Acts 13:16-25 – The Motivation of Ministry

Paul speaking in the synagogue, a 12th century Byzantine mosaic

Paul got up. He motioned with his hand and said:

People of Israel, and everyone else who worships God, listen! The God of Israel chose our ancestors, and he let our people prosper while they were living in Egypt. Then with his mighty power he led them out, and for about forty years he took care of them in the desert. He destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan and gave their land to our people. All this happened in about 450 years.

Then God gave our people judges until the time of the prophet Samuel, but the people demanded a king. So, for forty years God gave them King Saul, the son of Kish from the tribe of Benjamin. Later, God removed Saul and let David rule in his place. God said about him, “David the son of Jesse is the kind of person who pleases me most! He does everything I want him to do.”

God promised that someone from David’s family would come to save the people of Israel, and that one is Jesus. But before Jesus came, John was telling everyone in Israel to turn back to God and be baptized. Then, when John’s work was almost done, he said, “Who do you people think I am? Do you think I am the Promised One? He will come later, and I am not good enough to untie his sandals.” (CEV)

In the Apostle Paul’s first missionary journey, he and Barnabas had the practice of traveling from city to city and attending the local synagogue services. It was customary to have a time in the worship when a word of encouragement could be offered from folks in the congregation. Paul consistently took those opportunities to talk of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards… Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” 

Søren Kierkegaard

Paul’s conversion to Christianity totally altered his motivation. Jesus was everything to him. Jesus is what got him up in the morning. Jesus is who sustained him through his days. Jesus was who Paul thought about when he went to sleep at night. Paul was unabashedly Christo-centric in all he said and did.

As for me, the spiritual care of others out of the overflow of my heart, full of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is the driving force of my life. As a Christian, I believe all spiritual care begins and ends with Jesus. The Christian tradition emphasizes that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  The apex of creation, the height of all God’s creative activity, is the formation of humanity upon the earth.  Human beings alone have been created in the image and likeness of God – reflecting the divine in their care for all creation (Genesis 1:26-27).

Therefore, all persons on the good earth which God created are inherently good creatures and deserve utmost respect and common decency. So, my identity as a person is firmly rooted and grounded in the soil of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. My Christianity has the practical effect of acknowledging that each person on planet earth is inherently worthy of love, support, concern, and care. 

What is more, everything in my life centers (ideally) around Jesus. As such, I take my cues for how to extend care to others from him. For me, Jesus is the consummate caregiver. Christ entered people’s lives and their great sea of need with the gift of listening; a focus on feelings; and the power of touch.  Christ was able to listen to others because he first listened to the Father. Jesus was present to others because he was present with the Father. Jesus Christ gave love to others with the love he enjoyed with the Father and the Spirit. 

By the wounds of Christ, we are healed. Paul knew this firsthand. He needed a boatload of emotional and spiritual healing from his guilt and shame as a persecutor of faith before his conversion. Paul discovered in Christ the grace of healing, both body and soul.  

People’s stories of joy and pain, laughter and sorrow, certainty and wondering, are sacred narratives – continuously being written and revised in the heart, trying to make sense of life and faith. The Apostle Paul had a doozy of a life story to tell. Coupled with his keen intellect and training, Paul could be very persuasive. Paul’s ministry, emulating the life of Christ, was not to force the gospel obnoxiously and belligerently onto others but to pastorally respond to everyone he encountered. Both Paul and Jesus confronted and confounded folks with incredible love.

The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.

karl barth

Every person, without exception, is precious and carries within them the image of God. The personal journey and discovery of Godlikeness within each person is an emotional adventure worth taking. One of the great Christian theologians of the 20th century, the Protestant Swiss Karl Barth, believed that we are not fully human apart from mutual seeing and being seen, reciprocal speaking and listening, granting one another mutual assistance, and doing all of this with gratitude and gratefulness.

Only in relation to each other, including those in need, do we thrive as people – which is why Paul was intensely personal and relational in his missionary ministry. Christianity is a fellowship with God and one another, and not an isolated odyssey. Paul always traveled with others.

Christian ministry is a symbiotic relationship between the servant and the served, expressed with grace and hope given by Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit. The person in need not be Christian for this to occur, since all share the common human experience of birth, life, and death as people distinct from all other creatures, worthy of compassionate support and spiritual uplift. This is the reason why I do what I do, as a believer in and minister for Jesus Christ, and I have a hunch it was the same for Paul.

Loving God, the One who cares and saves, enable me, like your servant Paul, to speak peace, be hospitable, heal the sick, proclaim that the kingdom of God has come near, not take rejection personally, and let you do your work of changing lives and bringing them into the dance of the Trinity with Christ and your Spirit. Amen.

