My family and I were in Washington D.C. the week before Independence Day, doing as many of the “tourist” things we could: the White House, the US Capitol building, the National Archives, and so many museums, monuments, and memorials. Most of what we saw had something in common — the IDEA OF FREEDOM. Having achieved freedom from the British monarchy, can you imagine how our country’s founders would have felt if the new U.S. citizens continued to pay royal taxes anyway?
The Colossian church had experienced an unprecedented freedom in Christ: “God made you alive with Christ” (2:13). But some new ideas (now often called “the Colossian heresy”) have permeated the congregation that are threatening their newfound freedom with “hollow and deceptive philosophy” (v.8).
What makes these ideas hollow and deceptive? Essentially, they are promising a greater spiritual fulfillment than what Christ alone offers. But they find their origins in “human tradition” and “principles of the world.” Human tradition and worldly principles needn’t all be categorized as wrong or bad, but the fact is that they are not absolute. That which is not absolute cannot offer something absolute.
The fullness of life which God freely offers in Christ is an absolute promise, which the Colossians had already experienced, and which God, the Creator and Source of life, is powerful to fulfill. So there is no need to augment it with legalistic religious practices, intellectual gymnastics, or ecstatic experiences. As the song proclaims: “Christ is enough for me; everything I need is in You.”
It’s not always easy to remember this, which is why Paul urges us to “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him” (2:6-7).
- What ideas are “out there” that suggest Christ isn’t enough for a full life?
- Do you ever struggle against the temptation to “add” things to your spiritual life, as though Christ were not sufficient?
- “Rooted in him”: Try reading the Bible or praying with the posture of listening for God, intentionally asking God to speak to you.
- “Built up in him”: Jesus triumphed over the world humbly, on the cross. Try being a humble servant to someone extra this week, or giving some extra time and energy to your community.
In the 21st century, we talk a lot about the countless varieties of cultures, languages, customs, and beliefs of the worldwide human community. And we celebrate that variety, rightly so. But variety isn’t a new idea (as we saw only a few weeks ago in the Empowered series*). Paul’s first-century context was full of variety, and just like today people had to navigate through various and often conflicting sources of truth. And just like today, the practice of “syncretism” was commonplace — creating a mixture of beliefs and practices to suit one’s personal needs: Jesus is good for the forgiveness of your sins, but not for informing policy. For that, you’ve got to enthrone the right leader. Right?
In this anthem to Christ, Paul subverts the worldly powers of the day by emphasizing the primacy of Christ. Jesus, he says, is:
- The “firstborn” over creation
- “Before” all things
- The “head” of the body (the Church)
- The “beginning” and “firstborn” of the resurrection to eternal life.
But why? “So that he might have the supremacy” (v. 13).
Of course, good human leadership matters. We’re called to steward God’s world responsibly. But besides Jesus, no idea is supreme. No policy is supreme. No leader is supreme. Because when we dethrone Jesus, we enthrone something else. But nothing and no one else is worthy. Nothing and no one else laid down their life for yours. Nothing and no one else reconciled the world to God and leads all people in reconciliation with each other. Nothing and no one else has ultimately set us free. In John’s vision in Revelation, the living creatures in heaven proclaim that Jesus is worthy “because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
In our world, where you can customize everything from your Subway sandwich to your sources of global information, a claim that anything is “supreme” over all creation is audacious and counter-cultural. Paul knew it. And we know it. But the truth of the gospel is compelling: Jesus is enough. Life starts there. And all the details that are important for living with health and responsibility are subservient to the one who:
- Shows us God’s nature
- Holds all creation together
- Gives the blueprint for peace and reconciliation.
- When the future looks dire, whom do you instinctively trust first for help?
- When the future looks grim, is there any good reason not to turn to Christ in prayer before we do or say anything else?
- When the future looks bright, to whom do we give the credit?
- When the future looks hopeful, where do we tend to invest our ongoing hope?
- Resistance to the idea of someone being “supreme” is based in mistrust that such a person might abuse their power. But Jesus is no ordinary person. What has Jesus done to assure us that in his power, we are set free?
*Variety and Unity, Part 1, and Variety and Unity, Part 2.
Jesus in solitude, community, and ministry.
