Thursday, March 21, 2013

Seeing and Believing

John 10:19-42
There’s an interesting question raised in our reading from the gospel today. In John 10 we read, “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (John 10:21b). How we answer this question could have significant bearing on our spiritual lives. First of all we should note that query is rhetorical, that it concerns the words that Jesus was speaking when set over and against the works that he was performing. Those who did not accept him as the Son of God doubted his sanity and wondered if he was possessed. But others wondered how someone who was plagued by a demon could perform miracles as Jesus did.

This is the point where the passage becomes particularly relevant for our lives, for in the midst of our spiritual blindness, in the groping about that we sometimes do, seeking a way through the challenges of life, to what do we cling as a source of help? When we become lost or disoriented, what steps do we take to find the way toward home? “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” Or to put it another way, can an idol of our own creation really help us to have life and have it abundantly? Can a self-help formula give us the means by which to fulfill our truest humanity in God’s image? Can self-centeredness or a “me first” attitude really lead us where we need to go for health and wellbeing? No, only God can cure this sort of blindness, for only God offers us the truth we need as well as the strength we need to accept it.

This is not to say that God is limited in means by which to help us. God can and does work in innumerable ways to accomplish the divine will. But by the same token, it is this divine will that we must seek if we are to be cured of the spiritual blindness that clouds our living. Only when we allow God to open our eyes will we truly see.

Prayer: Lord, give us eyes with which to see your work in our world and in our lives, that we may respond in faithful obedience to the call you have set before us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

It’s All About Your Mindset

Romans 8:1-11
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6). Paul’s words to the Christian community in Rome offer a challenge to all who hear them. Before us lie two choices. On the one hand we have all that the world has to offer, what Paul refers to as the flesh. Wealth, prominence, power, easy solutions and quick fixes, all that dulls the mind or numbs the senses to the presence of God: these all belong to the flesh and to follow them leads us away from God and therefore toward death. But there is hope, because on the other hand there is that which emanates from God through the Holy Spirit. To accept the Spirit into our lives, to focus on what it means for us, and to embrace all that it entails leads not only to abundant life in its fullest, but to a sense of peace and wellbeing as well. This is the promise that God holds out to us, even in the most difficult of times.

It is all a matter of mindset, of where we place our priorities, and of how we perceive the world. If we are driven by an overarching sense of competition, of looking out for ourselves first and foremost, of self-satisfaction as a primary motivation, then we have already separated ourselves from God and the community that God is building in our midst for we have embraced the flesh as our guide. But if we are mindful of others, if we give of ourselves with generosity and kindness, if we seek justice for all people and reconciliation among those who are divided, then we already standing on the side of God and God’s will for humanity. This is to live by the Spirit.

The way of the Spirit is not an easy path. It is a challenge that requires great effort on our part. But the ability to live as one of God’s people is a gift to us from God and something that God makes possible. Where will we place our focus? What will be our mindset? Will we choose the ways of the flesh that lead to separation from God, or will we be enlivened by the Spirit and the fullest life we can live?

Prayer: Lord, help us to live our lives according to the Spirit and not the flesh, so that in fullest life we may serve you faithfully. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Journey With the Family

Psalm 34
My father-in-law's health has been less than stellar of late, so naturally I have spent time thinking about him recently, about the impact he has had on many lives as a minister and as a friend. Those lives include mine. The Christian faith really is a family in so many ways; not one of birth or marriage, but one of covenant and community. My father-in-law has done much over the years to help me feel at home in the family of faith and I think of people like him when I read words like those found in Psalm 34. "O magnify the Lord with me," says the psalmist, "and let us exalt his name together" (Psalm 34:3). These are words of invitation meant to make us feel at home in the family of faith. These are words that say "come and share in a life of purpose and joy that can only be found in serving God." They say "come and be a part of God's people, the community of the covenant. Come and belong." These are words my father-in-law has embodied through decades of ministry and discipleship.

Each of us who considers him- or herself a Christian has a different story as to how we came to have faith in Jesus Christ. Like Paul on the road to Damascus, you may have experienced conversion from a life that was leading you in one direction when you experienced a change of heart that led you in another. Or perhaps like Timothy, you may have simply grown up in the faith,  never realizing it was possible not to believe. In any case, there were others who played a part in getting us to where we are today in our journey with God, whether it was friends, co-workers, family members, neighbors, fellow church members, even strangers. Any of these may have touched us at an appropriate time and helped guide us on our way. The end result is that we stand in community, in covenant with one another and with God. We now have the opportunity to reach out to others the way that others have reached out to us, to say with the psalmist, "O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together."