1 Corinthians 12:4-13 – For the Common Good

spiritual gifts

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (NRSV)

A gift is meant to be unpacked. It would be weird if someone was given a gift, then let it sit unopened. Instead, we typically receive the gift, rip it open, and express gratitude for the thoughtfulness. Then, we use and enjoy it.

The Spirit, likewise, has been marvelously given to God’s people. Each individual Christian is specially provided a gift to open, use, and enjoy. Spiritual gifts graciously given to us are meant for the common good of all. And this use for the common good is where the gift is different than Christmas or birthday presents.

Spiritual gifts are designed by God to be acts and words of service, dispersed for the benefit of others. They are not meant solely for personal satisfaction. So, if a person’s spiritual gift is teaching, they do not stand in front of a mirror and talk at themselves. Instead, they jump into the fray of learning and explaining, and do it in such a gracious and loving way that the enabling of the Spirit is evident.

If a person’s gift is faith, they do not merely step out and act with unusual courage for the purpose of personal betterment in a holy belief from God. They also demonstrate faithfulness to God’s people and to God’s world. The gift is for the common good of all persons.

Spiritual gifts are intended by God to be shared freely for the common good of all people so that everyone is supported for the rigors of daily life in the world.

Therefore, we are to take initiative in identifying our gift(s), unpacking them, and indiscriminately using them.  Spiritual health and wholeness can only truly be realized through everyone’s active participation in distributing their God-given abilities. Spiritual gifts are neither to be hoarded, nor miserly dealt to only people I like or my own little world of groupies and friends. Any and every ability comes from God, and is, therefore given for the benefit of all persons. Underprivileged groups need the gifts of others, as well as discovering their own resources so that everyone is built up in a society of redeemed persons.

In addition, mavericks are not helpful here. The Lone Ranger is not to be the model of aspiration. Christians are the Body of Christ, meant to function as one. Just as the Holy Trinity of divine three persons – Father, Son, and Spirit – work together in unity of purpose and harmony of being, so the persons of the Church are to unify and act as one in the mission of God. Diversity of gifts are to be expressed in unity of building up others and extending Christ’s love to the world. When we harmoniously coordinate our joint efforts in utilizing our collective spiritual gifts, the world is turned upside-down with kingdom grace and ethics.

Sometimes we might succumb to “gift envy.” We observe the talented gift of another and secretly wish it for ourselves. The proper remedy to such a malady is gratitude. When we give thanks to God for the gift(s) we truly possess, then envy has nowhere to reside and slithers away. None of God’s gifts are “sexy” in the sense that they come easily without effort and always look appealing. On the contrary, our gifts are meant to be received and developed with lots of daily mundane work so that we live into the special endowment bestowed upon us. This, in fact, takes a lifetime of development because the Spirit’s gifts are so generously large – much bigger than we originally observe at first glance. Like an engagement ring in a tiny box, receiving the gift and putting it on will involve commitments and challenges we cannot at the time perceive.

Whatever it is you do well, do it to the glory of God. Allow God to activate it and energize it for the prevailing needs of a church and a world which is in want of seeing spiritual fruit manifest in kindness, goodness, and love.

O Lord, you have taught me that without love, whatever I do is worth nothing.  Send your Holy Spirit and pour into my heart your greatest gift, which is love, the true bond of peace and of all virtue, without which whoever lives is accounted dead before you. Grant this for the sake of your only Son Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Trinity Sunday – The God of Wholeness

oak tree 2

We live in a fundamentally broken world. Systemic racism, political gridlock, social stratification, hate crimes, alcohol and domestic abuse, ageism, disease, malpractice, terrorism, and xenophobia barely scratch the surface of sad societal ills and we face living in this old fallen world. Indeed, it is all quite distressing. To realize wholeness and integrity will require operating the mechanism of blessing.

“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” (2 Corinthians 13:14)

This is the blessing I leave with my congregation each Sunday. A divine blessing involves the wholeness and integrity of the triune God given to us through grace, love, and fellowship. Holding each facet of that blessing together can sometimes be a challenge.

There was a time in my life when I golfed every day. Even though I played a lot of golf, it was rare for me to have an entire round where my driving, approach shots, chipping, and putting all worked nicely together. My typical experience was that when my driving was superb, my chipping and putting was awful; or, that when my putting was amazing, my approach shots were atrocious. Rarely did I have the whole package of a solid golf game put together in one seamless round. Instead, my game, along with most amateur golfers, is typically disjointed with a combination of brilliant shots and ugly shanks.

