On The Church, Empathy and Our Desperate Search for a New Way Forward

we cant
Note: This was written prior to grand jury decision regarding the death of Eric Garner. While he’s not specifically mentioned in this essay, his death is certainly on my heart as I post this now. May we find a new way forward. Together.

As many of you know, I grew up in Ferguson.

The school I attended was a mile from the now smoldering ruins of one of the twelve burned out buildings that inhabit this beautiful city. These buildings are a visual reminder of racial division and systemic injustice, and these frustrations have spilled out onto our streets in the forms of riots and peaceful protests.

As the city I was reared in was in upheaval, and as I followed social media, one thing became more and more apparent to me; our country, and our church is losing the ability to empathize with others.

to killEmpathy. The unique ability that humanity possesses to, as Harper Lee once wrote in her classic To Kill A Mockingbird, “climb into [another’s] skin and walk around in it.”

As a 3rd generation pastor and a 4th generation Christian, on an ever-increasing basis, I am experiencing this lack of empathy within the Church Universal.

Over and over again, our pastors and laity find themselves, on so many issues, getting caught into the mindset that there is “us” and “them.” As we continually divide ourselves, the gap between us grows deeper and wider.

When the world is black and white, we cannot empathize.

We can only segregate.

We can only isolate.

We can only divide into two camps; each camp tossing labels and generalizations like hand grenades with the innocent ones getting injured by the shrapnel created by our words and actions.

We, however, are not a people of verbal and theological violence. We are a church of peace, and empathy must become, once more, the cornerstone of our faith. For it’s empathy that will allow us to have a reasonable and gracious dialogue because it’s empathy which allows us to find common ground.

Empathy takes us from the black and white and into a world filled with color and beauty.

We must make empathy a priority.

Western culture is changing quickly, and the good people who fill her seats have been caught up in this cultural shift. What once worked and made sense to the church no longer does. Our future, once secure, known, and comfortable has become unknown with fear replacing security.

Fear of the unknown. Fear of the other.

In recent years, I have watched as denominations and churches begin the endless process of fortification.

These being the church’s attempts to protect ourselves against the threats outside our walls, and being fueled by a blind determination to defend our “rights.” The difficulty in this lay within the Biblical reality that rights are not promised, and instead we are commanded only to love and forgive.

We follow a God who gave up his throne to become lower than the lowest servant. We serve a Savior who ignored cleanliness and sabbath rules to heal, restore and empathize with those on the margins.

My tradition, the Church of the Nazarene was formed out of this empathy. Our forefathers and mothers filled the streets through a determination to listen to the songs of the suffering. Only a Christ-filled empathy drives people to this.

Only the light of the Gospel can drive away the fear of the other, which keeps us from our command to go and make disciples. For what on this earth should we fear?

We are promised that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” (Rom 8:38-39)

Do we actually believe this?

So may we be a church which chooses empathy over condemnation. May we remember people are not to be feared. May we invite those who think, believe or behave differently than us to speak in our midst. May we listen to their stories, because the only way to drive out fear is to replace labels with names.

For in learning names and hearing stories, we are reminded once more that we are not surrounded by enemies but fellow-humans- men and women-who are all created in the image of God.

Port-A-Potty Righteousness: Philippians 3:7-11

philippians

We’re neck deep into a series on Philippians. When I originally planned this, I had it marked out about 8 weeks long. However, as things like this go, we’re on our 8 week, and still only half way through.

You know, there are loud conversations about what the Bible is, or what it isn’t. There are opinions on all parts of the spectrum, but if there is one thing I’m reminded of as we work our way through this ancient letter, it’s that the Bible is so full and rich of truth. We can argue day and night about what the Bible is or isn’t…but we discover first hand, as a community, as we work our way through this book, we find its filled with a far deeper and richer truth that impacts my life, and I would guess your life, in ways we never expected, right?

This is the beauty of scripture. It leads us to truth.

Last week

We talked about the scandal of grace. We talked about how, in spite of all the ways we try to wall up the Kingdom of God, and in all the ways we try to define who is in and out, at the end of the day, it’s not our actions that save us, rather it’s the life, death and resurrection of Christ that brings about new life.

We ended last week reflecting on how we try to keep people out. What lines we draw and who we believe can be in and out.

This week, we’re going to continue on with this. In many ways, this is the part 2 to last week’s part 1.

So, to tie the two together, we’re going to start by reading our passage last week and then will move straight into the passage this week.

Let’s read together: Philippians 3:1-11

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

What’s going on?

Last week, we talked about how Paul listed all the reasons he should be righteous and in the in-crowd- spiritually speaking.

He was a man of status. A man of education. A man of heritage.

Whatever was to my profit, whatever I gained is now a loss. He had everything going for him. Paul’s job was not something he chose as a college grad…it was something he wanted and was being pushed towards as a child.

This man’s identity was wrapped up in who he was, what he believed and how he behaved.

The great reversal

This belief that righteousness came by definable terms ruled Paul’s life. The pharisaical order (to which paul belonged) believed that God was going to come when Israel behaved and followed the law fully.

Because they were the only ones who followed the law, they believed themselves to be the only ones righteous and it was everyone else’s fault that the messiah hadn’t come.

They were the in crowd. They were the righteous. And everyone knew it.

But something changed in Paul. 

What once gave Paul great pride and status, and what the world once saw and interpreted as righteousness (Godliness), Paul now believed was all loss.

There was a day when each of the things Paul did, the actions made and the beliefs he held were credited to him as right standing before God.

If you think of it this way, every time he followed a rule or a law, he made a deposit, and because he was very good at follow rules, Paul’s self-righteous bank account grew and grew.

His account ledger, when he balanced it out, was filled with righteous actions and was overwhelmingly positive.

Damascus changed everything.

There is a moment, however, when Paul becomes a believer in the way of Jesus.

And after doing that, he was brought to reconsider everything he believed up until that point.

When Paul said he “considers”…he’s saying he had come to consider it. This was a post-conversion understanding.  It was unnatural to him. It went against his sensibilities and Christian training. This new belief was that Christ and Christ alone leads us towards understanding what is real, true and worth value.

But that’s not all…

Paul doesn’t stop there. It’s not just physical assets, and it’s not just legalism that has been carried over into the negative category.

It’s everything.

Any method for advancement. Any method of control. Any method for gaining approval. Anything that we feel like we can do to earn God’s favor. Any rule, law or human justification is a complete and utter loss. 

Paul doesn’t stop there.

These works. This man-based righteousness accomplished human power and all that comes with it, Paul calls “skybala” or “filth.”

It’s actually a much stronger word that “filth.”

Skybala means excrement, dung or refuse.

Like this guy...but far more, well, used...

Like this guy…but far more, well, used…

Very literally, it’s a greek slang that translates very closely to the english word “crap.”

What Paul is getting at here is the understanding that “Righteousness through human strength and through human works must be expelled out of the Body and into the toilet as quickly as possible and without any prejudice.

