To the Family of God (2 John 1:1-16)

St. John the Apostle, by sculptor Thomas Ball (1819-1911)

From the Elder—

To the dear Lady and to her children, whom I truly love. And I am not the only one, but all who know the truth love you, because the truth remains in us and will be with us forever.

May God the Father and Jesus Christ, the Father’s Son, give us grace, mercy, and peace; may they be ours in truth and love.

How happy I was to find that some of your children live in the truth, just as the Father commanded us. And so I ask you, dear Lady: let us all love one another. This is no new command I am writing you; it is the command which we have had from the beginning. This love I speak of means that we must live in obedience to God’s commands. The command, as you have all heard from the beginning, is that you must all live in love.

Many deceivers have gone out over the world, people who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ came as a human being. Such a person is a deceiver and the Enemy of Christ. Be on your guard, then, so that you will not lose what we have worked for but will receive your reward in full.

Anyone who does not stay with the teaching of Christ, but goes beyond it, does not have God. Whoever does stay with the teaching has both the Father and the Son. So then, if some come to you who do not bring this teaching, do not welcome them in your homes; do not even say, “Peace be with you.” For anyone who wishes them peace becomes their partner in the evil things they do.

I have so much to tell you, but I would rather not do it with paper and ink; instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you personally, so that we shall be completely happy.

The children of your dear Sister send you their greetings. (Good News Translation)

The Pastor

Tucked away near the back of the Bible is a short little letter from the Apostle John, identifying himself as “The Elder.” This is meant to convey both his venerable leadership and his affectionate relation as the grandfatherly old man who has something important to say. In other words, John was, in our terms, a Pastor responsible for shepherding the church with care.

The Church and Christians

“The dear Lady” is a metaphor for the church. Through personifying the church, John was assigning worth, respect, and dignity to the mother with spiritual progeny.

“Her children” are the believers within the church, spiritual offspring with the church as their mother. This has been an important motif for most of Christian history – an understanding that has gotten lost over the centuries in much of the Protestant world. Yet, one of the magisterial reformers, John Calvin, retained this view of the church and its members:

“The Church is the bosom which God is pleased to gather his children… who are guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith…. How useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and keep us under her care and guidance… Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives.”

(Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1, 4)

Indeed, Calvin was merely upholding the words of St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (c.200-258, C.E.)  who stated 1,300 years earlier than the reformer:

“No one can have God as Father who does not have the church as Mother.”

St. Cyprian (On the Unity of the Catholic Church, ch.vi)

Love and Truth

The relationship between the mother and her children is to be always characterized by familial love. Everything within Christianity rises and falls with love because God is love.

God extends loving words and actions because love is the stuff that God is made up of. The very character of God is love, through and through. There is never a time when God is not loving.

In fact, God’s anger and wrath are expressions of love – for God is opposed to all which is unloving. Therefore, God extends justice and confronts sin so that love will freely flow once again amongst humanity and all creation.

God is not okay with deceit, not at all alright with errant understandings of his Son, Jesus Christ, being made out as a mere phantom without a real flesh-and-blood body. He had to be made like us in every way. Otherwise, there is no deliverance from the deceitfulness of sin, the sting of death, and the agony of hell.

John, as the Apostle of love, consistently espoused the primacy and permanence of love whenever he had the chance. Truth and love go together, always, insisted John. Love is only really possible when there is truth in the heart.

The true muster of mother church and of individual believing children is their love. No matter what is done – whether outreach, fellowship, or worship – it is all to be done in love and in truth. It’s not enough to be right; the rightness must be applied with the generosity, grace, and liberality of love.

The telltale sign of the deceiver, the false teacher, is that he proclaims only one without the other, either truth or love, but never both together.  

A profound lack of love is the litmus test that belies a faulty and heretical doctrine of Jesus. The absence of love is a red flag that impure teaching is happening. The real enemy of Christ is the one who claims Christianity but does not love, neither in word nor deed. If we really want to love God, we will love one another, and vice-versa.

Love and truth always go together. A mother is a mother because of her children; and a child is a child because of the mother. You cannot have one without the other.

To embrace truth is to love a group of people wherever they are. It is to see them, listen to them, then act on their behalf. Far too often Christians are known for their hubris in superimposing on others what those others need – believing they already know the truth of both Bible and them.

