face those times which tempt us to get lost or stuck in an ever-enclosing existential angst, take a pause, back up the truck, and see a more expansive big picture view of yourself, your situation, and others. You’ll be glad you did.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

Amen.

-Prayer of St. Patrick

Hebrews 2:5-9 – Christ is Qualified

It is not to angels that God has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (New International Version)

Christ’s suffering qualified him to unite people.

By Christmas eve of 1914, World War I had come to the point of trench warfare. On one point along the miles of trenches, on one side were the allied troops of French and Scots, and on the other side, Germans. That night, a Frenchman began singing Silent Night. Eventually his comrades joined in. Much to their surprise, the Germans on the other side of the trench, recognizing the familiar tune, began singing the song in their native tongue, along with them. The Scots then joined in with their bagpipes.

After the song, heads began to stick out from the trenches. Both sides realized they had a common celebration in song. This led to white flags going up on both sides, and then the unthinkable happened. Both trenches, allied and axis powers, enemies of one another, left their holes in the ground and met in the middle, exchanging pictures, and communicating with each other. The evening was capped off with the Scottish chaplain leading all the men together in a celebration of communion. The 2005 movie, Joyeux Noel, recounts the actual events.

Whenever we come together, expressed for the Christian through the sacrament of communion, it puts our differences in their proper perspective – we all come together as one, not seeing each other as rich or poor, black or white, American or Asian, or anything else.

The events of that Christmas eve in 1914, however, did not have a happy ending. The two sides found that, once the holiday passed, they did not have the will to fight their new brothers. The top brass on each side were upset and sent the Germans to the Russian front (and certain death); and the Scottish chaplain was defrocked for his actions and sent home never to pastor again, letting us see in dramatic fashion that unity has a price.

The book of Hebrews was originally written (or preached) to encourage and exhort struggling Jewish Christians. The author pointed them squarely at Jesus. The people were in danger of forgetting what the pioneer and champion of their salvation had done for them.

What’s more, they were in danger of reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the entire book is dedicated to demonstrating and reminding discouraged believers that Jesus Christ is superior to everything, both in heaven and on earth.  Because of that truth, Jesus is worthy of our eternal devotion and remembrance.

Jesus is qualified to be our Savior and Lord. Every day and each minute of our lives are an opportunity for a fresh commitment to Jesus.

The regular practice of Christian communion and consistent spiritual practices are meant to lead us into celebrating our Savior’s work. The worldwide communion of saints is celebrating with us in remembering and committing ourselves afresh to the lordship of Jesus Christ.

A great victory has been won, not just in the trenches of human wars, but on the cross of Christ. This singular death on our behalf qualified Jesus to be our Savior from sin, once and for all.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our Savior.

Jesus suffered an inglorious and ignominious death. Yet, paradoxically, glory came through suffering. Jesus did not only suffer at his crucifixion; he experienced the full range of human suffering throughout his life.  He knew what it was like to face adversity and hardship. It is Christ’s suffering that helps us make sense of our own suffering.

We can only truly be free from all that binds us by embracing that which makes us suffer. And because we live in a fallen world, we all personally suffer in some way. In addition, entire groups of people suffer – whether it is religious persecution, racial profiling, class warfare, or government oppression. This suffering is very real, damaging, and dehumanizing, resulting in terrible living conditions and even death.

Maybe because of this reality, some tend to minimize their own suffering. After all, what is a harshly worded e-mail, trying to lose a few extra pounds, or an unexpected car repair compared to families devastated by COVID-19? It is all suffering none-the-less.

It is good to keep our life situations in proper perspective; and we must be careful to not tell God what he should and shouldn’t care about in this world. If the only things that matter and qualify as hardship and difficulty is human trafficking, the terrors of war, or grinding poverty, then you will soon find yourself plastering a smile on your face and nodding over-enthusiastically whenever someone asks you how you are doing. Happy with-it Christians are insufferable, (pun intended).

We must find commonality and solidarity with Jesus in our own personal and corporate suffering. An admission of weakness, trouble, hardship, or suffering is neither a lack of faith nor the unpardonable sin. Identifying with the adversity of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world can be transformed into suffering that has meaning and significance. Our temporary sufferings now will someday result in the glory of being with Christ forever.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our compassionate helper.

Through the death of Jesus on the cross we have victory over Satan and all his wicked spirits.

I have heard more than one motivational speaker say: “If you could do one thing in your life and not be able to fail, what would it be?” The truth is, because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we have victory and can live our lives in confidence and commitment to Jesus.

Temporary failures and failings are not the end of the story. We possess a union with Christ because of the cross. Jesus is our champion. He stands with us in our suffering and temptations. 

