Galatians 3:23-29 – A Ministry of Equals

Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.

But now you have arrived at your destination: By faith in Christ, you are in direct relationship with God. Your baptism in Christ was not just washing you up for a fresh start. It also involved dressing you in an adult faith wardrobe—Christ’s life, the fulfillment of God’s original promise.

In Christ’s family there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ. Also, since you are Christ’s family, then you are Abraham’s famous “descendant,” heirs according to the covenant promises. (The Message)

Ever since the fall of humanity, people have had the predilection to organize themselves in groups that keep them distinct from other groups. Whether it is high school peer groups or office politics; whether class warfare or church cliques; there has always existed a tendency to think better about the groups we identify with, and to look down and believe the worst about those we don’t understand or just don’t plain like.

Jesus is the person who changes it all. Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of us equal with each other, whether Jew or a Greek, in bondage or in freedom, a man or a woman. The cross of Christ not only brought deliverance from sin, death, and hell; the work of Jesus Christ ushered-in a new egalitarian society.

I’m not sure the English translations of the Apostle Paul’s phrasing to the Galatian Church can truly capture his emphatic pathos about this issue. For Paul, Christ’s cross has done so much more than bring personal salvation; it has completely eradicated prejudice, discrimination, and division. 

Therefore, the Church is to be the one place on earth where divisions no longer exist. It is to be a foretaste of heaven. The Church is to be a new society, a community of the redeemed, based in equity, diversity, and inclusion, from every people group, race, ethnicity, and gender. Together as one, just as God is One, the Church lives the kingdom values of Christ’s words and ways in a fragmented world.

Since the ground is level at the cross, we are to live into Christian unity with a humble attitude and loving actions. To do otherwise is to be immature. We (hopefully) expect kids to be kids and not be like adults. They need teaching, training, and tutoring to learn. When kids grow up and get into adulthood, we then expect them to be like an adult. If they continue in childish behavior, they are immature.

Many adult Christians are still stuck in spiritual childhood. The evidence of this is seen in trying to stratify church society into insiders and outsiders, those who have always been in the church and newcomers who haven’t, the committed servants and the lax pew sitters.

Rather than all of that dividing of people, energy is to be placed with living into the egalitarian society inaugurated by Jesus (and Paul). Not taking women’s leadership seriously, avoiding relationships with the poor, and being xenophobic all come from a place of immaturity. It is childish behavior. Jesus expects better.

Embracing an egalitarian society neither means we are all the same nor should act alike. The diverse backgrounds and experiences of people help make a rich mosaic of support for one another in the Body of Christ.

Being egalitarian means all people are created in the image and likeness of God – no exceptions. All persons, therefore, deserve morally equal treatment, respect, and justice. A just and good Christian ethic ensures all believers are handled with love, given sound instruction, and are free to explore their gifts and abilities within the church.

Church, at its heart, is a community of equals. Thus, the church, as an egalitarian community, must actively reject racism, sexism, and all forms of discrimination while purposefully seeking ways to create and maintain a unified community without divisions.

Jesus reached out to the misfits and marginalized in society who were suffering from political, cultural, gender, and religious oppression and discrimination. The community of persons Christ formed included people of all ages and backgrounds. Children were welcome. Women sat down with men to learn and became active participants alongside one another.

Christ’s conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, the parable of the good Samaritan, and the healing of the daughter of the Canaanite woman, all illustrate that ministry is to reach beyond our own familiar group. In short, Jesus practiced a radical hospitality.

Christians would do well to emulate their Lord, as well as take their cues on ministry from Paul, who grounded both his theory and practice in a Trinitarian theology of equals.

Gracious God, you have abolished barriers through the redemption of Christ.  Prevent me from erecting walls that would divide and use me to be a bridge so that others may experience equality in Jesus.  Amen.

1 Peter 1:3-9 – Be Joyful in Suffering

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (New International Version)

One of my favorite stories is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. It’s a story of grace and new life. The main character is Jean Valjean, who spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family.  The experience in prison caused him to become a bitter man. 

By the time he is released, Valjean is hard, angry, and cynical. Since ex-convicts were not treated well in nineteenth-century France, Jean Valjean had nowhere to go. In desperation, he seeks lodging one night at the home of a Catholic bishop, who treats him with genuine kindness, which Valjean sees only as an opportunity to exploit. 