Love abides with the truth of a people. Genuine love seeks the truth and responds accordingly. Love is willing to find out what the issues are of a people. Assuming others need our money, our plans, our service, or our solutions, assumes we already understand their situation without hearing from them.

Love is longsuffering. It is willing to sit with folks for as long as it takes. Love finds itself by carefully applying biblical truth to the truth of a people. And that takes a great deal of time and effort. There are no shortcuts to love.

Love must have its way, or it isn’t love.

Since God is love, God must have his way in us first.

Hope and Happiness

Hope is a confident expectation that promises will be kept and realized.

Happiness is the result.

Hope and happiness go together like bacon and eggs, Tom and Jerry, the moonwalk and Michael Jackson, Friday and fish fry, Harry Potter and Hogwarts, salt and pepper, Adam and Eve, Jesus and the Spirit, and well, I think you get the picture.

Unhappiness is the inevitable result of feeling hopeless. Hope and happiness are both relational terms. They come from having good relations based in love and truth.

Love and truth are very much relational terms, being realized because of mother church’s nurturing.

And the chosen mother came into being because of the Father’s gracious will.

So, tell me, what is your takeaway from this quite brief reflection on John’s little letter?…

The Finite and the Infinite (Psalm 65)

God of Zion, to you even silence is praise.
    Promises made to you are kept—
    you listen to prayer—
    and all living things come to you.
When wrongdoings become too much for me,
    you forgive our sins.
How happy is the one you choose to bring close,
    the one who lives in your courtyards!
We are filled full by the goodness of your house,
    by the holiness of your temple.

In righteousness you answer us,
    by your awesome deeds,
    God of our salvation—
    you, who are the security
        of all the far edges of the earth,
        even the distant seas.
    You establish the mountains by your strength;
    you are dressed in raw power.
    You calm the roaring seas;
        calm the roaring waves,
        calm the noise of the nations.
Those who dwell on the far edges
        stand in awe of your acts.
    You make the gateways
        of morning and evening sing for joy.
You visit the earth and make it abundant,
    enriching it greatly
        by God’s stream, full of water.
You provide people with grain
    because that is what you’ve decided.
Drenching the earth’s furrows,
        leveling its ridges,
    you soften it with rain showers;
        you bless its growth.
You crown the year with your goodness;
    your paths overflow with rich food.
Even the desert pastures drip with it,
    and the hills are dressed in pure joy.
The meadowlands are covered with flocks,
    the valleys decked out in grain—
        they shout for joy;
        they break out in song! (Common English Bible)

The biblical psalms present God as sovereign over all creation. Today’s psalm extols the Lord of the universe as God of both temple and terra, of people and the earth.

God of the temple

Praise is the appropriate offering to God – because it is the Lord who listens, forgives, and chooses to fill persons with the holiness and goodness of God’s presence, exemplified in the temple.

Infinite righteousness cannot be fulfilled by finite beings. In other words, we need God.

The nineteenth century philosopher and theologian, Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) insisted that the humans did not established themselves; therefore, no one can simply exercise their will toward better and brighter circumstances.

Kierkegaard argued that humanity, at its core, is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, the temporal and the eternal. A finite human is not a self; only when connected and aware of the infinite is someone a self. (The Sickness Unto Death)

Creatures can never lift themselves above anxiety, worry, distress, or hardship with only finite resources; we need infinite supplies and divine capital, to tap into the image of God within us, to realize that our true identity is inextricably dependent upon our Creator.

“Prayers” by Yoram Raanan

We are more than bodies and brain synapses; we are also souls. And as souls, we shall never realize our true selves through the temporary means of possessions, prestige, and power. A person cannot construct a self, by themselves, to bear the weight of who we really are. That’s because our real identity is hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:3)

Just as the temple in Jerusalem was much more than a physical structure, so we, as the people of God, are so much more than tangible beings.

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3:16, NRSV)

Praise, prayer, and worship are practices designed to connect with the infinite God. Indeed, the kingdom of God is much nearer than we know.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21, NRSV)

God of terra

We walk upon and inhabit this present terra firma, this earth. The earth, and all that is in it, belongs to the Lord. God is something of a cosmic farmer, taking care of the earth, watching over it, tending to its needs.

