Godspeed: Identity

When God created the world, he called it “good.” But when he was finished with his final piece of creation — human beings — he exclaimed “Look! Good!”* Why?

“Identity” is a buzz word in our culture these days. But among the many ways people describe their identities, few people are discussing how they arrived at their description. Are we the authors of our own identity? If not, where do we find it? In the Bible, it starts…well, at the beginning. When God created human beings, he made them (male and female) in the imago Dei — the image of God. The gleeful exclamation in Gen. 1:31 is just a glimpse at how God rejoices over people, whom he creates to reflect his glory more than any other part of creation. God rejoices over you. Therein lies the core of our identity — we are the beloved of God.

But what happens when we forget, or choose to forget, or have not yet heard this great news? We become driven by a need to prove ourselves. Driven by fear of failure or inadequacy, rather than by the joy of being God’s beloved, we scrape and fight our way through the world, trying to make a name for ourselves, trying to secure a place for ourselves.

But as bearers of God’s divine image, we have a name. We have a place. This simple concept is part of the reason why the story of the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is one of the best in all the gospels. Here was a woman who had been given many labels. Surely she had given herself a few, and doubtless others had many names for her. Shunned from normal society, she was compelled to fetch water at midday when no one in their right mind would be out in the hot sun. It was there, in the illogical place, that Jesus met her. He broke rule #1: don’t travel through Samaria. Then he broke rule #2: don’t speak with Samaritans. And finally, rule #3: don’t share a cup with a Samaritan!

But he didn’t care. Jesus knew who all that this woman had done. He knew who this woman was. She was God’s beloved. And he wanted to tell her. As this powerful spoken word poem reminds us, “to be loved is to be known.” And so for the first time in John’s story, Jesus revealed his true title to her: Messiah (in Greek, “Christ.”) And she ran off to tell everyone she knew about him.

For reflection:
1) To know our identity as God’s beloved, we must listen for God’s loving voice — when this week could you find an extended time to set everything aside and just listen? It might take longer than you think to silence the noise in your mind.
2) To know our identity as God’s beloved, we must be reminded. Find a place to put these words somewhere you’ll see them every day: “You are my beloved child, whom I love.”
3) To know our identity as God’s beloved, we must also help others know their identity as the same. Who is a “Samaritan woman” in your life who may need to hear that she or he is loved by God? Do you have the courage to share that good news with them?

Many blessings,
MM


*Gen. 1:31, Septuagint. Most translations read “very good.”

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Godspeed: Pace

God is a great gift-giver, even though we often neglect or refuse his gifts. One of the most famous is this invitation from Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Right away in the next verses, Jesus shows us one of God’s main gifts — Sabbath.

Sabbath basically means “rest,” and ever since the beginning, it is the way God has set the pace of our lives. It’s even one of the ten commandments! Over the centuries, there have been countless interpretations of what it means to honor the Sabbath, and during Jesus’ earthly life there were two basic approaches, which I’ll call External and Internal.

The external approach is like the “letter of the law.” You consciously choose to do what it says, regardless of circumstances. The internal approach is like the “spirit of the law,” when the focus is on whether or not the law’s goal is being met, and then adjusting your practice accordingly. These two basic approaches are the crux of many arguments about how to honor the Sabbath: either an objective or subjective approach. But an either-or misses the mark.

Jesus’ approach to Sabbath was both-and: we both make intentional, measurable choices to shape our lives around the Sabbath (external), and we remember the purpose of Sabbath and make occasional adjustments so the purpose is being met (internal).

When Jesus’ followers picked grain on Sabbath, they weren’t abandoning God’s law. They were hungry. And Jesus used the occasion to show us that in every situation we can shape our lives around God’s pace — we can intentionally set aside time and adjust when we need to.

One of the most helpful ways to understand Sabbath comes from the Jewish theology of the temple. In the Godspeed documentary series, N.T. Wright highlights that “The Jews will tell you that the Sabbath is to time what the temple is to space…the temple is the place where heaven and earth meet, and the Sabbath is when our time and God’s time intersect.”

Are we accepting God’s invitation to experience this intersection of the divine and earthly? To fully know that God is both transcendent and imminent; both beyond us and intimately near? This is the gift of Sabbath, and we’re being invited back to set our pace by it and live at Godspeed.