Obviously, we are not the source of the message; it is Jesus Christ who calls us into relationship with God. But we have a vital role to play nonetheless. The community of faith as we know it is always in flux. It is not a rigid, fixed group of people, in lockstep, marching along the road of faith. It is, instead, a changing, dynamic collection of saints at various stages of their respective faith journeys. The joyous call to discipleship, then, is not an invitation to a sit-down, black-tie dinner. It is a "come as you are" affair, a ramble along the road that leads to the coming kingdom. It is a trip that changes us from what we were into what we can be. It is a trip without much in the way of a fixed starting point, but it has a goal: full, self-giving service to God through Jesus Christ. Our words of invitation, addressed to the world, can be the starting point for someone else's trip along the road to the kingdom, and it may be the only invitation that some people ever receive. So let us magnify the Lord, and let us exalt his name together.

Prayer: Lord, on our journey of faith help us to remain open to what you are doing in and through us and to what we may do through you for others. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Monday, March 11, 2013

In the Face of Doubt

John 6:1-15
Listen to the doubts expressed by the disciples when faced by the challenge of feeding a multitude. “Philip answered him, ‘Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?’” (John 6:7-9). We don’t have enough. There are too many needs to be met. We can’t do it all! According to John, this is what the disciples were saying to Jesus, but he was not swayed by the fears of his followers. He took what they had, a few loaves and fish, and fed the five thousand people who were gathered there…with food left over. It was an act of grace in the face of human need.

How often do we allow doubts to cloud our expectations of what God can do? How often do we look at a situation through human eyes—seeing limited resources and limitless needs––and forget that God sees things differently? We may never know how often has God gone beyond our assumptions creating, claiming, redeeming, sustaining, guiding, healing, loving where we see nothing to be done or no reason to do anything in the first place. It’s an aspect of the feeding story (one of the few that appears in all four gospels) that I often overlook. But it is vital that we allow God to work when and where God wills, that we keep our eyes open in faith, and that we do not close our minds to what is possible in the hands of the Lord.

 Prayer: Lord, ease our doubts and fears and help us to live with hope and expectation of what you are doing in our lives and in our world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, March 8, 2013

It’s Not About Us

Romans 6:1-11
Paul offers us words of great hope this morning in his letter to the Romans. “For if we have been united with [Christ Jesus] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.…The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:5, 10-11). In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we have been freed from the power of sin that once overshadowed our present and our future and are now able to live toward the will of God and what God is doing in the world. When we embrace this truth, when we accept it as reality, we find it to be a colossal shift in the meaning of life. No longer is it all about us. Our failings, our shortcomings, our faults are not what define us. We are now defined by the will of God and what God is doing in and through us. We are freed to move beyond our fears and regrets and to walk in the light of a new hope and a new future.

It isn’t easy, of course. We still feel the tug of our former lives clutching at us to draw us back to what we once were. But now, since we have new life in Christ, we also have ample reason to make the effort and to face the challenges. There is reason to hope; it is the certain knowledge that we live by the grace of God who claims us as God’s own and who experienced death for our sake and for the sake of the world. If we have a share in the death of Christ Jesus (and Paul assures us we do), then we most certainly have a share in his resurrection from the dead. So not only does life have renewed meaning—freed as it is from the darkness of sin—but death is no longer to be feared, for with it comes our final restoration in the life eternal, when, by grace, it still won’t be about us, but about God and God’s majestic glory. Our lives, then, belong to God, now and forever.

Prayer: God of all time and space, by your grace you have freed us from the power of sin and death and allowed us to live in and through your will. Bless us today in all that we do, that we may serve you with joy and be a blessing to others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Steady As We Go

John 8:21-32
John Lennon looked at a world of deceit and closed-mindedness and sang “All I want is the truth, Just gimme some truth…” Our gospel reading today speaks directly to that plea. There Jesus says, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:31b-32). But before we consider the question to be asked and answered we need to be sure that we understand Jesus’ intent.

To “continue in [Jesus’] word” and thus be a “true disciple” is about far more than claiming to be a Christian. It is a full-time commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to the Word Incarnate, to the presence of God in the world transforming lives and pointing toward the coming reign of God in its fullness. It is to accept Jesus as the one who dies for our sins but who also calls on us to take up our crosses to follow him. It is to see in Jesus’ ministry a radical concern for the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and those who have been cast out. It is to challenge the powers of this world with the light that “shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5). Only in pouring ourselves out so that we may be filled anew by the Holy Spirit and guided by the will of God may can we be considered disciples of Jesus Christ in the fullest sense and therefore know the truth. As people of faith we face a true dilemma. On the one hand, we are confronted with a world that shrugs off our intentions and questions our motives, cynics and doubters who see little good in what we have to offer. On the other hand, we worship a Lord who confronts our half-hearted efforts to live in faithful obedience, offering forgiveness born of divine judgment. We often find ourselves somewhere in between, affirming the faith but not fully living it.

