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

 

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“God Made You Alive…”

Colossians 2:6-15

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).

For reflection:

  1.  What ideas are “out there” that suggest Christ isn’t enough for a full life?
  2. Do you ever struggle against the temptation to “add” things to your spiritual life, as though Christ were not sufficient?
  3. “Rooted in him”: Try reading the Bible or praying with the posture of listening for God, intentionally asking God to speak to you.
  4. “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.

Many blessings,

MM

 

 

Woven Into a Tapestry of Love

Colossians 1:24-29; 2:1-7 (MSG)

Paul is using loaded, political language (whether we like it or not) that is much more than mere advice for Christians.  It ultimately got him killed.

There is so much here for followers of Jesus that helps us understand what it means to be citizens of God’s subversive Kingdom.  At UPPC, we don’t “preach politics” by worldly standards.  We preach the Word of God as it is revealed in scripture…which sometimes has unavoidable public implications.*

Some people feel that Christian faith is a private thing that has no place in the public sphere.  And others feel that there’s no place for dialogue about public life in the private faith of the church.  But that leaves us with nowhere to process it!  So it’s important to remember that Jesus led people in public life, as well as private spirituality, and Jesus’ followers are called to engage in both.

Polis is a Greek word that refers to the “city” — an organized people under an organized government.  The “politic” therefore had to do with the ruling of the people.  So you can see how disruptive it would have been to the power-holders of Paul’s day to proclaim that Christ was ultimately ruling the empire.

What does it look like to be ruled by Christ in our cities?

  1. To love our neighbors as ourselves.  And yes, there is no qualification on the concept of “neighbor.”  Our challenge is to get over our presuppositions and love those whom God puts into our lives.  Always.  As a Christian, we are not permitted to view and treat people differently than what God sees and values.  We are not permitted to demonize or lionize people for political gain, as though they are the ultimate “problem” or “solution.”  If your politics are shaping your faith, you’ve got it backward.  Our faith is to shape our politics.
  2. To demonstrate Christ’s values in the public sphere.  Peterson’s translation of Paul’s words reads: “I want you woven into a tapestry of love” (2:2).  We do have predecessors in our nation’s history: the abolitionists, child labor laws, and civil rights, among others.  But this does not mean to christianize a nation by defeating opponents.  The Church represents Christ’s love in the public sphere because Christ is victorious, not because we want to be victorious.  Christ motivates us because in our baptisms his life is our life, and he is our Master.  We are shaped and driven to act by his grace and mercy, and because he is the one to whom we must give an account.

For reflection:

  1. How aware are you of local public life and how it’s affecting people within our 5-mile radius?  Are you more or less aware of that than you are of national or global public life?
  2. What would it look like to demonstrate Christ’s values in the public square from a posture of victory, rather than from a posture of striving for victory?
  3. How uncomfortable does this topic make you?  What do you do when you feel uncomfortable about something in scripture or from the pulpit?

Many blessings,

MM

 

 

 


*I just arrived home from a week in Washington D.C. and thought it was worth noting that “public life” represented by federal government is, though often the most visible in the news and social media, not the most influential in our daily lives.  The public life at the city, county, and state levels tends to have far more day-to-day influence over us.  Are we as aware of local public life as we are of national public life?

Sin, Love, and Purpose

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:

  1. We’re united in sin.  This natural condition into which we’re born is something we all share, across all demographics of humanity.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

For reflection:

  1.  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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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?

Blessings,

MM

 

 

Fall Afresh!

The Holy Spirit is given to the Church (Acts 2:1-13)

Feel free to watch the sermon video embedded here, but this will be a brief entry with simply a few questions for your reflection.  A blessed Pentecost to you, and a happy “birthday” to the Church!

  1. How have you experienced God’s Holy Spirit, that is, God’s real presence, in your life?
  2.  How would you say you began your journey with God?
  3. “We don’t get to say ‘Well, we did it!’  It’s always God’s Spirit knocking at our door.” (Pastor Harlan)  Can you describe anything from your life that you know were God-in-action more than yourself?
  4. The Holy Spirit can be unsettling, because God challenges us to find our “blind spots.”  In what ways do you sometimes feel challenged by God’s presence?
  5. “God doesn’t call the qualified, but qualifies the called.”  Is God calling you do something, or become someone, that you don’t feel qualified for?  How does this truth apply to you?

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

Stumbling Blocks to Community

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?

For reflection:

  1. What kind of “Group Life” do experience in your church community?
  2. When is the last time you invited an outsider to consider being part of your group?
  3. Why can it be challenging to invite people in our group life?
  4. What are the potential repercussions of group life that tends to be insular or “closed”?
  5. Is it possible to experience both the intimacy of healthy group life, while also being intentional in helping people find or create community?

 

Peace,

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.

Lent Prayer Guide, week 5

Week 5: The Cross of Christ Reconciles Us to One Another

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 Lord,

it’s so hard to love the world sometimes

and to love it the way Jesus did seems impossible.

I am far too inclined to seek comfort,

And stay as comfortable as possible.

Help me to be inspired by Jesus’ love and

guided by his compassionate example,

journeying with those who are suffering.

I need you, God, to give me support in this journey.

Show me how to unlock my heart.

Let me be less fearful of the pain and darkness

that will be transformed by you into Easter joy.

Amen.

 

Read

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

Matthew 27: 45-46

45 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). 47 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

Hebrews 5:7-9

While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him.

Reflect

  1. When Jesus cries out the words of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) how does it make you feel?  What questions does it raise?  What questions does it answer?
  2. What can we learn from Jesus’ own prayers?  How did he pray?  Why was he heard?  Were his prayers always given a “yes” answer from the Father?

 

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 intentionally set aside your comfort and enter into someone’s struggle?

 

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.