What’s the Point?

“And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life.” — Matthew 25:46, NJB

The picture with this post is Sandro Botticelli’s Map of Hell. Oh, yes, people! It is time for a talk on hell, everyone’s favorite. No, I am not telling you whether or not you are going there, as that is not my call. I am also not guessing as to the fates of others in the afterlife, because, again, that is not my place. I am also not taking the preferred liberal approach of finding the metaphorical meaning in Matthew’s discussion of hell. I’m actually not debating the existence of hell at all, as I have no intention of finding out whether it is real or not.

No, tonight, I want to encourage you to look at this teaching in a new way that quite possibly ignores the afterlife implications altogether, in favor of an interpretation that gets all of us up and moving to serve others. Interested? Let’s take a look.

The full text for tonight’s post can be found here, in my preferred translation, the New Jerusalem Bible. I am not Catholic, but the website where the translation is found happens to be a Catholic site, so don’t feel like I am trying to convert you or anything. We are looking at verses 31-46 tonight, so scroll down, and get ready to take a look!… Done? Okay, here we go!

From the outset, we get the idea that Jesus is talking about the final judgment of the world, telling us “When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory… and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats” (verses 31-32). This is a prophetic text, then, one concerned with the judgment and implemented justice of God. As we see in the text, verses 33-36, it is far better to be considered a sheep! These are the ones who are on Jesus’ right side (the favored side in antiquity), praised for their kindness to others.

On the left side (not the good side in antiquity), we have those considered “goats,” and they are not in for nearly as good a time. As we look at verses 41-46, we their negligence regarding those who suffer among them result in their condemnation by Jesus, which would seem to land them in a very unpleasant place known as “hell” in the Christian universe. Obviously, “goat status” would be undesirable for us, yes?

Now, the easiest teaching to take from this could be rendered thus:

Jesus is eventually going to return to judge us all. If we do what we are supposed to, we will go to heaven. If we don’t do what we are supposed to, we will go to hell. So do what you’re supposed to do.

Familiar? Utterly unfamiliar? My guess is that there is a big split in my readership, dividing the group into two subsections. One grew up with hell teachings all the time and heard this text at least once. The other group was raised with no mention of hell (probably in the mainline churches) and finds the idea repulsive. There could also be a subset of people who are indifferent to this concept in general, and that is also fine.

The point is, this is not how I believe this text (or any judgment text) should be read. Keep in mind, I still insist the judgment texts be read. They are part of Scripture, and this is not a faith of squishy comfort. However, brow-beating people with the threat of a severe afterlife is also not a productive way to honor these texts and the teachings therein. So what’s my take?

This Scripture is not concerned with the afterlife nearly as much as it is with how you and I go about our lives from the moment we turn away from the computer screen or Bible and enter into our normal doings. Hell? Maybe. Heaven? Sure. Earth, here and now? Absolutely, without a doubt.

We have this unhealthy view of faith and prophecy that keeps us concerned with either looking back or looking forward to a problematic degree. When we look to the past as if these are just ancient words describing a nonexistent reality, it has the same effect as looking forward constantly to the time when some people get heaven, others get hell. That effect is negative and unhelpful, because you and I are living in the present, and I can’t help but think that Jesus and the prophets of the Scriptures were more concerned about how people live their lives as opposed to whether or not they know about the impending judgment.

Am I denying the judgment? No! I am, however, interested in recovering this text from its “end times” pigeon-hole in order to (hopefully) remove some of the fear, worry, or resentment that often gets attached to hell teachings. So if the point isn’t knowing how the judgment will go, what is it?

The point, dear reader, is that when you finish reading this text (or any other judgment text, like Revelation), you should be looking around for an opportunity to care for the people you encounter throughout the rest of your life. Will you feed the hungry? Will you give water to the thirsty? Will you visit and comfort those who are sick, in prison, grieving, and impoverished? Matthew’s (and Jesus’) hope is that you will respond with a hearty, “YES!” Will you do these things because you are secretly doing these things to Jesus and can thereby expect eternal blessedness? NO.