This passage in the gospel of Luke shows the pattern by which Jesus ultimately practiced what we think of as “ministry.” Jesus practicing these disciplines in a particular order that would empower his life and ministry: Solitude, Community, then Ministry.
Jesus founded his life and ministry in solitude with the heavenly Father. Why? Because it is in that place, one-on-one with our Creator, that we intentionally make room for him to express his divine love for us.
Then can we be equipped to live in community in a healthy, life-giving way. All too often we get these in reverse, expecting our human community to make us feel beloved. But we can’t expect people to love us unconditionally or perfectly, any more than we can expect ourselves to love others that way. When our community is basically “loneliness grabbing onto loneliness” we are set up for dysfunction and disappointment. But if we build our community upon the strength of our solitude with God — “beloved grabbing onto beloved”* — then we have the chance to experience community that freely and burdenlessly shares God’s love.
This is the power by which God’s ministry — the third step — flows through people. Ministry at this point becomes the living and sharing of God’s love to the world out of the unquenchable experience of our own belovedness, first in solitude, then in community.
- When is the last time you intentionally made ample space to listen for God’s Holy Spirit in your life?
- What are you expecting from your community (church, family, friends)?
- Have you ever experienced frustration, disappointment, or powerlessness in your work?
- How difficult would it be to begin your day in solitude with God?
- If you already have a habit of beginning your day in solitude with God, has it affected your interactions in community, or your work?
The foundation of a community whose variety is united in Christ.
Whether or not you believe the American culture is “more divided than ever” (and there are lots of people on both sides), it’s hard to ignore the divisive rhetoric that surrounds us these days. It seems like “getting along” shouldn’t be that tough, but it is.
The problem is trying to transform human division by human means. There’s little point in trying to “get along” when the tools we’re using are broken. I’m often shocked by the hubris that presumes that after thousands of years of human conflict, “this time we’ll get it right.” Why? Because we have smartphones? Solar power? Proton therapy? The reality is that despite advances in various technologies that give the impression of progress, we’re as spiritually broken as we ever were.
People are constantly insisting that human beings are “equal” but they rarely explain why, or how. In the first half of Ephesians 2, Paul lays out three ways that people, in all their variety, are united:
- We’re united in sin. This natural condition into which we’re born is something we all share, across all demographics of humanity.
- We’re united in God’s love. Of course if sin is common to all than God’s love in Christ is available to all.
- We’re united in God’s purpose. When we’re honest about our sinfulness and receive God’s love for us in Christ, he crafts us into a new humanity that can demonstrate his love to the world.
- Imagine someone very different from you. Include visible differences, like ethnicity and language, but also invisible differences like beliefs and values. Are you able to visualize that person and yourself as equals when it comes to being born in a sinful condition?
- Imagine the same person again, or perhaps a new person who is very different from you. Really challenge yourself to imagine someone whose values conflict with your own. Consider: God loves this person as much as God loves you.
- How might it change our perception of people, in all their variety, if we kept these universal commonalities in mind — that we’re all sinners, and we’re all loved by God?
Paul’s instruction about taking the Lord’s Supper
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you…”
With these words, Paul is explaining to the early Christians in Corinth something of primary importance for life and faith: the Lord’s supper.
The Hebrew context here is crucial. Jesus didn’t choose his elements at random. He ordained this sacramental meal for the Church from that time until today in the context of Covenant.
Through the history of God’s people recorded across the entire biblical narrative, a pattern emerges. God makes promises. And people fail to remember (see Hosea 11:1-2 for how God perceives our forgetfulness).
It is no wonder then that when Jesus introduced the bread and the cup as the new covenant in his body and blood, he commanded that we “Remember.”
Of course, remembering that for which Jesus died — the forgiveness of sin and reconciliation to God — also (ironically) means we can forget. We can forget the sins that so easily ensnare, and celebrate the liberation Christ won for us! After all, God in his omniscience is described as effectively “forgetting” that which has led us astray and embracing us, whom he loves so dearly (see the story of the lost son for a powerful image of this).
We come together as the Christ-community and express his love in many ways: worship, song, prayer, learning, serving, laughing, crying. When we gather as the Christ-community, we enact that for which the Lord’s Supper stands. We are doing this in remembrance of Him.
- Have you ever experienced the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist)? What was your experience like?
- Have you ever forgotten something that you knew you should have remembered?