The good news is that Jesus’ words were not a final statement, but an opportunity to push ahead, to “continue on” in our lives of faith, welcoming each day as a new opportunity to serve God as witnessed to the gospel. It is, I believe, the willingness to struggle and to face the obstacles of faith that set us apart from the world. And it is this on-going commitment that leads finally to the truth that only God in Jesus Christ has to offer. The world is full of problems; as disciples we do our best when we do not lose heart but accept the grace we’ve been offered and remain steady in our devotion.

Prayer: Gracious God, may we live our lives in such a way that we offer hope to the world and glory to your name. Amen.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Say What?

John 7:37-52
There is a curious statement in our gospel reading today, one that at first glance seems to contradict other passages in John. “Now [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified” (John 7:39). What exactly does John mean by “for as yet there was no Spirit.” Already in this gospel Jesus has made references to the Spirit, most notably, perhaps, in his nighttime conversation with Nicodemus in chapter 3. There Jesus says, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit… The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:6, 8). What are we to make of this? John’s reference to the Spirit in chapter 7 is very likely in terms of the events of Pentecost, when believers would be empowered to witness to Jesus and the Messianic age, of which the Spirit is a sign. At this point in the gospel account, Jesus has not yet gone through his passion, death, and resurrection, what John calls his being “glorified.” Yes, the Spirit has been at work throughout history, and is now at work within the ministry of Jesus. But the church has not yet been given birth because Jesus has not yet complete his work.

I’m sure that, for many, it is tempting to dismiss material such as this as having no relevance in life. The effort to come to terms with the meaning or the purpose of passages like John 7:39 may seem wasted when so many other issues confront us on a daily basis, matters of life or death, matters of poverty or wealth, matters of growth or decay. It is fitting, though, that the subject of this particular passage is the Holy Spirit, because it is in our struggle, our wrestling with the word of God, that the Spirit often meets us face to face and leads us to a richer understanding of faith. Indeed, we who live on this side of Pentecost and the birth of the church have no need to wonder about the presence of the Spirit; it is always at work in our midst reveling the love of God in the most interesting and challenging ways.

According to John, Jesus was, at a particular time in his ministry, pointing ahead to another particular event––Pentecost––which we have passed but which continues to color our view of the world and of God’s activity in it. But the Spirit remains active in our word and our lives in no small part because of the words we read in John through which the Spirit offers us guidance and hope. The very real aspects of these events help us to also view the coming kingdom as real and impending.

Prayer: Gracious God, we thank you for your work in and through the Holy Spirit, not only in history but in our lives today, as well, and in the future which you have promised to us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, March 1, 2013

All In This Together

Jeremiah 5:1-9
Living as we do in an age of divisiveness, perhaps it is helpful to be reminded by the prophet that sometimes we are more united than we realize, and that it isn’t always a good thing. “Then I said, ‘These are only the poor, they have no sense; for they do not know the way of the Lord, the law of their God. Let me go to the rich and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the law of their God.’ But they all alike had broken the yoke, they had burst the bonds” (Jeremiah 5:4-5). Sin is sin. Disregard for the Lord is a problem no matter where it happens or by whom it is perpetrated. Jeremiah surveyed the people of his day and found that no matter their place in the social spectrum, no matter their level of achievement, no matter how well-educated or politically connected they might be, they still fell short of God’s intentions. Interestingly, the fact that Jeremiah assumes that the poor might be less righteous based on their place in society is unusual in scripture where God continually shows great compassion for the oppressed and impoverished. Of course, the prophet quickly finds that there is no status in life where God’s will is followed consistently.

Finger pointing, it would seem, will get us nowhere. What we need is not more accusations against others, but a thorough self-examination to remind us that we, too, have fallen short of God’s will for our lives and that we, too, whoever we may be, whatever our station in life, must allow God to work in and through us to bring us to righteousness. As Paul reminds us in our epistle lesson today, “There is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). Driving in the car earlier today I experienced a modern interpretation of Paul’s words as I passed cars festooned with stickers in support of one cause or another. I applaud these folks for standing up for their beliefs, but I also hope that in their zeal for a particular cause they do not lose sight of the fact that they, too, need the mercy and forgiveness of God as found in Jesus Christ if they are to walk in paths of faithful obedience and true discipleship.

Perhaps with the realization that sin is a part of every life we may discover a sense of unity and fellowship with others. There is no one who is without sin. No one. And here, if nowhere else, we stand united. It isn’t much, but at least it’s something.

Prayer: Forgive us when we sin against you and against one another, and help us to recognize our need for the entire community of faith. In Jesus’ name. Amen.