“But Jordan, what do you mean? Jesus promises us a reward!”

Yes, of course, because Jesus knows how you and I think. That doesn’t make it right, and the examples of rightness (and wrongness) are found in tonight’s text. Look at verses 37-40. “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?” The same questioning continues for every act the righteous committed, which earned them the blessing of God. You see, part of their righteousness is that they didn’t do what they did because of a reward or punishment. They didn’t even do these things because they thought they were secretly serving God. They did these righteous things because it was right to do so. 

Let’s look at verses 44-45. The unrighteous as the same questions, but from a different perspective. “Woah, we neglected YOU? WHEN?” Their minds go to the fact that they are cursed by God because they missed a couple of key opportunities to serve him. Even with their judgment settled, they don’t get it. These are the ones concerned only with the reward (or punishment). These are the ones who require incentive to do what is right for others. 

You see, Jesus doesn’t want us looking forward, worrying about the coming of judgment. In fact, he says as much in  Acts 1:7. Instead, Jesus’ teachings are geared toward changing the way we do things and the reasons we do things here and now, in our everyday lives. Hell is a part of the teachings of Jesus, but it is hardly the focus. The focus is what you and I decide to do each day, and whether or not we will choose to act faithfully regarding God and others.

Jesus wants our hearts. Jesus wants us to love him, to love God, particularly through how we love others. These “others,” (our fellow humans and other parts of creation) are not to be viewed as means to the end of salvation, but instead, they are parts of God’s creation that are loved and wanted by God, just as we are. As such, we should treat them with the requisite amount of kindness, not based on whether they deserve it or we want to, but simply because it is the right way to live. Will it bring benefits? Yes. Will doing the opposite cause problems? Of course. We, however, are called not to love based on what is gained, but based on the love we already receive in Christ Jesus.

As you go out into your life of faith, I encourage you to pay heed to these Scriptures regarding the really uncomfortable topic of hell and damnation. Not, however, because I want you to be afraid or worried about the judgment, but because in these teachings we find the urgency with which Jesus hopes we will attack the world with radical and unrestrained kindness for each other. 

Don’t stress about the reward or punishment. Don’t stress about the “signs of the times” and the impending return of Christ to set everything right. Instead, look forward to these things with joy, and with moderation, spending the rest of your time looking around you here and now for an opportunity for Jesus’ love to be made manifest in your life. 

Peace be with you!

“I don’t need church.”

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” — Acts 2:44-47, NRSV

So this has been an interesting topic for me. So many people simultaneously proclaim belief in Christ, but indifference, even loathing with regard to the Church. They understandably believe that organized religion breeds division and hatred, and there are too many rules/regulations that surely Jesus wouldn’t care about. This is all aside from the politics, greed, violence, and poor pastoral care in abusive situations that formal Christian churches have been marred by throughout history. 

On the one hand, I get it. Churches are filled with many, many negative things that can distract from the experience of God they are supposed to facilitate. Churches (across the board) have poorly handled politics, sexuality, gender, science, and abuse. They have sent abused women and children back to their abuses, utilized scare tactics to maintain control, and twisted Scripture to allow for prejudice. At least, many have. Many people in the churches have. Many people have. See where I’m going? People have flaws, and these affect churches. 

It is astounding to me how quick people are to abandon “church” because they don’t like something about it while failing to realize what God’s Church truly is: a people. So if all the people who have a problem with practices or attitudes in the various individual representations of God’s Church leave, only those who are indifferent to or fed by those negative aspects remain… And nothing changes. 

Now, are you going to reform the whole Catholic Church? Unlikely. Is the United Methodist Church going to be shaken up by me? Not necessarily. However, if we just bail on gathering with other believers just because there are things we don’t like or are hurt by, we actually run the risk of enabling that pain to befall others. 

We also have this bad habit of saying, “My relationship with God is between me and God, so I don’t need church.” 


That’s American individualism and privatized (ineffective?) religion getting to you. Christianity was designed for community. Every bad theological idea (think Jones, Koresh, etc.) came from some guy reading his Bible alone with no guidance or community. 