All that takes place on this celestial ball we live upon is under the gracious and loving eye of God. It is the Lord who brings the seasons and the rains, calming the storms of the seas, as well as the storms of our lives.

One of the reasons we find ourselves in such an impending climate debacle on this earth, is that we continue to utilize all the finite resources we can muster and fail to acknowledge and become aware of the grand infinite wherewithal we have with our Creator and Sustainer.

“I am the Lord, your savior;
I am the one who created you.
I am the Lord, the Creator of all things.
    I alone stretched out the heavens;
    when I made the earth, no one helped me. (Isaiah 44:24, GNT)

The earth is beautiful. Yet, in our insistence upon merely using the temporal and physical, ugliness has come upon the earth, obscuring the true nature of God’s good creation. Distancing ourselves from the Creator only builds bigger obstacles to solving the earth’s most significant issues.

Self-imposed and ensconced impediments need to be cleared away. The weeds have overtaken the garden; we can no longer see the good plants that are supposed to grow and produce a harvest. And yet, as any farmer or gardener knows, you cannot simply yank such weeds from the ground without also pulling up what you are trying to preserve.

The Lord will provide – but if we keep to our stubborn independence from God, the process of weeding the garden will take much longer to accomplish. Yet, God is patient, not wanting any to perish but all to come around to the infinite. (2 Peter 3:9)

Conclusion

Let us come to God in our neediness and failure. We must see ourselves as infinite souls with finite solutions who can cry out to the God who hears and forgives. We need to connect with the Lord who hears our prayers. It is imperative that we rely upon the infinite Creator who is concerned to cultivate justice and righteousness upon an earth which is full of plenty for everyone.

Praise, pray, give thanks, and be connected to the infinite One whom we need for life and godliness in this present, evil, and finite age.

Stay joined to me and I will stay joined to you. No branch can produce fruit alone. It must stay connected to the vine. It is the same with you. You cannot produce fruit alone. You must stay joined to me. (John 15:4, ERV)

Blessed God and Father of all, yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. To you belongs the heavens and the earth. It is you who made all that is – sun, moon, stars, rivers, forests, minerals, birds, animals, fish, and us – and pronounced it all “good.” We seek your divine mercy and help so that our work and our worship may curb the sin that so easily entangles and bring your intended shalom to the earth. Amen.

Hosea 6:1-10 – “I Want Mercy, Not Sacrifice”

“Come, let us return to the Lord.
He has torn us to pieces
    but he will heal us;
he has injured us
    but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
    on the third day he will restore us,
    that we may live in his presence.
Let us acknowledge the Lord;
    let us press on to acknowledge him.
As surely as the sun rises,
    he will appear;
he will come to us like the winter rains,
    like the spring rains that water the earth.”

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
    What can I do with you, Judah?
Your love is like the morning mist,
    like the early dew that disappears.
Therefore I cut you in pieces with my prophets,
    I killed you with the words of my mouth—
    then my judgments go forth like the sun.
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice,
    and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
As at Adam, they have broken the covenant;
    they were unfaithful to me there.
Gilead is a city of evildoers,
    stained with footprints of blood.
As marauders lie in ambush for a victim,
    so do bands of priests;
they murder on the road to Shechem,
    carrying out their wicked schemes.
I have seen a horrible thing in Israel:
    There Ephraim is given to prostitution,
    Israel is defiled. (New International Version)

My favorite word in all of Holy Scripture is the Hebrew word חסד (“chesed” pronounced in English “kes-ed).  It is such a rich word that no one English word can capture its depth and import. 

So, chesed is translated in various ways across English translations of the Bible as:

  • Goodness (American Standard Version)
  • Faithful love (Common English Bible)
  • Loyalty (God’s Word Translation)
  • Constant love (Good News Translation)
  • Mercy (King James Version)
  • Love that lasts (The Message)
  • Faithfulness (New English Translation)
  • Loving-kindness (New Life Version)
  • Steadfast love (New Revised Standard Version)

Chesed is God’s committed, gracious, and loving covenant loyalty to people. The Lord’s very attributes are sheer Love.

Since chesed marks the character and activity of God, the Lord very much desires people to reflect this same stance toward one another. In other words, because God is merciful and kind, we, as people created in God’s image, are to be marked with this same character in all we do. 