The Christian life can seem the same way – with the ability to show love and grace, be open and caring on some days, and not so much on other days. We need God – the triune God. Within God there is complete wholeness, a total well-rounded divine Being.  As we connect with this Being, then we can experience God’s wholeness and integrity, which leads to our own consistent daily wholeness, with no divided herky-jerky self.

The Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit – provides us with a model of wholeness and displays how it all comes together in a solid consistent life of blessing. There is a beautiful connection between the Trinity and our lives.  It is a path to wholeness that involves healing, hope, and spiritual health based in the triune God.

Healing

The grace of Jesus enables us to pull ourselves together. Jesus is the one who has brought reconciliation and restoration – he has made the bridge and connection to God. In response to this grace we aim for perfection (not perfectionism) pull ourselves together” and restore and heal ourselves. Since Jesus is the Reconciler, the one who restores and heals, we are to allow that grace to wash over us and seep deep into our souls so that we experience reconciliation, restoration, and healing.  When we are broken and disjointed, the grace of Jesus sets us back in place again.

Tim Hansel

The late Tim Hansel was a teacher and mountain climber. He wrote a book many years ago entitled, You Gotta Keep Dancin’: In the Midst of Life’s Hurts, You Can Choose Joy! Hansel lived with chronic debilitating pain for thirty-five years after a climbing accident where he literally fell off a mountain and shattered most of the vertebrae in his back. In his long journey of coming to grips with his painful existence, Tim Hansel discovered that wholeness can certainly come through brokenness. Healing can happen with pain still present. Maturity can occur through painful growth of the human spirit. He constantly said to people, “Pain is inevitable; but misery is optional.” He explained to others, “Character is developed through adversity and pain. That adversity can either destroy us or build us up, but it will not leave us the same, depending upon our chosen response to it.  Pain can either make us better or bitter.”

Even if you do not experience the kind of healing and restoration of body or soul you are looking for, maybe, like Tim Hansel, you will receive grace and freedom that the loving triune God gives. God himself lives with observing the terrible pain of humanity’s hurts every day. The more we participate in the life of God, the greater is our ability to deal with pain – our own as well as the pain of others.

Hope

The fellowship of the Holy Spirit enables us to receive comfort. The Spirit is the Paraclete, the one who encourages by coming alongside and helping. The Spirit works with us, intimately participating in our lived everyday experiences. The Spirit is God’s means of experiencing wholeness. The Holy Spirit lovingly appeals to us in ways we can understand and act – speaking words of comfort and exhortation with the commitment to a faithful presence. Since the Spirit is committed to helping us, thus, we are to help others through living in fellowship with them.

John-Wesley

When John Wesley was a young Christian, a seasoned saint advised him, “Do you wish to serve God and go to heaven? Remember you cannot serve him alone. You must therefore find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.” Wesley took that advice to heart. Convinced that the pursuit of personal holiness was impossible apart from Christian community, he carefully organized the Methodist movement (a reaction against solitary religion) into societies (congregations), classes (small groups of eight to twelve), and bands (accountability groups of three to five).

We are meant to receive the encouragement of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not hold back in providing us with the help we need to live the Christian life in the form of other believers. We are all important. If we are not healed, we hurt and then hurt others. However, with healing comes hope, and hope encourages us that it will not always be this way – there are better days ahead.

Hope helps us to see beyond the immediate pain, hard circumstance, or adversity to what God can do through the help and power of the Holy Spirit. Just as there is complete and whole fellowship within the triune God, so there can be wholeness of fellowship with us. Christianity is not a solitary religion; it involves companions and fellow disciples for the journey.

Health

The love of God the Father is our peace. God’s unconditional love brings spiritual health to the Body of Christ and to the world. Within God there is complete and total love – a wholeness in which everything God does expresses loving-kindness.

Unity and peace happen when there is health in the church and the world. It is the fruit of love. Love for one another brings unity of prayer and purpose. It is love that brings about peace and harmony. It is love which solidifies compassion in circumstances of adversity.

We are meant to receive the Father’s love. Love brings people together and enables them to become conduits of the loving nature of God to others. There is no other path to spiritual health and sanity than the journey of love.  And love most often gets messy because we get into the muck of people’s lives with all their needs and hurts. Sometimes it takes a tragedy before some folks show love. So, live each day with no regrets as if it were your last and Jesus was coming today.

The Trinity

God the Son, Jesus Christ, brings healing because of his grace.

God the Holy Spirit brings hope because of his encouragement.

God the Father brings health because of his love.

Because of the Trinity, our work is clear:

The Body of Christ brings healing to the world because it bestows grace.