For reflection:
– Take a look at this week’s schedule. Consider canceling one appointment or somehow opening up just one hour to create Sabbath-space.
– Consider what you might do in your Sabbath-space that lifts your spirit heavenward (plain old idle time rarely does the trick); make a list and fill your Sabbath-time with those activities.
– As you make a habit of creating small Sabbath-spaces in your schedule, challenge yourself to gradually increase that space with the goal of having a full day each week that is an experience of God’s presence.

Prayerful, Salty, and Growing

Colossians 4:2-6

Sometimes life goes the way we plan. Many times it doesn’t. But Paul’s circumstances never made him deviate from his life purpose–to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom. Here, he continues to move from his description of God’s kingdom and its implications for our lives, to how we can join in proclaiming God’s kingdom to the world.

Paul talks about prayer three times in this short passage.  Prayer is the most effective aspect of the proclamation of the gospel.  Prayer properly puts us in the posture of submission to God’s will for how the gospel will be shared in the world.  Moreover, when we’re aligned with Jesus, the Holy Spirit empowers us to be the proclaimers that we are commissioned to be as God’s people.

Paul also uses “saltiness” as an analogy for how to share the good news of God’s kingdom.  Now, sometimes people are described as “salty” when they’re bitter or grumpy, usually about something they’re upset about (like the Dodgers losing in the 10th inning to the Mariners because of a walk-off balk!)  But here, Paul uses the analogy to describe how the people of God add something pleasing to the broader culture; something desirable to taste, making it easier to ingest the spiritual food which will ultimately nourish them.

Finally, Paul reminds the early church to not let their life-situation deter their service.  It’s sometimes easy to look at the past through rose-colored glasses.  “They had it figured out,” we might think.  Or, “They had a special dose of God’s Holy Spirit.”  But when we read Paul’s letters carefully, we realize that life was as “real” for them as it is for us.  They struggled.  They became confused.  They doubted.  In the same way, church culture can sometimes seem so polished that we forget that we are also a motley collection of saved sinners.  That is precisely why the way we live out and proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom in that context makes our proclamation to a world who has not really experienced it all the more necessary, and all the more powerful.

For reflection:

  1. Prayer:  If you have a regular practice of prayer, describe it.  If not, what kind of practice could you begin this week?
  2. Saltiness: In what ways can you help shape the culture’s perception of Jesus’ people in the way you live a “salty” life?
  3. Growing: Since we’re all saved sinners, our lives are a process of growing into the people God created us to be.  What destructive tendencies is God calling you to leave behind?  What life-giving gifts has God given you that God is calling you to embrace?  How can this letting go and embracing enable you to proclaim the good news of God’s kingdom?

Want to read ahead for this Sunday?  Check out Colossians 4:7-17.

Many blessings,

MM

Old Self, No Self, New Self

Colossians 3:5-17

“Put to death!”

That’s a pretty strong way to make one’s point, don’t you think?

Most of us don’t think of being in life-or-death situations all that often.  There are exceptions, of course.  Professions like police and military create more life-or-death situations than others, perhaps.  Also, people struggling with illness or injury, or people in certain violent areas of the country or world think about their life or death, to be sure.

But how often do we think about our spiritual life as one of “life or death?”  Paul puts it in those terms.  In Colossians 2 and 3, he reminds those who are in Christ that they “have died with Christ” and have also been “raised with Christ.”  Now here, he exhorts us “put to death” that which leads to death, while “clothing ourselves” with that which leads to life.

There are three essential sections to this passage: Old Self, No Self, and New Self.

  1. Old Self.  Before one finds life in Christ, one’s earthly self is perhaps all that matters to them.  The problem is that the earthly self has an insatiable appetite, which is why feeding it alone eventually reveals itself to be a futile exercise.
  2. No Self.  Of course Paul doesn’t deny our existence or even our individuality.  But his language in verse 11 is specific: “there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”  The labels we inherit from our earthly cultures are made null and void in Christ.
  3. New Self.  Therefore, we are able to live out Christ’s virtues (compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, and love) freely, without fear and without the futile motivation of serving our own needs.

In other words, because Christ is all, and is in all, when we are poured out for others’ sake as he was, he fills us with the fullness of his own life (see Col. 2:9-10)!

For reflection:

  1. What aspects of your “old self” are you ready to “put to death.”
  2. What aspects of your “old self” would you rather not let go of?
  3. What labels do you carry?  How does finding your identity in Christ set you free of those labels?
  4. Of the behaviors Paul lists in vv. 12-17, which do you find easy?  Which do you find difficult?  How can these more difficult virtues guide you in your prayer life?