In today’s Old Testament lesson, God is calling and wooing wayward people to return to a life of closeness with the Lord. God demonstrated chesed by not sending the people away, like a spouse outright divorcing an unfaithful partner. Instead, the Lord is committed to loving the Israelites even when they were unlovely.

At all times, the response God wants from people is not simply to go through the motions of outward worship. Ritual practices mean little if there is no heart behind them. The Lord longs for people to demonstrate both fidelity and fealty through mercy and a steadfast love to God and neighbor.

Both our work and our worship are to be infused with divine mercy. 

God deeply desires a close relationship with humanity. The Lord is deeply grieved when people whore after other gods to meet their needs for love and belonging. Hosea’s prophecy is an impassioned plea for all persons to find their true fulfillment and enjoyment in a committed loving divine/human union, like a marriage.

In Christian readings of Hosea’s prophecy, repentance means accepting God’s chesed through Jesus Christ.

The believer is to allow the character of God to rule and reign in their heart so that love and commitment come flowing out in words, actions, thoughts, and dispositions.

Mercy, in Christianity, finds its highest expression in the person and work of Jesus.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus lifted Hosea’s prophecy as a treasured principle of operation when asked why he deliberately made connections with “questionable” people:

As Jesus continued on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a kiosk for collecting taxes. He said to him, “Follow me,” and he got up and followed him. As Jesus sat down to eat in Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners joined Jesus and his disciples at the table.

But when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

When Jesus heard it, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. Go and learn what this means: I want mercy and not sacrifice. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9-13, CEB)

And when confronted about “questionable” activities, Jesus appealed to the same source of Hosea’s prophecy:

“Look! Your disciples are doing something that is not right to do on the day of rest—a holy day.”

Jesus asked them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his men were hungry? Haven’t you read how he went into the house of God and ate  the bread of the presence? He and his men had no right to eat those loaves. Only the priests have that right. Or haven’t you read in Moses’ Teachings that on the day of rest—a holy day, the priests in the temple do things they shouldn’t on the day of rest yet remain innocent? I can guarantee that something  greater than the temple is here. If you had known what ‘I want mercy, not sacrifices’ means, you would not have condemned innocent people. (Matthew 12:2-7, GW)

One can never go wrong with mercy and grace. If in doubt between whether to judge another or show mercy, the Christian’s choice is clear.

Grace and love reconnects the disconnected. The heart of true Christian spirituality is a deep kinship with the divine. Whenever that relation is broken or severed, it is vital to restore it. The means of doing so is not judgment; it’s mercy.

Chesed is more than a word; it is a way of life.

God wants mercy. Grace is the Lord’s divine will. So, let us today receive the forgiveness of Jesus and devote ourselves to prayer and works of love which come from a heart profoundly touched by grace. 

May the result of our return to the Lord be healing of that which has been broken, and reconciled relationships with others.

Merciful and loving God, the One who shows amazing grace, forgive us for our wanderings away from the divine life. Return us, again, to the grace of Jesus Christ our Savior so that our hearts will be renewed and aflame with love for others. In the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit, the Great Three in One. Amen.

Psalm 104:24-35 – Listen to Creation

Photo by Sebastian Voortman on Pexels.com

O Lord, what a variety of things you have made!
    In wisdom you have made them all.
    The earth is full of your creatures.
Here is the ocean, vast and wide,
    teeming with life of every kind,
    both large and small.
See the ships sailing along,
    and Leviathan, which you made to play in the sea.

They all depend on you
    to give them food as they need it.
When you supply it, they gather it.
    You open your hand to feed them,
    and they are richly satisfied.
But if you turn away from them, they panic.
    When you take away their breath,
    they die and turn again to dust.
When you give them your breath, life is created,
    and you renew the face of the earth.

May the glory of the Lord continue forever!
    The Lord takes pleasure in all he has made!
The earth trembles at his glance;
    the mountains smoke at his touch.

I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.
    I will praise my God to my last breath!
May all my thoughts be pleasing to him,
    for I rejoice in the Lord….

Let all that I am praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord! (New Living Translation)

The earth is a complex ecosystem, alive and teeming with all kinds of creatures and exuberant nature. All of creation knows and depends on its Creator. The earth bears its Creator’s fascination.