The Body of Christ brings hope to the world because of its encouragement.

The Body of Christ brings health to the world because of its love.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forever. Amen.

John 14:15-17 – Love and the Trinity

Trinity Love

[Jesus said] “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.” (NIV)

“The best love is the kind that awakens the soul and makes us reach for more, that plants a fire in our hearts and brings peace to our minds.”–Noah, from the movie, The Notebook

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7)

Love makes the world go around. Love is the invisible spiritual and emotional atom giving our lives substance, energy, and meaning. God is that atom, constantly creating love within himself in an explosion of attentive fatherly protons, gracious messianic neutrons, and active Spirit electrons.

In this post Day of Pentecost time, as well as the anticipation of Trinity Sunday, we are reminded of the connection between God the Son, God the Father, and God the Spirit. Yes, as today’s Gospel lesson demonstrates to us, Christians serve a triune God – one God in three persons. Many metaphors have been attempted (attempt is the right term for my atom analogy) to try and explain the Trinity. The truth is, although some images are helpful, they all fall short. That is because I can no more explain God than I can explain my wife and daughters. Just as females are an enigma to males, so God moves, acts, and speaks in ways that are ofttimes puzzling to humanity. Maybe that is why Jesus said the world does not discern or accept the Holy Spirit. Far too many folks like nice tidy answers to clear questions. Jesus babbling about some person living in us appears highly nonsensical to a chunk of humanity.

So, for me, I continually come back to what I know and understand about the Trinity: It is an intimate fellowship of love. In love, the Father and the Son have sent the Spirit to be with us forever – the Spirit of truth. In a world where evidence-based reasoning typically eschews any sort of intuitive knowledge, there are many learned people who believe spiritual matters are best left to guys like me. Yet, we severely truncate our ability to know anything if our epistemic presuppositions are bereft of knowledge beyond our five senses. For Christians and many other spiritually sensitive people, we discern there are senses beyond taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing. Indeed, for those with spiritual eyes to see and ears to hear, there is a vast multi-dimensional world far above and beyond the habitation of our three-dimensional space. And love binds it all together.

I once asked an extremely secular-minded friend about love. He talked of loving words and actions that are derived from biological instinct and well-developed brain chemistry. After he spoke at some length about this, I simply asked him, “Does that kind of understanding about love help you in your relationships, especially with your girlfriend?” He looked at me like I had caught him with his hand in the cookie jar. “It doesn’t – and we are not doing so well in our relationship.”

I am not here to make digs at secular thinkers. In fact, I deeply appreciate the many friends I have whose worldviews are quite different than mine. I just have personally discovered that the Bible rings true for me (and it did not for many years when I was younger) and that the Trinity is a reality because of the Holy Spirit’s witness of truth in me.

Trinity Love 2

Love is a matter of the gut and the head as well as the heart. Love can no more be relegated to limited spheres of being than a mule can be tamed with nicely asking him to settle down. Love is much too big, expansive, and powerful to be contained. So, it resides within God because God is the only Being which can hold it. God’s words and actions are not merely loving – God himself is love. And God lovingly bestows that love to us in measures and in ways we can absorb it and know it. Just as people can die of a broken heart, so their hearts can burst if filled with such overwhelming love. The Father and the Son have graciously given the Spirit to be a kind of steward of love within us – dispensing love with great care and attention in ways we feel it and may not be able to explain it with words.

I take great solace in the fact that the Holy Spirit is my Advocate. We all have times in our lives when we just cannot seem to get anywhere – or do not have the ability to express what we want. In such times, we need an advocate, someone who has the weight to be heard by others – someone who has our back when we are experiencing limitations. The Spirit is such a person. And the Spirit advocates for us in loving ways for all parties involved. The only thing impossible for God is to be unloving and unkind; it is not in his nature. Because of divine love, God sent the Son, then the Spirit, to be with us forever so that we would never be alone and always have someone to champion our well-being.

Living in obedience to the God of Love is sheer joy and delight. Laboring for the Lord seems almost effortless when we have a true vision of God high above, surveying all creation with eyes of love for his people – as well as a vision of God below and right next to us, listening with rapt attention to our every word and himself delighted with each movement we make.

Look upon us, O Lord, and let all the darkness of our souls vanish before the beams of your brightness. Fill us with holy love, and open to us the treasures of your wisdom. All our desires are known to you, therefore, perfect what you have begun and what your Spirit has awakened us to ask in prayer. Turn your face toward us and show us your great love and glory. Then shall our longings be satisfied, and our peace shall be perfect.

–A Prayer of St. Augustine, 354–430 CE