On top of that, Christian faith is supposed to be shared and mobilized to help and spread to others. It really doesn’t matter if one believes in their heart if their hands and mouth do nothing with it. It may very well be a ticket to heaven, but if that’s all one is after, I have to wonder if that’s actually what they are getting…


Are formal churches the only way to do this? No. They are the most convenient, but no. 

The trick is still being in community. Look at the passage at the start of this post from Acts. Believers met “day by day,” and they “broke bread… praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (verses 46-47). It is vital to the life of faith to gather with others who share that faith for the purposes of growing in that faith. 

Further, it is beneficial to gather and participate together in practices as old as the faith itself, like Communion, singing hymns, and studying Scripture. Churches are, by and large, the best places to do this. 

Does that mean you blindly accept that body or denomination? Hell no. Never. As I said, churches are rife with problems that need to be addressed. The important thing is recognizing and living into our membership of God’s spiritual Church that transcends time and space. Let the churches be a tool to do that, but that doesn’t mean you have to love everything about them, same as everything else. 

What’s more, if we get involved and invested, we have a higher chance of influencing the Church (and the world!) for the better. 

I hated church when I perceived my call to ministry. I was sick of anti-intellectualism, false hopes, and fruitless beliefs. However, as I pursued my call and got involved, God did some cool stuff. I had young people struggling with science and religion coming to me and leaving at peace, knowing it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” scenario. I had people concerned about their sexuality leaving empowered and encouraged, feeling loved as opposed to ashamed. I had people coming to me who made terrible mistakes, expecting shame but receiving corrective grace because they had a pastor who (Lord knows) has made many, many mistakes himself. 

This isn’t a boast about me or my ministry, but it is a statement about what God can do through all of us if we decide to reclaim faith and the Church for ourselves. Things can change in beautiful and powerful ways through you and your faith. 

Is it leading or serving in missions? Is it teaching a Sunday School class? Is it chaperoning youth events? Is it helping serve Communion or greeting in worship? Is it money handling and behind the scenes leadership? 

What calls to you? Where would you like to see changes in the church? Pursue it! Don’t abandon it so others can share your pain. Don’t hold up one of those anti-church, pro-Jesus banners that make no sense! 

We can’t, as a nation, stay in the habit of simply discarding that which contains flaws. We would have nothing left. The proper response is to recognize what is important, what is good, what is pure, what is just, and to pursue and nurture those things TOGETHER. 

Just a thought. 

Peace be with you!

Written Off

“So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” — Matthew 18:14, NRSV

This is an excerpt from the Parable of the Lost Sheep in Matthew, a favorite of mine (you probably know by now that I have a lot of favorites) because of it’s encouraging message. Today, I want to share that message with you. 

Life in our world has become full of writing people off. Those who make mistakes, big or small, are often defined by those rather than any other positive characteristic they may possess. I’m willing to bet that you have, at one point or another, been written off in the minds of others. 

You could have done something absolutely awful. You could have simply done the wrong, minor thing. You could even just be of the wrong race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or economic class. In any event, I imagine you know what it’s like to feel cast aside, condemned, and undervalued. 

At the same time, we all have a tendency to write others off as well. 

The “major” sinners?

The “angry black woman” sharing her experiences?

The conservative family member trying to get a word in? 

All of these are examples of my own sinful inclination to shut down and categorize rather than open up and provide a welcoming space for others, as I would like them to do for me. It’s wrong, and it’s something that I bet we all could stand to work on.

So looking at this parable from Jesus, we should note two things: the grace we are to accept and the grace we are to exhibit. 

You see, God’s grace is not meant to just be received. It is to be imitated and shared by those who claim to follow Christ. The same holds true here. 

First of all, there is no specification on the one sheep who goes astray in verse 12. Is this the first or tenth time? Is the sheep intentionally wandering off, going to dangerous places? Does this sheep deserve to just be left behind? Just as it doesn’t seem to matter in Matthew’s text, neither do I believe it matters in life. 