In solidarity with all who suffer, along with brothers and sisters who agonize throughout the world, we have the blessed opportunity of bringing our troubles to a gracious God – thus finding forgiveness and hope. 

May your burdens be lifted, and may you know Christ, and him crucified, died, buried, risen, ascended, and coming again. Jesus knows you because he tasted death for you – and for everyone.

Merciful Lord help me to remember in these troubled times the cross you carried for my sake so that I may better carry mine and help others do the same. Since you tasted death that I might taste life, I forever belong to you and offer up all that I am and all I hope to be to the glory of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

**Above picture: Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

1 Corinthians 2:1-10 – Where Does the Power to Change Come From?

When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.

We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began. None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. However, as it is written:

“What no eye has seen,
    what no ear has heard,
and what no human mind has conceived”—
    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit.

The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. (New International Version)

We need the Holy Spirit of God.

Without the Spirit’s help, Jesus is merely one of thousands of individuals crucified in history – only an example of someone martyred for his faith. Yet, Jesus was infinitely more. Christians discern Jesus as the Son of God and Savior of the world. 

Through Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension, people can be redeemed from empty lives, saved from destructive life-patterns, and given the kind of security and purpose which God intended from the beginning. The Spirit’s role is to take these redemptive events of Jesus and apply them to our lives. 

Thus, Christian Trinitarian theology understands we are unable to see the truth about the cross of Jesus Christ unless God the Holy Spirit, sent by God the Father and the Son, breaks into our lives and does an intervention, showing us our denial about how we are really doing – as well as our delusions about who we really are.

Admitting we need the Holy Spirit of God means the power of Christianity and the Christian life rests with Jesus Christ and him crucified, and not with us.

We are, in many ways, powerless. I realize this is not a popular message, especially in Western society. Tell the average American they are powerless, and they’ll think you’re off your rocker. It sounds ridiculous. Some would argue that we have done well, thank you very much, on our own. We have a couple of cars, a house, a job, and a family. After all, we worked hard, and we did it.

However, any worldly success we gain, and getting the things we want, may lead us to the delusion we have the power to do whatever we want.

Oh, sure, we might reason, we have problems just like everybody else. After all, we cannot control everything.  But we are not completely powerless just because we have difficult circumstances and a few problem people in our lives. God will step in a take-over where I leave off, right?…

Wrong. Apart from the Holy Spirit of God, we are unable to become Christians and live the Christian life. If we believe we manage our lives fine, with some help from God, then we might be in denial about how much we place ourselves at the center of the world. And believe we should be able to deal with whatever comes at us in life. When our consistent response to adversity, or the realization we are not handling something well, is to try and fix ourselves, we are living the delusion we have the power to change.

A reflexive response in asking Google to find answers to our problems; dealing privately with our personal issues; expecting our willpower to be enough; passively resigning ourselves to mediocre lives because we have tried to change or be different; then this means we are feeding the delusion we do not really need the Holy Spirit of God. But just need more effort or information to overcome my problems. And when more doesn’t solve our issues, we easily become discouraged.

We need the true power source of the Christian life. We need the Holy Spirit applying the work of Jesus Christ to our lives so that we can live a victorious life.

Unfortunately, it typically takes a tragedy or crisis to break our delusion of power – a bad marriage, a family member’s addiction, a runaway child, a terminal illness, a bankruptcy, a death. How bad do you and I need to hurt before we will admit we are not managing our lives well, at all, and that the real power to change resides with the Holy Spirit?

There is power in the cross of Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul believed this with all his heart. Although Paul was an intelligent and learned person, he did not rely on his abilities but on proclaiming the power of Jesus and him crucified. The crucifixion of Christ was a past action with continuing and forceful ripples into the present time.

The cross of Jesus is more than an historical event; it is an ongoing reality to experience for victory over all the brokenness of this world and all the mess we have made of things putting ourselves at the center of the universe.

The Reformer, John Calvin, repeatedly instructed and encouraged his Geneva congregation that the Spirit joins us to Christ, assures us of salvation, and grows us in confidence through the Scriptures. Calvin, although a genius, did not rely on his intellect or abilities but insisted we need the Spirit’s witness to mature as followers of Jesus.

There are tough situations and incredibly sad realities which are mysteries beyond our comprehension. They defy simplistic answers and are greater than our attempts to explain them. Hard problems stretch our faith. And they ought to cause us to cry out to God and Christ’s church for help because we are powerless to manage our lives.

We absolutely and totally need the Holy Spirit of God. Without the Spirit, we are lost. But with the Spirit we experience the saving power of Christ’s cross to deal with everything in our lives.

The Serenity Prayer: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that he will make all things right if I surrender to his will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with him forever in the next. Amen.