There is visual interplay here. The understanding the filth of legalism, and understanding the necessity of the Body of Believers to rid themselves of it, is extremely important!

When we begin to be cleansed of this legalistic mindset or belief, and as we grow in our faith in Christ, we’ll find we are changed in ways rules and expectations never could.

Change happens because of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

Surpassing value is the knowledge of Christ Jesus.

If everything except Christ is filth, the only thing of value, the only thing of worth, is Jesus. And that means, to follow him, everything must be on the table. Everything else we hold to as our foundation, or as essential to our happiness, must be discarded.

That sounds harsh, doesn’t it?

We must come to understand that, no matter how important something might feel or seem, Christ is above it all.

There’s a basic re-teaching of what we believe Righteousness, or Right-ness with God, looks like:

For centuries before Jesus and for centuries following, the church has often preached grace, but practiced man-defined Righteousness. We all realized its far easier to define people by rules and people’s ability to obey them.

We talked about this last week.

And, we must not forget that rules are put in place for the right reason, right? I mean, “Thou should not murder” is a great rule. One that societies, typically (though, not always) adopt…

However, while rules have their heart and intention wrapped up in good motives, whenever laws and rules dictate our righteousness, those rules will almost always go from being something that helps us obey to becoming a noose around our necks.

The more we struggle and fail, the more it tightens, and the more it tightens, the more the rules get more rigid.

This happened to the Jews.

What began as “remember the sabbath and keep it holy” turned into 39 activities you were forbidden to do on the sabbath.

This list included the activities:

Sowing, Plowing, Reaping, Binding sheaves, Threshing, Kneading,

Baking, Shearing, washing, beating or dyeing wool, Spinning, Weaving:

including Making two loops, Weaving two threads, Separating two 

threads, Tying, Untying, Sewing two stitches, Tearing, Trapping, 

Slaughtering, Flaying, Salting meat, curing or scraping or cutting hides, 

writing or erasing 2 letters, building or tearing down, starting or 

extinguishing a fire, or hitting with a hammer, and finally taking an 

object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in 

the public domain.

The law, as Paul says in other letters, was put in place to condemn…to show us how broken we were.

And he tells us that there is no hope for improvement through the law.

Improvement only happens one way…through Christ.

In spite of all things he’d accomplished in his life, Paul responds by saying:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

This is what it means to be a Christ follower, guys. To come into contact with Jesus and to be changed by that experience.

After all, it’s impossible to experience the love of God, to sacrifice of Jesus and the life that comes from that, and not be changed somehow.

To be in communion with God and with the community of believers is the means of restoration and redemption.

Not rules. Not expectations.

But, love.

In this passage, one theologian talks about Paul becoming obsessed with Christ in his theology.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

Where once the law defined us, now Christ defines us. He’s what binds us, heals us, redeems us, restores us, renews us. 

May we remember this.

Two takeaways:

These takeaways are a product of a beautiful conversation I had after service last week with several of you. So, as we begin, I want to say thank you!

  1. The Holy Spirit does the changing and will do it in His time.

It’s incredibly easy for us to see someone come to Christ, and expect them to arrive, and we begin to quietly…or not so quietly…begin to show our disapproval or disbelief in their behavior. Maybe they’re not changing as quickly as we think they should. Maybe they still smoke, drink, chew or maybe they still love a girl who does. And somewhere along the way we believe it’s our God-given responsibility to grab them by the scruff of their neck and drag them kicking and screaming.

That’s not necessarily right, and it’s not necessarily grace…even if we believe it to be.

We need to understand that conviction comes from God. And we need to understand that conviction of wrongdoing doesn’t usually happen when we think it should happen.

We also need to understand that what I’m convicted of isn’t necessarily what you’ll be convicted of.

And so, understanding this, we need to be willing to live in the mess with one another. To offer my story to you, to offer how God has changed my heart, and to walk along side one another.

Now, I admit, this is somewhat messy. This is somewhat like Spiritual Anarchy…at least, that’s what it feels like, right?

After all, if I can’t tell you what you should do, then who’s going to keep us in line? What will keep us from going off the deep end?

This brings us to number two.

2. We must learn to trust the movements of the Spirit

As Nazarenes, we believe in something called prevenient grace. This is the belief that the Spirit is working on the heart far before we ever come into contact with them. We believe there isn’t  a spiritual conversation that happens ahead of God’s timing.

We must be patient. We must be gracious. We must be loving, and in that patience, love and grace, the spirit will work.

I believe, nearly ever single time, He’s doing something deeper than we can see.

Where we see someone who is an alcoholic, Christ sees someone searching desperately for love, and an identity.

And this is where we find our role as the church.

We are a place that should welcome everyone. Period.

We do not exist to fix people. We exist to point people to Christ.

In Christ Alone, or the Scandal of the Invitation: Philippians 3:1-6

philippians

Today, for lack of a better term, we’ve got a doozie.

Let’s dive right in…Philippians 3:1-6:

Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— though I myself have reasons for such confidence.

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

We’ve all heard it preached…

(If you do this…you’re not a Christian)

(Christians don’t do this….)

(Look this way, act this way, talk this way….)

(They don’t drink, smoke, chew and date girls that do)

(Hair cuts/length, skirt length)

(Cards, movies, dancing, bowling alleys)

It’s this theology of works, and it finds its way into our teaching. If we are all extremely honest, it seems to always be around, doesn’t it.

It was the same in the early church.

History*

There was a proud lineage in the Jewish tradition. The Old Testament was filled with the saints of the ancient faith. Moses, David, Abraham and on and on.

They had a language. They had deep and meaningful tradition.

One of these traditions was circumcision.

Now, today, we’ve lost a lot of the deep meaning behind circumcision, and why this passage is such a scandalous passage. To understand it, we must go back to Abraham.

Abram was transitioning during the great migration, and moving from the cradle of civilization, and moving west.

And during this move, God connects in a real way, and he calls Abram. He tells him that he’ll be the father of a new nation. Abram loved this promise.

He knew this would be a promise that he would have a son.  (Genesis 12)

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.

But this promise took many years to fulfill.

Abram gets frustrated. He had waited years to live the fulfillment of Gods promise. When was God going to follow his part of the deal?

Abram lets God know his frustration, and God responds by asking Abram to go outside and take a look at the night sky.

Above him were the countless stars.

Photo Credit: finolexblog.com

Photo Credit: finolexblog.com

Looking back at the understanding that the Jews viewed the heavens, the stars, as God’s royal court, this statement that God makes, your family, your court, will be larger than my own, has unbelievable ramifications.

Abram, your house will be bigger than mine!

Think about that for a moment.

And so, Abram, being a man of his culture, asked God to make a covenant with him.

To make a promise. To bind them together.

This was important for people in this land. It was wild, and without numbers, a person could expect to live long.

There were bandits, thieves and crooks all around. Death was not far away for those who journeyed alone.,

So, men would covenant together.

John, owner of sheep. Ryan owner of cows, would say, my herds will be yours, and yours will be mine.

We’re familiar with this understanding within marriage.