In the middle of the night, Jean Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and leaves. The next day, however, he is caught by the police. When they bring Jean back to the bishop’s house for identification, the police are surprised when the bishop hands two silver candlesticks to Valjean, implying that he had given the stolen silver to him, saying, “You forgot these.” 

After dismissing the police, the bishop turns to Jean Valjean and says, “I have bought your soul for God.” In that moment, by the bishop’s act of mercy, Valjean’s bitterness is broken.

Jean Valjean’s forgiveness is the beginning of a new life. The bulk of Victor Hugo’s novel demonstrates the utter power of a redeemed life. Jean chooses the way of mercy, as the bishop had done. 

Valjean raises an orphan, spares the life of a parole officer who spent fifteen years hunting him, and saves his future son-in-law from death, even though it nearly cost him his own life. There are trials and temptations for Valjean all along the way. 

What keeps Jean Valjean pursuing his new life is mercy. Whereas before, he responded to mercy with a brooding melancholy and inner anger, now – after being shown grace – Valjean responds to each case of unjust suffering with both mercy and joy, deeply thankful for the chance to live a new life full of grace.

Suffering and joy. They, at first glance, may seem to be opposites. Christianity views suffering as an occasion for joy, and not just empty meaningless grief. 

“A gracious soul may look through the darkest cloud and see God smiling on him.”

Thomas Brooks (1608-1680)

Followers of Jesus imitate their Savior through walking in the way of suffering. These sufferings are trials to our faith and the means by which our faith is developed, used, and strengthened. Just as gold is refined by being put through fire, so our faith is refined and proven genuine through the purging fires of life’s trials and troubles. 

Walking in the way of the Lord Jesus, adversity is our Teacher, helping us to know Christ better and appreciate the great deliverance from sin, death, and hell we possess in Jesus.

Adversity has a positive effect of making faith genuine. Every generation of Christians must come to grips with faith. Belief is not only a matter of confession with the lips; faith is also proven primarily through suffering. So, we must walk-the-talk, as well as talk-the-walk. 

Faith is like a new car – it is meant to be occupied, used, and driven – and not to only sit in the garage and be admired. A car is meant to be on the road, and if it does not perform well, we say it’s a lemon and we get another car. 

Cars are the vehicles getting us from point A to point B. And, hopefully, we enjoy the ride without being frustrated and having road rage. It is unrealistic, as drivers, to believe we will never have to drive in adverse road conditions. We know it is silly to believe the weather must always conform to our driving habits. 

Good drivers are good drivers because they drive a lot and have driven in nearly every road condition there is.  Mature Christians are those followers of Jesus who live their faith each and every day and, since they allow their faith to take them places, have seen all kinds of adversity, trials, and suffering along the road of life.

They have learned through all their troubles and trials to enjoy what God is doing in their lives instead of being frustrated and have faith-fury. Such Christians have the confidence they are receiving the goal of their faith, the salvation of their souls. They understand their faith grows and develops as they face the challenges of life every day with a firm commitment to their Lord Jesus.

There are times we feel overwhelmed by our circumstances and wonder how to get through them. Yet, no matter what happens, we still love Jesus and believe him, even though we don’t see him. Like Jean Valjean, we keep living our lives with joy knowing that mercy shapes our lives with purpose and meaning.

Peter could praise God because his life was transformed by the grace and mercy of Jesus. Peter went from an impulsive and fearful fisherman who denied the Lord three times, to a confident and courageous witness of Christ because he was regenerated, restored, and renewed by grace. He joyfully endured suffering and opposition because his faith was precious to him. 

There can be a tendency for many Christians to show a flat and staid attitude through the trials of life – trying to keep a stiff upper lip and endure. However, taking the approach of “It is what it is” only works for so long. 

Eventually “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” is a more appropriate response to trouble. It is precisely during those times when human hope fades that we rejoice – even though the rejoicing is through tears – in the living hope kept for us.

This gracious inheritance of hope is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. That means we can live through a difficult day or week or month or even, dear God, a year or longer with spiritual endurance. We can persevere through a worldwide trial of pandemic. We can do more than survive – we can thrive through having our faith muscle stretched and strengthened. We are not alone. We all suffer together.

Our shared value of the risen Christ is the fuel that keeps our car of faith running. It is what transcends the stoic attitude of unfeeling endurance to a joyful flourishing of faith. 