- When someone in our close community forgets something important (like a birthday) what is that experience like? Why?
- Some people think ceremony or tradition is superficial or unnecessary in a community. But Jesus clearly knew that ceremony was essential. What do you think?
- What intentional steps can you take this week to “Remember” Jesus’ good news each day?
Paul and Silas are Freed from Prison
How many doors do you think you go through every day? Front, back, side, garage, gates, swinging, revolving, automatic, elevator…prison?
The apostle Paul got himself in a number of tangles as an itinerant evangelist in the first century, and the story linked above is one of the most memorable. Having liberated a female slave from her spiritual bondage, her owners threw Paul and Silas in prison for jeopardizing their revenue source! Never worry — God isn’t scared by prisons.
One of the more fascinating characters in this story is the jailer himself. Frederick Buechner notes that in a sense we’re all the “Jailer.” We wall ourselves behind the stone and steel of repression, denial, and concealment in an effort to stay safe. The irony is that we are in bondage. The good news is that God liberates the oppressed!
When Paul’s prison doors are flung wide open, the jailer knows that he’d be better off committing suicide than facing the punishment for his failure as a prison guard. But Paul knows better. Shouting “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here!” Paul embodies this poignant truth:
Alone, death seems inevitable.
But together, God opens doors to new life.
Paul knew that his freedom would be no freedom at all if it came at the expense of his jailer. His freedom was given by God SO THAT he could be a liberating agent for the jailer.
This story does have a happy ending — the sparing of the jailer’s life and the baptism of him and his family. But it came at a cost to Paul and Silas — flogging, humiliation and prison. The reality is that the Christ-community has battles to fight and must at times persevere great challenges. But the end is worth the means — salvation and feasting as God’s Community.
- Imagine you’re Paul or Silas. What would your first reaction be when your prison doors swung open?
- Have you ever experienced the oppression of loneliness, as the jailer did in his moment of desperation?
- Have you ever experienced the joy and freedom of community?
- What can you do in the spheres of community in which you live to live out Paul’s message to the jailer: “We’re all here!” To whom might that matter most in your world?
Jesus’ community has always been fundamentally counter-cultural. Where else do people of all generations and walks of life gather for a common purpose? And not to consume goods or experiences either, but really the opposite. To give. To create. Not even for their own sake, but for the sake of the Master. This radical, purposeful community defined by God’s presence and work in the world — this was the dream of the prophets.
The counter-cultural purpose of Jesus’ community reflects its counter-intuitive nature: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v.21). It cannot be earned with moral behavior. It cannot be acquired through transcendental enlightenment. This is the grace and mercy Jesus showed Peter around that fateful campfire, when he forgave him his denials and restored his belonging and purpose in Christ’s community. This is the same Peter who preached in Acts 2 on the prophetic dream of Christ’s community.
The problem is that one dream can be co-opted by secular, cultural “dreams” of community and contentment. But if dreams are by nature creative and unique, like the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, then we must be open and responsive to God the Holy Spirit. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be swept into the habit of dreaming the same materialistic and self-aggrandizing dream as the bulk of our population. “When the whole population dreams the same dream, empire is triumphant.”*
We are called to be animated by a different narrative, and our experience of Jesus’ community will be only be what we make it. God’s grace is unconditional. Our choice to respond in gracious and merciful community? Well that’s up to us.
- Describe the prophet Joel’s “dream” in your own words.
- Do you see his dream anywhere in the world today?
- Many people would respond positively to Joel’s vision — what makes the Christian response unique?
- If our community is “up to us,” what is one thing you can do this week to move one step closer to experiencing the community that Joel describes?
- Do you see any opportunities at UPPC to either find this community or to create it?
***JOIN US to explore Group Life together!
Sundays in May | 9:15-10:15 | Gym.
*Walsh, Brian J., Sylvia C. Keesmaat. Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. (IVP, 2004).
1 Corinthians 8
We’re following the overall Biblical narrative of God’s covenant community, beginning last week with the establishment of the covenant. But almost immediately, God’s community began to replace God in their hearts with idols (see Exodus 32:1-14). And of course there was a pantheon of “deities” in the 1st century Roman culture of Jesus and the apostles.
In this chapter, Paul begins a long discourse on an issue that was threatening to divide the young Christian community in Corinth. Some of them understood the “gods” weren’t real, while others were still struggling with that concept.