Two would become one. What one did, the other must do.

To make a covenant together, the heads of households would take animals, cut them from nose to tail, lay them out, and let the blood and insides spill out into the middle.

As God instructed Abraham to do, he  “went and got  a three-year-old female calf, a three-year-old female goat, a three-year-old ram, a dove, and a young pigeon.”

They would then, walk through the middle, signifying that, should I break my oath here today, may this happen to me. May I be cut in two, and my blood cover the ground.

They then walked, saying as the moved, that the two would become one.

There would be no separation, no individuality, anymore.

And so, you have to wonder, did Abraham walk through? Did he run?

Either way, he walked the path, and waited. Probably shooing the birds as he waited. Waiting again for God to move.

Which, God eventually did.

Waking Abraham from his dream, God spoke these words:

 After the sun set, Abram slept deeply. A terrifying and deep darkness settled over him.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Have no doubt that your descendants will live as immigrants in a land that isn’t their own, where they will be oppressed slaves for four hundred years. 14 But after I punish the nation they serve, they will leave it with great wealth. 15 As for you, you will join your ancestors in peace and be buried after a good long life. 16 The fourth generation will return here since the Amorites’ wrongdoing won’t have reached its peak until then.”

17 After the sun had set and darkness had deepened, a smoking vessel with a fiery flame passed between the split-open animals. 18 That day the Lord cut a covenant with Abram: “To your descendants I give this land…

This was a covenant that was made with blood. Actually described as, God cut a covenant with Abram.

It says that, if necessary, one was willing to lay down their life for the other.

A mark

A couple of chapters after this covenant, God comes back and tells Abram that he would like to ratify this covenant. He didn’t want to change it. He wanted to add to it.

You see, he wanted there to be a permanent scar on Abram and all who followed him. Abram needed to give something to God.

This is what God says:

“As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants in every generation. 10 This is my covenant that you and your descendants must keep: Circumcise every male. 11 You must circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it will be a symbol of the covenant between us.

Abram, and all the men who would follow him, would be set apart by the scar they bore. The blood they shed. They would be set apart.

But Abram was not the only one who gave a part of themselves to God. That took on a scar.

God told Abram:

 Abram fell on his face, and God said to him, “But me, my covenant is with you; you will be the ancestor of many nations. And because I have made you the ancestor of many nations, your name will no longer be Abram but Abraham.

And he told Sarai:

God said to Abraham, “As for your wife Sarai, you will no longer call her Sarai. Her name will now be Sarah.

The beauty of these changes aren’t the changes in the name, it’s the meaning behind the changes.

The name for God in the Old Testament is, Yahweh, or, in Hebrew would be written without vowels…looking like this:

YHWH.

Abram then became Abraham. Sarai became Sarah.

The ancient Jewish scholars wrote that, when God said you’ll be the Father of many nations, he was saying, I’ll be giving you a piece of my name.

Literally, I’ll give you the “H’s”

And so, God and Abraham both gave up a piece of themselves. They took on the other. And both now carry a scar.

Circumcision meant something significant to Israel

Yet, for the significance of what it meant before, after Christ, even in it’s theological importance, it isn’t the main thing.

When Paul talks about Salvation, he warns against teachers and preachers who talk about grace/acceptance coming from anything other than Christ. (more on that next week)

How do we, as the church, do this?

How do we attach these extras to the church?

There are many ways we’ve been guilty of this:

Non-essential Theological views:

(creation, baptism, etc)

Political views

(One must be a republican to be Christian)

Sexual Preference

(Only heterosexuals are welcome)

Worship Style Preference

(No Drums! Why only hymns?)

These things matter to us. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt us when someone disagrees. 

We are so adept at making the wrong things the main things. We make Christianity about people acting like we think they should act.

We welcome them into the kingdom, and we load them up with expectations, rules and guidelines. And in doing this, we miss the point.

Part of the irony Philippians 3, is the wordplay and how Paul calls these leaders out.

First, he calls them dogs. 

Now, its important to specify, Paul is calling the preachers and teachers who are preaching that salvation only comes through Christ AND circumcision. It’s both/and.

Paul says, “no!” And calls them one of the worst things you could call a respectable jew; a dog.

This is so horrible because, in calling them dogs, Paul is insinuating that they are unclean, that they are scavengers and guilty of eating garbage.

The act of Paul saying this, he is telling the church in Philippians that, in spite of what these teachers believe and teach, they aren’t clean and pure. They aren’t the ones on the inside anymore.

Under the old law, they fit, and they were clean (through their actions), however under the new covenant, they are unclean.

For it’s not what we do that saves us.

It’s Christ alone.

Any attempts by the church to dictate terms by which men and women can be part of the kingdom, outside of faith in Christ, is an attempt to control who is in and out of the KoG.

He then ends by saying, he’s done all the right things. He was circumcised as he should be, he was a hebrew, was a pharisee (educated and knowledgeable in the Law), and followed that law down to the letter.

But this was not enough.

This the hard question: How do we do this? What is our circumcision?

How are we trying to control the movement of the Spirit?

Do we elevate sins over others?

Do we require a new believer (or un-believer) behaves and acts like us before belonging?

Are we willing to engage and live life with someone who doesn’t think like we do?

 

*I would like to offer a special thanks to Mike Breen at 3DM for the brilliant scholarship connected to the cutting of the Abrahamic covenant. Much of this content comes from Breen, and any rights to this content is his. 

Farewells and the Splendor of Trembling: Philippians 2:12-18

philippiansToday we’re continuing our look through Philippians, specifically dealing with 2:12-18.

The past few weeks, we’ve been talking about the Splendor of God. We have talked about his great sacrifice. We have talked about how he refused to operate under the normal means of power, rather, he showed humanity a new way.

It’s really easy to get lost in those passages. The splendor of Christ, the power of the cross, and the hope of his resurrection are such powerful images and examples of love, that often we can stop there.

There is something important about making sure we always look at Christ, right? We should never lose sight of the cross, and how that sacrifice has freed us to live lives otherwise impossible.

The Cross should lead us outward

It can’t end at the cross. It can’t stop with Jesus dying on the cross and coming to life again. This must become real in our own hearts, right?

This must, in some way, transform us.

This transformation must also move outward and begin to transform the world around us. So, today, we’re going to look at what this looks like.

First, let’s read our passage together. Philippians 2:12-18:

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.”[c] Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

So, what’s going on here?

As Christians, it’s really easy to spend our time with our head in the theological clouds.

More concerned with being right than with being Christ-like.

Paul, with the theological weight of the past chapter still simmering, tells the Philippians to bring it back to their own lives.

What does Christ’s life, death and resurrection mean for us? What does it mean for us to live lives that doesn’t just exist in our theology, but spill out into the world around us?

Working out your salvation

Now, after all we’ve read these past few weeks, we come to this command which was given by Paul.

Paul tells the church in Philipi to work their salvation out with fear and trembling.

Often, this is taught as a command to do salvation right.