Eventually, suffering will have done its work and we will be with Christ forever. Until that day, let’s not hunker down and stay in the garage of life. Let us explore all that God has for us, embracing both the meaning and the mystery of faith. Since our salvation is assured, let us live with confidence and run the race marked out for us. 

Let us not be complacent or slow in doing the will of God, but work for God’s kingdom purposes on this earth, in this age, while it is still called Today. And let us allow the trials of this age to do their work in us, responding to them with joy knowing that our faith is being strengthened for the benefit of blessing the world. 

To God be the glory. Even in suffering.

Blessed Lord, you created us and lovingly care for us. We accept all our sufferings willingly, and as truly obedient children we resign ourselves to your holy will. Give us the strength to accept your loving visitation to us through adversity, and never let us grieve your heart by giving-in to impatience and discouragement. We offer you all our pains to be used for your honor and glory.

Brother Jesus, you loved us so much as to suffer and die for our deliverance from sin. Through the love we have for you, we willingly offer all that we have ever suffered in the past, am now suffering, and will suffer in the future. We are grateful that your love enables us to suffer with joy. Because you suffered, we have new life in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray. Amen.

James 1:1-8 – How to Face Painful Trials

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations:

Greetings.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. (New International Version)

Where do you turn when unwanted circumstances leave you wondering how to cope?

The Apostle James, no stranger to adversity and stressful situations, likened our position in hard situations as faith being on the witness stand, put to the test. Faith is being examined and cross-examined. And it must stand the test. 

Our attitude toward such trials, in all their varied forms, determines whether we will become upset, hard-hearted, and calloused, or, come through having our faith confirmed with newfound peace and joy.

James wrote to Jewish Christians who felt like fish out of water. They were part of the dispersion of believers from Jerusalem in the persecution against Stephen and the church (Acts 7). The dispersed believers were refugees – poor, in a foreign country, just trying to carve out an existence and live for Jesus the best they could under a lot of adversity. 

James exhorted the Christians to view their situation as an opportunity for their faith in Christ to develop and grow.

Rejoice in the midst of trials.

“Consider the adverse circumstances as joy? Are you smoking something?” we might wonder. Telling someone to consider their tough situation as pure joy is a really hard pill to swallow. 

I’m not sure what the believers were thinking when they first heard this from James, but they might have thought the guy was crazy. These were people experiencing a lot of hard things. To tell hungry families with scant resources, wondering where their next meal is coming from, that they ought to consider their situation as pure joy may seem strange, even downright calloused. 

James, however, was looking to fortify the believers’ faith. Whenever we get a cut or a laceration, the first thing needed is to apply peroxide to the wound so there will be no infection from the injury. It might seem insensitive because peroxide applied to an open wound, frankly, hurts like hell. Yet it must happen. It’s a necessary part of healing. 

The Apostle cared enough about the people to tell them what they needed to hear, up front. Without a positive, godly, and wise perspective on their difficult situation, they would not make it. Infection would set in and destroy the fledgling church.

Suffering, in the form of spiritual peroxide, is necessary. To merely say what itching ears want to hear helps no one. Suffering is a significant part of the Christian life. God never promised that life would be or should be all cupcakes and unicorns. 

In fact, Christ promised just the opposite – that everyone who wants to live for Jesus in this present broken world will have a hard time of it. It’s not a matter if you will face the testing of your faith, but of whenever you face trials.

The good news is that adversity can become our teacher. We can learn patient endurance, which is necessary to the development of our faith. Spiritual growth only matures through the testing of faith through adversity.

Faith is not a neutral or static thing. Faith is active and dynamic. It’s always either developing or degenerating.  Without spiritual peroxide, faith degenerates and becomes rancid. Eventually, gangrene sets in, and an amputation will happen. To avoid this, we need to learn how to experience joy in the middle of hard things.

It seems to me a great tragedy, for many Christians and faith communities, is that we can live a trivial, blasé, and superficial existence as believers in Jesus, and get away with it. Because we have the ability to be independent, self-sufficient, and hold our own, we don’t really need anybody, including God. We say we need God, then turn around and live our lives as if no divine being existed, at all. 