The world is wonderfully intricate, its vast natural systems working in sync to flourish across the earth. All creation lives with confidence in God’s sustaining grace. Humanity, along with the rest of creation, is to sing and praise the God who has made life possible by means of the powerful Spirit.

This same Spirit which worked in creation, animates all creatures, and has left the imprint of God’s likeness on humans, is the very same Spirit which came upon the little band of believers at Pentecost, as well as being the very same Spirit which is given to you and me as followers of Jesus. 

Just as we listen to the ancient voices of Holy Scripture lift up the name of Jesus; and, just as we listen for the Holy Spirit to guide us in the name of Jesus Christ, so we are to listen to the voice of creation praise God.

In a society expectant of all things fast – fast food, fast cars, fast service, fast everything – there is something profoundly spiritual about slowing down to listen to God’s Spirit speaking through God’s creation. Even though we, at times, encounter difficulties which limit us and slow us down, these very situations afford us the opportunity to listen.

Today, when you eat your meals, I invite you to take the time to chew slowly, thanking God in a rhythm of praise which is connected to the gratitude of each bite. Connect with the reality that eating comes from the earth’s generosity.

When walking the dog, do it slowly, listening to the sounds of creation around you. Hear the wind blowing, the trees swaying, the water rushing, the birds singing. They all give praise and adoration to the God who is pleased to fill creation with divine splendor.

The lack of listening, the refusal to truly hear, was at the core of Adam and Eve’s fall from paradise. Ever since, people have been tainted with spiritual deafness. We must, once again, learn the vital skill of listening well.

Opening to the sounds of creation can reopen us to our divine image, which has never been lost – perhaps just buried so deep within that we are many times not in touch with it. Listening to creation also enables us to hear how it groans under humanity’s poor stewardship of the earth.

The whole of creation is always singing; it is just a matter of whether we are listening, or not.

When spending time in nature, ask yourself:

How is God’s glory and love reflected in creation?

In what way is your hope renewed or your heart stirred in response?

How might I be a proper and faithful steward of this earth around me?

Do I feel a connection with the land? Why, or why not?

Every morning for generations, the Native American Iroquois people have greeted the dawn with thanksgiving.

“It is an honor to be a human being and to have been invited into the circle of Creation,” they say to the Creator. Beginning with the grass and the trees, the Iroquois express gratitude for the other plants, the water, the wind, the sun, the moon, and the stars.

I myself have also found a deep connection with God in the morning amongst nature. Greeting the Creator, as well as the oak trees and lilac bushes near my home, give me the ability to frame my upcoming day with awareness. As I am present and mindful to creation, so I find myself more present and aware to the people who need my focused attention.

Sadly, there are people who have never known the joy of walking barefoot through the grass; the wonder of staring into the night sky full of stars; and the sublime silence in which to hear the voice of God.

There are whole segments of our global family who have never had clean water or enough to eat. There are people who have lost their very identity because of exploitation of resources and greed. So, we need to connect with creation.

We must discern that our connection with created things fosters a stronger and deeper connection to our fellow humanity.

For when we observe the beauty in all things, we train ourselves to see the beauty in others. And where there is beauty, there is appreciation, gratefulness, and compassionate care. God speaks to us through creation. Nature is our teacher. Let’s make sure and treat her with the respect and care she deserves.

Most High, all powerful, good Lord,
Yours are the praises, the glory, the honor,
and all blessing.

To You alone, Most High, does all creation belong.

Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures,
especially through Brother Sun,
bringing us the day and giving us light.
He is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Most High, he bears your likeness.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon
and the stars, in heaven you formed them
clear and precious and beautiful.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind,
and through the air, cloudy and serene,
and every kind of weather through which
You give sustenance to Your creatures.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water.
She is very useful, humble, precious, and pure.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom you light the night. He is beautiful
and playful and robust and strong.

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth.
She sustains us and governs us; she produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Blessed are those who endure in peace
for by You, Most High, they shall be crowned.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living person can escape.

Woe to those who die in sin.
Blessed are those whom death will
find in Your most holy will,
for the second death shall do them no harm.

Let all creation praise and bless my Lord,
and give Him thanks
and serve Him with great humility. Amen.

–A Prayer from St. Francis of Assisi