We interpret this as, we must follow the rules, the commands, and live lives that are good enough. In other words, we must do the hard work to be saved.

Sometimes, we’re taught that Christ’s death didn’t accomplish the whole thing. It didn’t quite go 100% of the way…that we need to go 10% (and in our minds, how often do we believe this to be a 50/50 venture?)

Part of the problem, when you begin to talk about working out your salvation, is that it begins to be something that is about being saved.

We’ve all been in the pews when we hear sermons that make us feel like any sin, any wrong doing against God, puts our salvation at risk. And so, to secure our place in the Kingdom of God, we re-confess, we re-dedicate our lives to God.

Now, there’s something beautiful about rededication. Saying, God I’ve strayed a bit, and I want to come back to you.

However, must be careful to understand that God never left. His grace never left. And our actions aren’t what saves us.

Christ’s death is.

So, when we begin to talk about this passage, and when we begin to study what it means to work out our Salvation, we must understand this important thing: We are saved by the grace of God. Period.

Not by works. In this, we cannot boast.

Salvation is something we accept. Never something we do.

However, what we see here, is that while Salvation isn’t something we’ll ever earn, it is something we must be diligent to work through.

When Paul says this, he’s not not telling us to work “for” our faith, instead he’s telling us to work “out” our faith.

There is a very big different here.

To work out

The word being used here is Katergazomai, which means “to bring about” or “to carry out.” This isn’t about earning a seat at the table, rather, it has everything to do with putting faith into action.

This isn’t a one time event. It is a consistent and ongoing effort. It’s something you work on and do over and over again.

What does this look like?

Paul uses Chapter 2 to define this for us.

In verses 1-4, we talked about working together as a unified body pushing and striving towards a common goal. Ignoring differences of opinion, and unifying under the banner of Christ.

In verses 5-11, we talked about how love empties self, and in that emptying becomes its fullest and most beautiful self. We saw this modeled by God. And we see the challenge to imitate that.

In verses 14-16, we’re talking about what it looks like to cease arguing and instead, live as an example, or light, to the world around us (more on that in a moment!).

To work out our salvation means that we find a way to exist together in harmony. We refuse to let differences divide us, and we do so with fear and trembling.

Fear and trembling

Now, this is a bit of a misleading phrase. We see this, and we immediately get the image in our minds of an innocent person cowering in the corner in response to an angry, and abusive Father.

Let’s move away from that.

Fear and trembling has nothing to do with fear of life.

Rather, it has more to do with a deep respect or awe.

Fear and trembling is how a person goes to through their marriage ceremony.

Fear and trembling is how a person feels when they hold their first child.

Fear and trembling is how Moses approached the burning bush.

Fear and trembling is that deep appreciation of the magnitude of the moment we are in, and a deep understanding of what is required.

And because of this understanding, because of the reverence and awe that’s brought into the conversation, we are forced to take the situation seriously.

So, we must take this working out of our salvation seriously. We must take our response to it (not our validation or our completion of salvation) seriously.

And when we do this, Paul tells us that what this must look like.

Complaining and arguing. 

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life.

Now, part of the reason this was Paul’s main challenge is contextual. The church in Philippi was experiencing quite a bit of internal discord. However, the more I experience the Christian faith- particularly, Christianity publicly, I see wisdom and great importance of this challenge:

Complaining:  The word Paul uses here for com paining is “Gongysmos” which means grumbling. It’s actually an onomatopoeia (like bang, or crash, or click). It’s a word that is intended to bring an audible connection, not just an intellectual one.

Arguing: The word used for arguing is “dialogismos.”

These words aren’t all the interesting on their own. However, there is something Paul is alluding to in these comparisons.

In Exodus, we read about Israel. God’s chosen people. Called to be an example to the world of God’s love and God’s sovereignty over all other deities.

However, through the book of Exodus, we see over and over, discord, distrust and frustration by both Israel and God.

They are always complaining; about food, water, walking, etc. Often, the say being in slavery is better than being with God.

They argue amongst themselves. Constantly.

And the world sees.

The world always sees, right?

We’ve seen this in the Christian church.

Rob Bell.

Farewell tweets.

The world watches us as we deal with our own. How are we responding to each other when we aren’t on the same page?

How are we acting?

Are we grumbling. Complaining. Arguing. Throwing one another under the bus?

Or are we finding unity in Christ?

Are we dedicating our lives to love in the same way Christ offered to us; without conditions.

Or do we bicker.

Paul writes about

To Paul, Salvation leads to obedience and obedience leads to evangelism.

There is a progression here

Paul is teaching us that when we’re brought into the fold, brought into the family, we’re called to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We’re called to sacrifice our preferences. To give up our separate identity.

We’re sons and daughters of the King.

When we do that, the world takes note.
When we’re able to put aside our pride, our theology, our politics, and instead, focus on unity, that is the greatest for of evangelism possible.

It’s engaging. It’s inviting. It’s contagious.

A King Below: Philippians 2:9-11

A little delayed, we’ll be continuing our discussion on the book of Philippians. 

philippians

Today, we’re working through the second part of our early church hymn found in Philippians 2.

Last week we took a look at part one. As a short refresher, let’s read it again together.

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Last week
We talked about how Christ refused to use power over people to bring about his plan. He refused to consider his divinity as a tool to help him gain an edge. Instead, he chose to push against the established system of power through his willingness to lay down all rights and privileges, and to allow himself to be killed as a common, forgotten slave.

The story doesn’t end there

Does it?

Christ willingly walks to his death. He goes there naked, bleeding, humiliated, and filled with an endless love for his creation.

After his death, Jesus’ disciples mourned felt afraid. If this could happen to Jesus…then what would happen to them?

But it wasn’t the end of the story.

Jesus was buried. Laying in a tomb for 3 days.

But this wasn’t the end of the story.

Christ conquered death. He rose again, and he ascended into heaven.

A miraculous birth.

A meaningful life.

A sacrificial death.

A death-conquering resurrection.

However, Paul reminds us that is wasn’t Jesus’ divine birth, it wasn’t his miracle-filled ministry, it wasn’t his gruesome death, and it wasn’t even his resurrection that acted as the catalyst for what we read next.

It happened because, well, let’s read why:

Philippians 2:9-11:

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

What’s happening here?

In this passage we’re reading some serious theology. We’re reading foundational stuff about the Christian faith, and especially in regards to the divinity of Christ.

We’re reading a core passage that helps us understand the doctrine of the Trinity.

For those of us who have been in the church, and really, for those of us who are new to faith, I think we miss the truth impact of what’s being said here.

Christ exalted.

Equal with God our Father.

Judaism was a monotheism

For us, Christianity has always been about Jesus, right? We’ve grown up hearing things like, “Jesus is the way”…or “What would Jesus do?”

wwjd

Our Church year revolves around Advent (Christmas and the celebration of birth of Jesus) and Easter (remember Christ’s death and resurrection).

advent

Jesus is part of our cultural theological framework. There has never been a time in our lives that he wasn’t a foundational part of our faith.