Too many folks are doing everything but exercising spiritual disciplines that would put them in touch with Jesus. To try and keep from getting hurt, church becomes optional; reading and reflecting on Scripture becomes our daily crumb instead of our daily bread; prayer becomes a hail Mary, only for times of desperation, and not as a means of connecting with Jesus; giving and serving becomes ancillary, done only if there is any discretionary time and money left over. 

The Christian life was not meant to be easy! It requires blood, sweat, and tears. Faith is challenging, and often hard. Yet, even within the pain, faith is incredibly invigorating and joyful.

Do not avoid trials.

We need perseverance. If we always bail out when things get hard, we will be immature. Only through endurance does the maturation process occur. Let your hard situation do its necessary work. Immature people avoid hard things and instead put their energy into keeping up appearances.

Conversely, the mature person spends energy standing the test and trial of faith. They understand that there must be pressure for spiritual maturity to occur.

Oyster pearls are valuable and expensive. They result from years of irritation. Natural pearls form when an irritant – usually a parasite – works its way into an oyster. As a defense mechanism, a fluid is used to coat the irritant. Layer upon layer of this coating is deposited until a beautiful pearl is formed.

God is looking to do something beautiful in our lives. So, if we constantly run away and do not deal with our hard situations, there will never be a pearl. It takes about ten years for a pearl to form in an oyster in the ocean.  Observing an oyster every day, you never notice any movement is happening. You only see the irritation.

In the Christian life, the consistent daily choices over a long period of time (perseverance) form the eventual beauty.

No one needs to go looking for trials. And, I might add, you don’t need to take upon yourself being someone else’s trial. There’s no such thing in the New Testament of anyone having the spiritual gift of irritation. The trials come from God, not people. Therefore, we are to let our faith develop and grow through the testing.

Yet, what if I am in the middle of something so hard that I just cannot see God’s perspective on it? What if there is seemingly nothing redemptive from this adversity?

Pray for wisdom in the trials.

Ask God for wisdom to see the situation from a different angle – of its positive good, and for what God is accomplishing in and through it. The truth is, God is developing within people a strong vibrant faith, if we allow it.

Growing up on the farm, we had apple trees on the property. My Dad had a shop in the garage with a big vice on the workbench. Vices and little boys were made for each other. My brother and I used to find all kinds of things to put in that vice and squeeze them until they broke, split, or exploded. 

Putting fresh apples in the vice was one of our favorites. The best were the strong juicy ones because we could get them to splatter everywhere. We hated the wormy apples. They were rotten inside and collapsed with only a little pressure.

God will, at times, put us in the divine vice – not because the Lord is mean or delights in our pain. God places us in situations of extreme pressure for fresh prayers to explode out of us to heaven.

If we are walking with God, we will be strong and juicy. However, if we have neglected God, then just a smidge of pressure will create a collapsing wormy mess. With no meaningful prayers, there is no meaningful wisdom for our circumstances.

Believe God is good no matter the trial.

God is not mean, but generous. The Lord gives with no questions asked, and without giving us a hard time about our situation. Yet, there is a condition….

We must believe – that God is good, answers prayer, and gives wisdom. Doubting God’s generosity and benevolence is a demonstration of a weak wormy faith. We may doubt a lot of things. Yet we are always to be secure in the knowledge that God has our best interests at heart. This is why there can be joy and perseverance, even when everything around us is going to hell.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through stubborn self-will, and never abandon the struggle but endure to the end. Help us never to choose the cheap way of avoiding or circumventing our trials but embrace the Via Dolorosa. May we never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown. Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:27-31 – Diversity and Unity

All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it. Here are some of the parts God has appointed for the church:

first are apostles,
second are prophets,
third are teachers,
then those who do miracles,
those who have the gift of healing,
those who can help others,
those who have the gift of leadership,
those who speak in unknown languages.

Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! So, you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts.

But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all. (New Living Translation)

“Ubuntu” is an African Zulu word for humanity. It roughly translates into English as, “I am because we are.”

In whatever way it is to be translated, the idea behind ubuntu is a belief of being connected in a universal bond of humanity. So, an authentic individual human is part of a larger and more significant relational, communal, societal, environmental, and spiritual world.

That is precisely what today’s New Testament lesson is all about. Believers in Jesus are connected to one another, as well as having a human bond with all people, since everyone is created in the image and likeness of God.