But the problem wasn’t really idol worship itself. It was the way that people “in the know” about it didn’t act with love toward those still trying to figure it out. They were basing their behavior on their knowledge, rather than the more important ethic of love. So Paul reminds them: “Knowledge puffs up, while love builds up” (8:1).
When Christ’s community comes to enjoy being “in the know” about something, it’s easy to grow complacent and to forget that there are plenty of others who would like to be part of the community but feel like outsiders–like middle schoolers trying to find a seat in the lunchroom. If someone wants to experience the Christ-community but is given the cold shoulder, that very community can become a stumbling block to them. But in the Christ-community, it should never be difficult to find a seat at the table.
In our congregation, there are many types of smaller communities, or “group life.” Ministry teams, music groups, youth groups, small groups, groups of friends, parent support groups, etc. And those groups are a blessing from God to support and encourage us in life and faith. So rather than becoming so accustomed to our groups that they become like closed clubs, how can we leverage the blessing that they are to “build others up” who may be longing for community?
- What kind of “Group Life” do experience in your church community?
- When is the last time you invited an outsider to consider being part of your group?
- Why can it be challenging to invite people in our group life?
- What are the potential repercussions of group life that tends to be insular or “closed”?
- Is it possible to experience both the intimacy of healthy group life, while also being intentional in helping people find or create community?
It’s interesting how knowing more about our past informs our present, and even our future. When I was in high school, I didn’t understand why the study of history was interesting; it seemed like a bunch of irrelevant black-and-white photos and phrases like “Federal Judiciary Act of 1789.” Ugh.
Thankfully, I later learned more about how history impacts the present, and that intersection is really where knowing our history becomes not only interesting or relevant, but crucially important to our identity and future.
And Moses knew this.
That’s why he commanded the budding nation of Israel to never forget who they were. As J.A. Thompson notes: “The original covenant [with Moses at Mt. Sinai]…was not simply an event of the past which concerned Israel’s ancestors only, but was the concern of Israel in every age. The original Israel held within it all later Israelites.”*
What’s interesting is that, anticipating the need to “pass the baton” of nationhood from one generation to the next, Moses gave instruction about how to explain the “stipulations, decrees and laws” of the people. The answer: Learn our story. Tell our story.
The connection between ancient Israelites and today’s worldwide community of Christians is, of course, Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfilled the original covenant, and thus established a new covenant in himself, rather than in the Law. Those who are in Christ therefore also share in the story of the covenant people, all the way from the beginning.
- What are some of the stories from your personal life that still inform who you are today?
- What do already know about the Bible and the story it tells?
- What do you still need to learn about the Bible?
- Learning and telling the story of our faith is always done better in COMMUNITY. Are you connected to “Group Life” at UPPC?
*J.A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008) 128.
There are two things every human being needs:
Belonging and Purpose.
In John 21:7-17, after having denied even knowing Jesus only a few nights beforehand, a despondent Peter goes fishing with a few friends. And because of the overflowing grace of Jesus, Peter and his friends are stunned to experience Jesus, now alive in his resurrected glory, cooking breakfast for them on the shore.
What follows is one of history’s most…awkward exchanges. Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” (Note: if you have to be asked three times, you must not be showing the love too well.) Of course, these three times echo the three times Peter had denied Jesus just a few nights earlier. Jesus is reinstating Peter as an apostle.
Jesus is taking a dead relationship and resurrecting it, by giving Peter a renewed sense of belonging and purpose.
Even in this moment, Peter must have felt like a fraud. He knew what he had done, and how he had failed. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we should all feel like frauds to some extent. All have fallen short of the glory of God, Paul reminds us, so we rely on the grace of God for giving us a seat at his table. Because of Jesus, we know we belong.
But belonging is just the beginning. Belonging exists to strengthen and empower one’s purpose. One doesn’t belong on the football team just to talk about football, or on the fire department just to watch movies about fires. Jesus gives Peter his purpose: “Feed my sheep.” Because of Jesus, we know we have purpose.
- Where do you find a sense of belonging and purpose?
- Do you see yourself as having the ability to help other people find belonging?
- What role can you play in helping others find purpose?
- The apostles catch 153 fish — far more than they needed in that moment. What does that tell you about God’s plans for the world?