Many blessings,

MM

Raised with Christ

Colossians 3:1-4

Where we “set our minds” is of the utmost importance!  When we live with and for Jesus, the reality of the Kingdom of God becomes clearer and clearer to us.  But this is no pie-in-the-sky pining away for utopia.  It’s not about letting our imaginations conjure a fantasy we wished we were living in.  It’s an acknowledgement and daily awareness of a reality that at one time we could not see, but in Christ we begin to see.

The first two chapters of Colossians focus largely on “what is true.”  In chapter 3, we see Paul turning the corner to the always-important question: “What does this mean for our lives?”

Having established that “you died with Christ” (2:20), Paul begins here with the encouragement that having died, we are also raised with Christ.  And that means new life in every facet.  We have new identities, new spiritual family, new purpose, and of course, new vision.  It was this kind of “kingdom vision” that set apart all the great ancestors of the faith, described in Hebrews 11.

For reflection:

  1. If the Kingdom of God were fulfilled today, what would it look like?  Use your imagination!
  2. Read Isaiah 61:1-4.  Take some time to visualize how the Messiah, Jesus, can transform people’s lives.
  3. Pray: what is God calling you toward, as God builds his Kingdom in this world through you, Christ’s body the Church?

Many blessings,

MM

 

Free to Remain Connected

Colossians 2:16-23

As we grow up, we have to learn to process and discern multiple different sources of advice and wisdom for life.  When we’re quite young, it’s 100% parents or guardians.  As we grow up, we broaden our sources to include friends, teachers, coaches, and more.  Many times, we learn conflicting things about the best way to live.

This is similar to what the Colossian church was facing, which Paul gets into detail about in the latter half of chapter 2.

A lot of the advice they’re being given appears wise.  (Doesn’t it always, in the moment?)  But Paul has a perspective that isn’t subject to the same kinds of pressure.  And from that perspective, Paul reminds the Colossians of this paradox: the kingdom of God has already come, but is not yet fulfilled.  Now, he doesn’t say it in that exact way.  But Paul’s audience has had a thorough and fruit-bearing experience of Christ already.  But they are not yet fully mature.  It appears that Christ guaranteed God’s kingdom, but it is being worked out in our world over time.

What does this mean for us?  First, the “already” means we can live in freedom from otherwise empty religious obligations that only foreshadow that which Christ fulfills.  We can live in freedom from the judgmental eyes of those who are puffed up with what they claim are special spiritual insights.  Second, the “not yet” means we are called to remain connected to Christ, the “head” by which the whole body grows.  This connection has a twofold purpose: to grow and mature us, and to be examples of God’s kingdom to the world.

For reflection:

  1. Looking back on your life, did you ever do anything that you now realize was unnecessary?  Why did you do it?  (If you heard my sermon, think “enormous gym bag.”)
  2. Is there anything you do now that is based more on fear-filled duty than on joy-filled living?  What are you afraid of?
  3. If you lived out God’s “already” kingdom, how would it affect your daily life?
  4. If God’s kingdom is also “not yet” fulfilled, what role might you play in its unfolding in our world?

Many blessings,

MM

 

A Remembering Community

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.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever experienced the Lord’s Supper (a.k.a. Communion or the Eucharist)?  What was your experience like?
  2. Have you ever forgotten something that you knew you should have remembered?
  3. When someone in our close community forgets something important (like a birthday) what is that experience like?  Why?
  4. 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?
  5. What intentional steps can you take this week to “Remember” Jesus’ good news each day?

Many blessings,

MM

Community that Opens Doors

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.

For reflection:

  1. Imagine you’re Paul or Silas.  What would your first reaction be when your prison doors swung open?
  2.  Have you ever experienced the oppression of loneliness, as the jailer did in his moment of desperation?
  3. Have you ever experienced the joy and freedom of community?
  4. 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?

Many blessings,

MM

 

Easter 2018: The Cross of Christ Saves

Are you good enough?

 

One of the most popular truisms of our time is the notion that “good people go to heaven.”  Of course there are dozens of subtly different takes on this idea, ranging from complicated systems of karma to the simple axiom that you get what you pay for.  But the core of the idea is the same: good people get rewarded, even in the afterlife.