This isn’t the case for those within Judaism. Their entire existence, they existed as a people who served and followed YHWH. God. Nobody else.

They (nor any of humanity) had any concept of the Trinity. They had no understanding of Jesus. From their limited experience, it was God and God alone.

But Jesus always existed. He was always one with God; always his equal.

The scholar, Dean Flemming said it this way:

The point is not that Jesus was given a higher status than he had prior to his becoming a man (against Cullmann 1963, 174–81). Rather, the verb means that God lifted Jesus to the highest position possible. It is a place where he is publicly and universally recognized as equal in status with God the Father (vv 10–11). (BBC)

Jesus gives us a picture of who God is and what he values:

One of the most beautiful parts of the life and death of Christ is that he puts skin and bones on a very un-known God.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see God only through the mouth of an extreme minority; a handful of men called by God to be his voice to the people.
Abraham. Moses. The prophets. The High Priest.

To the Israelites, God existed in the Holy of Holies; a special room designated as a place off-limits to all but a select few.

God was always present, he was always working towards redemption, but he was not accessible, and because of this, Israel didn’t know him.

This changed with Jesus.

In Christ, we see God’s mission, mercy and passion for the least of these on full display.

We also see him coming up against generations of theology, and when the walls of theology couldn’t contain him, and when his actions, grace and forgiveness felt too freely offered, they despised him.

I think there’s a lesson in there somewhere…

However, when Christ came, his acts of sacrifice and selflessness, weren’t just a means to an end. They were core a core part of the Identity of God.

The pastor, Brian Zhand nails it when he said:

In Christ, we see a God who would rather die than kill his enemies. 

When Paul talks of Christ being elevated, he is talking about God showing the world the majesty and power of Christ.

The Beacon Commentary says it this way:

It follows, then, that we cannot start with a definition of God and try to fit Jesus into it. We must look first to Jesus himself, who reveals to us the identity of God. If we want to know what God is like … God is like Jesus.
Understanding this can and should have powerful ramifications on our lives.

angry godHow many of us carry the image of an angry Father-God through life. A bitter and resentful God who beats us with a cane every time we mess up. A God who demands our groveling at his feet, just so he doesn’t strike us down?

Oh, the angry deity is taught, and for many, this God is a projection of their own experiences with an abusive Father. It’s hard for the word Father to be used without all the baggage that comes with it.

And so, we have Jesus. A fully God- fully man, living, breathing, walking, talking, healing, redeeming, forgiving example of who our heavenly Father truly is. 

Therein lies the beauty of this passage.

We no longer have to wonder what our heavenly Father is like. When Paul writes this hymn into the book of Philippians, he’s teaching the Philippians, and each Christ-follower after them two things:

First: In Christ, we can be certain that we have a heavenly Father who knows us and the struggles we face at the deepest level.

Paul describes Jesus’ incarnation as his self-emptying, enslavement, humiliation. These words suggest Jesus’ deep identification with our human situation. 

We can live confidently in the knowledge that the Son of God stands in solidarity with the poor and the powerless, the suffering and the vulnerable, the lowly and the marginalized, because he has shared our fate. 

He is truly a God who is for us. 

He is “God with us.” Jesus’ incarnation meant not just becoming human. It also meant embracing the poverty, powerlessness, and death of a slave. It broadcasts the limitless nature of God’s love through Christ.

Second: Power structure, as defined by our culture, and as we have always known it, through the life and sacrifice of Christ, no longer holds weight or truth.

It was said that what Christ’s life, sacrifice, death and resurrection all amounts to is a devastating critique of Caesar and his world (as well as our current world). In Christ we see the one who was humiliated and crucified by Roman power, yet who is declared universally sovereign.

This directly challenges the empire’s version of how to achieve world rule. The story of a self-emptying Lord not only subverts Caesar’s claims to universal dominion but also turns the whole Roman value system of what constitutes honor and power on its head.

It tells us that we don’t have to behave, defend, and be the aggressor anymore.

The cultural narrative of the dominant, self-seeking, me-first necessity is not true, and must be named and rejected.

We must, instead remember that Christ modeled what it looks like to reject that struggle for power, and instead modeled sacrifice, and in that modeling sacrifice, was shown to the world as the King above all.

Christ is king.

To this king, in the end, everything that has ever been created, in heaven, on earth, or in the spiritual realm, will bow in submission to him.

What this means for us

Who is Christ to us? Is our God a sword wielding, angry/abusive, or vengeful deity? If so, how can we begin to allow the character of Christ begin to disassemble those beliefs?

As Christ disassembled these beliefs, we must also ask ourselves if we patterning our lives after him?

Are we sword-wielding Christians? Or are we dedicated to laying down our lives for the world possible offenders in this world?

Power vs Humiliation, or when God becomes a man (Part 2)

Pope Francis

Yesterday, we talked about how Christ came to earth, and chose to not wield his power over humanity. He instead chose to come, and give up his rights to power.

This is in stark contrast to the Roman understanding of power.

Emperors used their divine status to gain power, popularity and prestige.

They claimed divine ancestry, asked for people to make sacrifices for their forgiveness of sins. Roman Caesars would claim to be the “son of god.”

And they ensured that this divine status remained through brute force and demands of complete unity of focus and worship.

The masses often proclaiming, “Caesar is lord.”

Two deities square off.

Let think about something together; what happens, in our culture, when two men or women of power come into conflict – be it ideological, theological, politically, or economically with one another?

The puff their chests. They remind people of their status, accomplishments. They ask or demand for people to see the letters before their name, the their alma-mater, and their what they’ve accomplished at work.

They take a power-over approach. And we, as a culture, celebrate it, don’t we?

We celebrate the alpha male.

Western culture celebrates the powerful.

From Superman…

To Liam Neeson…

And when we’re not celebrating the power-over, violent heroes, we’re electing the square (read: strong) jawed men for president…

Slate Magazine once wrote:

Working with subjects rating photos of hundreds of faces, [Princeton University Psychologists] Todorov and colleagues have developed computer models of how faces can suggest character traits like trustworthiness and likability. The competent face shape is masculine but approachable, with a square jaw, high cheekbones, and large eyes. When people say Romney just looks presidential, this is the image they’re summoning.

Even down to our facial structure, power- be it real or assumed- matters to us.

Our culture celebrates the self promoter.

Our culture celebrates the boot-strap grabber.

Marlboro manBut we followed a man who voluntarily gave up every stitch of power that he possessed.

He was there when the Earth, stars, and universe were created. In fact, we’re told that all that exists was created through him.

Christ possessed all power, under heave and on earth, and he gave it away. He confronted a system of oppression, both politically (in Rome) and religiously (in the Pharisees and religious leaders the time) by being the least among them.

He gave of himself. Over and over and over again.

Paul tells us that Christ…

    …humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The cross.

A slaves death. A disgraceful death.

A Roman citizen (a person of human worth in the eyes of Rome), if executed would have been beheaded. It was a civil death. A death worthy of a Roman son or daughter.