“We are made for goodness. We are made for love. We are made for friendliness. We are made for togetherness. We are made for all of the beautiful things that you and I know. We are made to tell the world that there are no outsiders. All are welcome: black, white, red, yellow, rich, poor, educated, not educated, male, female, gay, straight, all, all, all. We all belong to this family, this human family, God’s family.”

Desmond Tutu

So, then, we are all to use whatever spiritual gifts and divinely given abilities for the common good of everyone. Just like the triune G-d who is both unity and diversity, and just as an individual human body has many parts yet one person, so also believers are diverse in every way yet thoroughly unified as one Body of Christ.

The Church at Corinth had divided into special interest groups who followed a particular person. Each was continually lobbying for what they wanted, rather than seeking to work together as one temple of G-d. And each group believed their gifts were superior.

Paul identified some spiritual gifts – neither to give an exhaustive list, nor to rank them in importance – but to clarify that all these diverse people and their G-d-given skills are to be used for the building up of the congregation. Ideally, the people’s gifts are to flow together in common worship, fellowship, encouragement, and mission:

  • Apostles. There are two kinds. Capital “A” Apostles are the original ones. They are set apart as those who saw the Lord and were his disciples. Little “a” apostles are “sent ones” or missionaries, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed to those who need to hear.
  • Prophets. These are folks possessing a function and gift of encouragement, building up the church through picturing a special future for the ministry of the community.
  • Teachers. Explaining sound doctrine through careful application of Scripture to daily life and ministry is the function of a biblical teacher.
  • Miracle workers and healers. Yes, miracles and healing happened and still occur. These are believers with an unusual gift of faith who are able to discern with spiritual eyes what others tend not to see.
  • Helpers. A necessary element of any Christian fellowship are people who serve in all kinds of capacities: giving to others’ needs; doing acts of mercy and benevolence; and attending to whatever physical needs Christians are faced with.
  • Leaders. Men and women who provide guidance and steer the church in directions they ought to go. They are skilled administrators, able to give wise counsel.
  • Speakers in tongues (languages). It must be borne in mind that this gift is not an end in itself. It is a Spirit-given ability to help include people. Christianity was never intended to be an exclusive club of Jews or devoted solely to a particular class or race. The gospel is meant for every type of person.

Reflecting on all these gifts and abilities within the Church, Paul rattled off a flurry of staccato-like rhetorical questions. The point is to lift up all the gifts as equally needed and appreciated. The ghettoized Corinthian Church needed an understanding of this. Their individual identities were too wrapped up in their abilities, rather than in Christ.

Keep in mind that today’s New Testament lesson immediately precedes the great ode to love of chapter 13. It is the primacy and permanency of love which holds everyone together. Love is the supreme end of all the speaking and serving gifts.

The most excellent way of engaging our giftedness is expressing it with the love of G-d in Christ Jesus. Anything less than this is a mere shadow of the gospel and severely truncates Christian mission and worship.

What’s more, not only does every local church need to function in unity through diverse exercise of gifts with the individual members, so every local church must cooperate and live in harmony with all other churches. Yes, if you are reading ecumenism in this, you are correct. An ecumenical spirit is a generous spirit which pays attention to other believers in our communities, countries, and throughout the world.

“Unity, not uniformity, must be our aim. We attain unity only through variety. Differences must be integrated, not annihilated, not absorbed.”

Mary Parker Follett

If leaders, teachers, helpers, healers, church planters and encouragers are all doing their jobs, according to the grace given them, then working together with believers everywhere simply happens. And it never seems weird to extend basic Christian mercy and care to believers everywhere – no matter whether they are in full agreement with our doctrinal statements, or not.

When Jesus prayed for all potential believers to be one as G-d is one, he wasn’t thinking of special interest groups, separated Christianized ghettos, nor some believers as being more right or special than other believers.

Diversity, unity, equity, inclusion, and most of all, love, are what characterizes the Lord. It should characterize us, too.

Methinks the Zulu were on to something with the concept of ubuntu. A person is most fully a person through other people. It seems to me it is high time to affirm the basic humanity in others through appreciating their unique difference.  

You and I are more than independent individuals. Our shared humanity is a quality we owe to each other.

I am because we are.

Lord G-d almighty, Creator of the universe, who made us different from one another in myriad ways we can see and in more ways we shall never know yet made us all in your image; fill our hearts with your love and our minds with your wisdom, that we may truly become brothers and sisters of your only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.