The problem with the idea is that the definition of “good” is so blurred that one can never know if one is good enough.  Where is the line?  How much good must outweigh the “bad?”  How much lawfulness outweighs lawlessness?  And what happens if you were 49% good, but 51% bad?  Does it seem fair to be 100% condemned if you weren’t 100% bad?  And even then, what if just tipping the goodness scales (i.e. 50.1% “good”) still isn’t good enough?  What if dwelling in the presence of God requires 100% goodness?

Well here’s the bad news — it does.

So here’s the good news — Jesus was.

And here’s the truth — good people don’t go to heaven.  Forgiven people do.

In Luke 23:39-43, the thief that hung on the cross beside Jesus fully admitted his own guilt.  Still, he hoped Jesus would have mercy on him.  Unfortunately for him, he was long past any chance to be good enough for it, and he knew it.  So when he asks Jesus to remember him, what would be a “just” response?  What would have been fair for Jesus to say to him?

The Cross of Christ is scandalously unfair, in fact.  Good thing it’s unfair in our favor.  Just as Jesus’ crucifixion was unfair against him.  But he was willing to endure that injustice so that he could give the thief the answer that we would all want to hear: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

The glory of Easter is simply this — Jesus is the first born of the resurrection life, never to die again.  And by his mercy and grace, he invites us to partake in it with him by faith.

For reflection:

  1. Have you ever heard that “good people go to heaven?”  Where did you hear it?  Did you believe it?  How do you feel about that idea today?
  2. If we do have to be “good enough” to be saved, what does that imply about the character of God?
  3. Many people have heard the gospel before but choose not to believe and follow Jesus.  What might be standing in their way?  Is something standing in your way?

For meditation:

Imagine that you are the thief on the cross.  There is no longer any denying that your mistakes have caught up with you.  And Jesus is so close you can speak to him.  What would you say?

A blessed Easter to you,

Pastor Mike

 

 

 

Lent Prayer Guide, week 6

Week 6, March 25th, Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week

The Cross of Christ: The Treasures that Come from Suffering

Silence

Close your eyes and take five deep breaths.  In this moment of silent time, let your daily concerns fade into the background of your mind.

 

Pray

(Pray the following slowly, intentionally, and in silence)

Loving God,

I am just beginning to realize how much you love me.

Your son, Jesus was humble and obedient.

He fulfilled your will for him by becoming human and suffering with us.

I ask you for the desire to become more humble

so that my own life might also bear witness to you.

I want to use the small sufferings I have in this world

to give you glory.

In your grace, strengthen my life by the example of Jesus.

He was never apart from you, and knew the treasures for which he died:

The salvation of this world you love.

Help me to feel how close you are.

To remember the treasures you promise in spite of suffering,

and to live in union with you.

Amen.

 

Read

(Read the following passages slowly, intentionally, and aloud)

 

Matthew 26: 6-13

6 While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, 7 a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. 8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked.9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” 10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

 

Romans 5:1-8

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we[b] boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we[c] also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

21 They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” they said.

 

Reflect

  1. It is easy to consider the “waste” of the extravagant material value of the perfume the woman anoints Jesus with.  Why did Jesus defend her choice to use it the way she did?
  2. What does Jesus’ reaction tell us about the value of money from God’s point of view?
  3. What does this memorable event tell us about the “treasures that come from suffering?”
  4. Early Jesus followers knew full well that their lives would entail hardships.  What kinds of hardships might you endure as a Jesus follower in your context today?

 

Read

(Read the passages above again, aloud)

 

Pray

(Pray the prayer above again, intentionally, and now aloud)

 

Action

What can you do, this week, to courageously endure a hardship for Jesus’ sake, remembering the treasures that Jesus promises those sufferings will lead to?

 

About Lent: Lent is a season during which we remember the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.   This guide is designed to be a guide for those who wish to wholeheartedly enter into the story behind Lent, just as Jesus’ disciples did.  You may have been following Jesus for decades.  You may have never set foot in a church.  At the foot of Christ’s cross, none of that matters.  All that matters is that God gave his only begotten Son to save the world.  To save this town.  To save you.

For the season of Lent, I’m going to pause my normal routine of summarizing and reflecting on the sermon, and offer this resource for guided prayer and scripture reading.  To use this guide, simply follow the instructions for each part, giving yourself enough time to absorb the content and enter in with your body, mind, and spirit.