A non-Roman citizen, though, would suffer a different fate.

The Romans were creative with the ways they killed their criminals.

For non-Roman citizens sentenced to death, they could be sentenced to die any number of ways:

▪Being burnt alive

▪Being bound by the feet to the tails of wild horses and dragged to death

▪Being torn to pieces by wild beasts

▪Beaten to death

▪Burned with plates of red-hot iron

But for a slave, a person of zero cultural worth or importance, Rome reserved the most painful and humiliating death of them all. The cross.

The Beacon Bible Commentary talks about this cross this way:

“The Roman writer Cicero called it “the most cruel and abominable form of punishment” (Verrine Orations 5.64; cited by Bruce 1983, 54). “The very word ‘cross,’ ” he cautioned, “should be far removed not only from the person of a Roman citizen, but from his thoughts, his eyes and his ears” (Rab. Perd. 16; cited by Hengel 1977, 42). In other words, cross was an obscenity not to be mentioned in polite Roman society.

What made crucifixion so appalling in Paul’s world was that it combined excruciating torture with total humiliation (Hooker 1994, 8).Victims were paraded through the streets publicly, open to ridicule from bystanders, crucified naked, left to hang sometimes for several days, with even their bodily excretions in full view.

The victims’ bodies were usually left exposed to be eaten by birds or wild animals, with the remnants tossed into a common pit (the Gospels note that Jesus’ burial was an exception to this practice; see Matt 27:57–59). The absence of a proper burial heaped further humiliation on the victims and their families (see Osiek 2000, 63). (BBC)

The social stigma attached to crucifixion was further extended by its close identification with slavery. In fact, it was so common for slaves to be crucified in the Roman world that crucifixion came to be known as the “slaves’ punishment” (Hellerman 2005, 146–47). No one would have had to alert the Philippians to the connection between Jesus “taking the form of a slave” (NRSV) and his death on a cross. Everyone knew that crucifixion was the penalty for slaves” (BBC)

The death of the people’s king

The greek philosopher Plato, once said that if a truly righteous man ever existed, humanity would crucify him.

In him, humanity would see everything that it wasn’t.

In Christ, the religious elite witnessed something they desperately wanted: respect.

They lived their lives- be it through fasting, following rules, or using the law to condemn- in an attempt to prove their greatness.

Jesus lived his life to show his love.

He refused to participate in the system as it was designed.

He didn’t seek the approval of the powerful. He conversed with prostitutes.

He didn’t proclaim monetary righteousness. He invited the rich to give all they had away.

He was radical. He didn’t see himself as a deity able to control others. Rather, he chose to take a downward path towards humility and humiliation.

That’s hard for us to understand, isn’t it?

What this means for you and me

How do we use our voice, our power, our influence and our economic system to advance our own causes?

Are we, as christians, using the gospel to bully people into believing like you and me? Or are we using choosing the way of sacrifice to show people what Christ is offering?

The truth is that, when Christ refused to wield the power of his Divine Nature to bring about the Kingdom, that took from us any ability to use our own power to bring about the Kingdom.

When it’s our weight being thrown, it’s not longer a Christ-centered movement. It becomes my own personal vendetta.

When we create a fiction around our lives, tailor our story so others will think more of us, and when acclamation of power matters more than genuine honesty, we can know that we’re not living like the King we’ve been called to emulate.

It’s difficult work, being part of this kingdom. It costs us everything, and requires we hold on to nothing.

But in the holding on to nothing, we will find that we gain everything…but more on that next week.

Power vs Humiliation, or when God becomes man.

Today, we’ll be looking at Philippians 2:5-8. Let’s dive in and read it together…

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This passage is one of the lofty peaks of the New Testament.  Many scholars Philippians 2:5-11 to be an early church hymn, and many even speculate Paul himself even wrote the words. While much of the background is shrouded in mystery, the purpose and words are clear.

This is a hymn celebrating and exploring the life and meaning of Christ, and this passage is vital to the purpose of this letter. It’s the linchpin that holds the book together.

About this hymn: It’s broken down into two acts:  The Humiliation and The Exultation.

This week, we’ll be talking about the humiliation, and next week we’ll be taking a look at the Exultation.

The humiliation

Up to this point in Philippians, Paul has been talking a great deal about humility, and viewing others as better than yourself. With this passage, Paul is teaching the Philippians, and the church today, that it isn’t enough to know about Christ. We can all have knowledge about him, but that doesn’t do anything for us, or for the world. We must emulate him. We must do everything in our power to become like him.

Sometimes we look at Jesus as the man who died on the Cross and the one whose death brought about our forgiveness, right? We have the nice (or ugly) image of the passion of the Christ in our minds. We are grateful for the sacrifice. However, it’s far too easy to leave it at that. It’s far too easy to not take the next step.

Use it or…

People are tempted to use what they have to gain an advantage.

We see this all over the place.

The Innocent: Baseball. (The use of video to give pitchers or hitters an advantage)

The Corrupt: Insider trading (using private knowledge of a company to benefit your own personal bottom line).

This hymn reminds us of this difficult, yet important truth: Christ deliberately chose not to use equality with God for his own benefit.

With Christ’s power, it would have been easy to raise up an army and overthrow Rome, right?

We even read in Matthew 4, or what is known as the “temptation of Christ”:

…the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

“‘He will command his angels concerning you,
    and they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”

Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”

It had to have been tempting to use what was available to him

Christ knew the path he was to walk. He knew the end he would face. He knew that this would be the most difficult road he would ever have to walk, and he knew he could take a short cut. He could take the easy way out.

We find Christ often telling people, after being healed, to go and tell no-one what has just happened. We know human nature. We know people respond to the miraculous. The bigger, the better.

Christ wanted them to just look for a quick fix. He wanted to heal the heart, and they needed to experience the slow work of love.

Jesus knew that the flash of a public healing, casting out of demons or through winning theological debates would never be enough to truly change, redeem and restore.

Only invitations could do that.

(Stop by tomorrow as we explore what happened when deities collide)

Finding joy in the mess of community. (Part 2)

Photo Credit:  mathias shoots analogue

Photo Credit: mathias shoots analogue

Paul gives us a hint when he says:

“listen, you all have professed a relationship with Christ. You all have been impacted by his work in your life, and so, with that understanding I plead of you….’If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.’” (The message)

Agree with each other. Love each other. Be deep spirited friends. What’s Paul talking about here? We’re told to be like-minded.

This Biblical understanding of like-mindedness is a mindset, an attitude or a life-choice. It’s not an intellectual activity.

So often, we choose to run with, or associate with, people who share all the same beliefs and lifestyle choices as us. It’s easy, right? They don’t push us into places of discomfort. We usually don’t have to defend our beliefs, or we don’t have to be stretched by theirs. We can spend our time talking about things we agree with, rather than things we disagree with. But when we do this, when we choose to only be with those who are like us, we miss out on so many opportunities to grow and develop as human beings. The thing is this…our culture tells us that we must all agree on everything. That a person who is different is to be feared. Are you a different political persuasion than I am? I am to fear you. Are you a different religion? I am to fear you. Are you a different sexual orientation? I am to fear you.

This is modeled by our political pundits through the ways in which they talk to the “other side”

or…

Our cultural political leaders teach us that those who look, talk, think or act differently than us must be our enemies, and we must never listen to our enemies. This is opposite of what Paul is telling us to do. He is telling us to stop focusing on having a perfectly aligned intellectual opinion. He’s telling us to stop huddling in like-minded holy huddles.

Instead, Paul says, before we worry about theology, before we worry about politics, before we worry about any other non-essential division, let us first find commonality in Christ.

Let’s choose to make that our singular point of agreement. The rest, he says, are details. Now, it must be said, that this is not as easy as it looks. Right? But Paul doesn’t leave it at this.

Paul tells us to have the same love for our enemies that Christ modeled for us. 

The word for love in this passage is the word agape. Agape love means endless and boundless love. A love without borders. A love without conditions. A love without expectation of return. Agape is a love that says, I disagree with you, I don’t understand you, but you are my brother or you are my sister and I will choose to  not let my disagreements and personal conditions determine your worth. Agape love lets others speak. Agape love listens. Agape love refuses to stereotype. Agape love seeks to break down barriers. Agape love refuses to let go of forgiveness. Agape love refuses to hold grudges. Agape love remembers it’s all about Christ. Agape love begins and ends with Christ. Agape l love says that I will love you as I see Christ love me, us, the church, the world. How does this look practically? In many ways, it seems impossible, right? Paul tells the church in Philippi, if they want to find contentment, peace and joy, they must:

Resist Vanity

The word used for vanity here is kenodoxia, which means: a state of pride which is without basis or justification – ‘empty pride, cheap pride, vain pride.’ We see this all over the place, don’t we? We see it in the way we manufacture our memories through platforms like Instagram and Twitter. We carefully construct these moments, using filters or carefully placed shots, in hopes that people are jealous of our lives. This was perfectly modeled by Zilla van den Born, a dutch student, who faked a trip to southeast Asia. She explained her purpose for the deceit this way:

“I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media–we create an ideal world online, which reality can no longer meet . . . My goal was to prove how common and easy it is for people to distort reality. Everyone knows that pictures of models are manipulated, but we often overlook the fact that we manipulate reality also in our own lives.”

When we attempt to show ourselves as more popular, more happy, more beautiful, more (  fill in the blank  ) than we actually are, we rob ourselves of the beauty of our real lives. In our pursuit of manufacturing our truth and happiness for others to be jealous of, we miss out on the moments of true happiness all around us!

Paul tells us to resist blind ambition. 

That desire to accumulate more and more. To build your wealth. To build your clout. To build your reputation. To build your career. To build your twitter followers. To build your blog following. To build your influence. To build your… We so easily find ourselves pushing for more of something, don’t we? And in this pushing, we’re celebrated by our culture. It’s is celebrated by the books we read: Atlas Shrugged The movies we watch:

The celebration and adulation of those who earn, succeed and win at all costs is a cornerstone of the American dream. We want to be [ rich, successful, powerful] like them. While it might be an American cornerstone, we must reject the belief that it’s a Christian pillar. We must remember the pursuit of power, influence or personal gain is not what life in Christ is about. We were not built for this, and we must always remember that joy does not come when Atlas Shrugs.

Lastly, Paul reminds us to not believe yourself to be larger than the church community.

Despite what we’re often taught, Christianity isn’t about the single person. It’s about the collective; the whole. We are a Kingdom Community.   While thinking about the individualistic Christian faith might sound nice on post-card, it isn’t real or true. While we know that, yes, Christ would have come and died for the salvation of only one (he loves us that much!), we also know what’s taught in Colossians. We understand Christ came to redeem and reconcile all of creation to himself. Everything. Everyone. This is a group effort. This thing we’re part of is much, larger than any one person, and when we’re part of the community of believers we’re reminded us of this truth, right? In the community of believers, we’re surrounded by people all working to make it through life. We struggle. We bicker. We fight. We love. We forgive. But there isn’t one here that is bigger or better than another in the eyes of God. We’re all equal. We’re all sons and daughters of God. But we must remember that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. That we’re not entitled to extra, or more, or that something extra is owed to us. How this begins the process of joy Part of what creates despair in us is that, in the process of trying to show ourselves to be something we’re not, we lose ourselves and we forget who God created us to be. Part of what the community of believers offers us is the chance to be real. To be our true, and honest self; warts and all. When we’re able to be ourselves, and when we’re accepted for who we truly are, we will find that joy comes naturally to us. It’s easy to find joy when we’re honest, open and recipients of God’s grace.

No matter the road we take, and no matter our path, the process towards true joy will always end with Christ, and will always be by way of the community of believers.

Finding Joy in the mess of community. (Part 2)

Photo Credit:  mathias shoots analogue

Photo Credit: mathias shoots analogue

Yesterday…

We talked about the physical and spiritual toll loneliness inflicts on us as people. We talked about how we spend our time trying to find happiness, but that we only find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into isolation and darkness. (Want to catch up? Read part one here)

The question remains: How can we find joy together? Even though we’re taught to talk over one another?

Paul begins the conversation on conversation

Paul starts off by saying, “listen, you all have professed a relationship with Christ. You all have been impacted by his work in your life, and so, with that understanding I plead of you….’If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.’” (The message)

Agree with each other. Love each other. Be deep spirited friends.

What’s Paul talking about here?

We’re told to be like-minded.

This Biblical understanding of like-mindedness is a mindset, an attitude or a life-choice. It’s not an intellectual activity.

So often, we choose to run with, or associate with, people who share all the same beliefs and lifestyle choices as us. It’s easy, right? They don’t push us into places of discomfort. We usually don’t have to defend our beliefs, or we don’t have to be stretched by theirs. We can spend our time talking about things we agree with, rather than things we disagree with.

But when we do this, when we choose to only be with those who are like us, we miss out on so many opportunities to grow and develop as human beings. The thing is this…our culture tells us that we must all agree on everything. That a person who is different is to be feared.

Are you a different political persuasion than I am? I am to fear you.

Are you a different religion? I am to fear you.

Are you a different sexual orientation? I am to fear you.

But this isn’t what Paul is telling us to do. He says, no, stop focusing on trying to match up our intellectual opinions. Stop huddling in same minded groups.

Instead, he says, before we worry about theology. Before we worry about politics. Before we worry about any other division, let us, instead first find commonality in Christ.

Let’s choose to make that our singular point of agreement. The rest, he says, are details.

Now, it must be said, that this is not as easy as it looks. Right?

But he doesn’t leave it at this…he moves on to say…

We’re told to have the same love that Christ modeled for us. 

The word for love in this passage is the word agape.

Agape love means endless and boundless love. A love without borders. A love without conditions. A love without expectation of return.

Agape is a love that says, I disagree with you, I don’t understand you, but you are my brother or you are my sister and I will choose to  not let my disagreements and personal conditions determine your worth.

Our culture teaches us a different message, doesn’t it?

It demonstrates the message that, if I don’t like what you say, I’ll talk over you. If you don’t agree with me, I will refuse to listen to you.

Your words, your worth, are tied to how closely our politics or religious beliefs alight.

We see this on both sides of the political isle.

We see Republicans do this…

We see Democrats do this…

We must refuse, at all costs, to be caught up in this agression towards others.

After all, we are a people called to love our enemies, and serve those we disagree with.

This can only happen through Agape love.

Agape love lets others speak. Agape love listens.

Agape love refuses to stereotype. Agape love seeks to break down barriers.

Agape love refuses to let go of forgiveness. Agape love refuses to hold grudges.

Agape love remembers it’s all about Christ. Agape love begins and ends with Christ.

Agape l love says that I will love you as I see Christ love me, us, the church, the world.

How are we supposed to do this?

It seems impossible, right?

Paul tells the church in Philippi, if they want to find contentment, peace and joy, they do two things.

Resist Vanity

The word used for vanity here is kenodoxia, which means: a state of pride which is without basis or justification – ‘empty pride, cheap pride, vain pride.’

We see this all over the place, don’t we?

One of the most articulate explorations of this search was done by Zilla van den Born. This Dutch student faked a trip to S. E. Asia in order to show us how easy it is to create and manipulate how others see us.

We are all guilty of this. We take photos of a meal, a beautiful building, or a child’s smile. We place a filter on it, and post to Instagram. In this, we attempt to show ourselves as more popular, more happy, more beautiful, more ( fill in the blank ) than we actually are.

We want to be the ones others are longing to be.

Someone along the way, in these blind pursuits towards creating our own versions truth and happiness, we will find that we’re missing out on the moments of true happiness all around us! The kind of happiness you can’t fake. The happiness you can’t re-create.

Resist blind ambition.

It’s easy, right? To find ourselves overwhelmed with a desire to accumulate more and more.

To build your wealth.

To build your clout.

To build your reputation.

To build your career.

To build your influence.

We must remember that this is not what life in Christ is about. Remember that joy does not come through things like this.

We must fight the temptations to believe we’re larger than the community that welcomes us.

Despite what we’re often taught, Christianity isn’t about me, nor is it about you. It’s about us- the collective whole.

The community.

On a post-card, the me-centered grace sounds wonderful. Who wouldn’t want to think that God came for just you, or just me? While, we know that Christ loved us enough to come for only one. We’re taught in Colossians that Christ came to redeem and reconcile all of creation to himself.

Not you. Not me. WE.

This thing we’re part of is much larger than any one person. The community of believers reminds us of this truth, right?

In church, we’re surrounded by people all working to make it through life. We struggle. We bicker. We fight. We love. We forgive. However, there isn’t one of us that is bigger or better than another in the eyes of God.

We’re all equals. We’re all sons and daughters of God.

We must remember we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Because of this beautiful equality, we’re not entitled to anything extra.

How this begins the process of joy

Part of what creates despair in us is that, in the process of trying to show ourselves to be something we’re not, we lose ourselves and we forget who God created us to be.

Part of what the community of believers offers us is the chance to be real. To be our true, and honest self; warts and all. When we’re able to be ourselves, and when we’re accepted for who we truly are, we will find that joy comes naturally to us. It’s easy to find joy when we’re honest, open and recipients of God’s grace.

Conclusion

No matter the road we take, and no matter our path, the process towards true joy will always end with Christ, and will always be by way of the community of believers.

Finding joy in the mess of community. (Part 1)

Photo Credit:  David Hodgson

Photo Credit: David Hodgson

Intro

We are continuing on with our study of Philippians. In this study we’re looking at how joy and suffering applies to our 21st century lives.

Last week (part 1, part 2) we talked about how God uses suffering to advance His work in the world, and his work in the hearts of those who we interact with. We talked about how he uses difficult times in our lives to help others connect with God in a new and real way.

We’ve talked about how being real with our story invites others to be real with their story.

Today, we’ll be continuing this discussion of community and the joy that comes from being complete together.

Joy is spelled S.O.L.O

Happiness is solo venture. You will often hear people talk about what it means to be or search out happiness, and it will often be said that we are “going to make myself happy for a while.”

A Google search for “happiness” yields 75 million results, and nearly 40,000 books on or related to the topic are available for purchase on Amazon.com.

Happiness, and the pursuit of it, is at the forefront of our culture, isn’t it?

Yet, we’re not a happy culture.

In a 2013 New York Times Op-Ed piece, Ross Douthat states,

In the 1990s, the suicide rate dipped with the crime rate. But since 2000, it has risen, and jumped particularly sharply among the middle-aged. The suicide rate for Americans 35 to 54 increased nearly 30 percent between 1999 and 2010; for men in their 50s, it rose nearly 50 percent. More Americans now die of suicide than in car accidents, and gun suicides are almost twice as common as gun homicides… there’s a strong link between suicide and weakened social ties: people — and especially men — become more likely to kill themselves “when they get disconnected from society’s core institutions (e.g., marriage, religion) or when their economic prospects take a dive (e.g., unemployment).”

In Slate, it’s been documented:

Loneliness is a serious health risk. Studies of elderly people and social isolation concluded that those without adequate social interaction were twice as likely to die prematurely.

The increased mortality risk is comparable to that from smoking. And loneliness is about twice as dangerous as obesity.

Social isolation impairs immune function and boosts inflammation, which can lead to arthritis, type II diabetes, and heart disease. Loneliness is breaking our hearts, but as a culture we rarely talk about it.

Loneliness has doubled: 40 percent of adults in two recent surveys said they were lonely, up from 20 percent in the 1980s.

This, then, begs the question…if so much of our time and resources are dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and if this happiness is becoming more and more rare, then it would be wise for us to take a serious look at how we are looking for it, right?

We must look at what we’re expecting to bring us happiness, and how we’re finding ourselves disappointed by it.

Ultimately, is happiness found as a community or is it found alone?

Philippians 2:1-4

2 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

We must begin with unity

When we begin  to talk about community and happiness that’s found within community, we must first discuss unity.

We are a fragmented society.

We have republicans. We have democrats.

We have Americans. We have Mexicans. We have Chinese.

We have college graduates. We have high school drop-outs.

We have nuclear families. We have single mothers.

We have White collar. We have blue-collar. Some have no collar.

We have heterosexual. We have homosexual.

We have musicians. We have accountants.

We have Protestants. We have Catholics.

We have whovians. We have trekkies.

We have war veterans. We have pacifists.

I could keep going, but we all understand, right?

With so many differences, with so many ways in which we can experience life and come to find some semblance of foundation in our lives, how can we exist together in community?

An even deeper, and more difficult question, how can we come to exist together even when our differences are so drastic or glaring? How can we find joy together? Even though we’re taught to talk over one another?

Tomorrow, we’re going to dive into that question together.