We all stray from the paths of doing right and loving as we should. Some of us do it habitually, time and time again, while others constantly make brand new mistakes. Maybe you’re one who just has a big one every once in a while. In many instances we resign ourselves to our destructive cycles of behavior believing that we are “just that kind of person” because everyone else seems more than happy to accept it. In any case, the only specified truth of God’s attitude toward straying sheep such as you or I is this: “It is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” 

This is the grace to be received. It is not God’s will that you or I be lost. Regardless of the multitude or intensity of our sin, God’s will is that we will accept the truth that we are worth more than we think. Infinitely so. 

God sees our flesh and being as good enough for the Divine presence to reside in, evidenced in Jesus Christ (John 1:14). God is NEVER going to give up on you. So, don’t you dare give up on yourself. 

Addict? Cheater? Murderer? Abused? Abuser? Promiscuous?  Angry? Hurt? Gossiper?  Some of these are sin, some are the result of it, but none are who you are. Those are distortions of who you are. Those are filters that cloud your image of yourself.  You are a creation of God, you are loved, and you can be set free from even the darkest parts of you. I have experienced this personally many times, and I hope you will become open to these experiences as well wherever you are at. 

That’s the grace to accept. The grace to share is the grace to extend to others the same love God extends to us. Just as God’s motherly arms remain open for us to run into, even when we turn away, so should our arms remain open to those who need someone to believe in them. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean we accept abuse or utter mistreatment. It is not God’s will that any person remain in an abusive relationship out of love. Call the police, get yourself safe so that you can be treated as well as God desires for you (that’s a lot).

What it does mean is that we stop writing people off. We let our hearts, arms, and ears remain open to those who challenge us, those we’d like to avoid, those we don’t feel we should respect. We might even call them enemies. 

“Love your enemies.”

Sound familiar? See the quote here. No, it isn’t out of context. No, it is not exaggeration. Jesus means it. Just as God extends grace to us, so we should do the same for ALL others (5:48). 

If we just take and refuse to give, nothing will change! The cycle will continue. If, however, we receive in order to give, accept love in order to show love, THEN we will see the coming of a whole new world. It may hurt or be uncomfortable, but it is is also the most blessed and powerful endeavor there is, for it is the sharing of the Gospel. 

So there you have it. God hasn’t written you off (and never will), so don’t let others (or yourself) do it either! Know that it is never to late, that you are loved, and you are called to love. If we can accept this, we are then free and able to share that love, and usher in a new way of life for all. 

Peace be with you!

Walking the Walk by Not Talking at All

“Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.” — 1 John 2:9

There are a lot of these “Whoever says” sayings in the literature of John, and I dig it. This morning, the quote above from the First Letter of John paired nicely with a verse (or several) from Proverbs 17. 

In the Proverb, we are told “one who spares words is knowledgeable,” and “even fools who keep silent are considered wise” (verses 27-28). It seems a lot of the advice in Proverbs centers on shutting up more often than speaking up, which, with today being a major family holiday in the U.S., could actually be helpful!

No doubt, if you are gathering with lots of family or friends (whether today or ever), you know that it would probably be easier and of better quality if certain people just didn’t speak. Maybe you’re that person (no offense, but if the table plunges into silence after your “joke” about another race, religion, or political party, it’s YOU). All in all, silence can be a handy tool of faith, not just on these holidays when we are thrust into familial settings, but all the time! 

Look at John’s “Whoever says” comments in 1 John 2:1-17. John seems rather hesitant to believe what people say, especially about their own fathfulness. Further, he is encouraging his audience to be just as skeptical. 

For me, it’s sort of nice to see that this has always been a problem. People speak up, make signs, and outwardly promote their own strengths of faith and character… But their lives and who they are when no one is watching do not match the appearances at all. This is SO evident in the Church, it hurts. 

Part of that pain is knowing I have been a part of the problem. Sure I preached faithfulness, but I definitely did not tend toward practicing that faithfulness in many aspects of my life. I am currently in a position to address and heal from that, but the fact remains that most people who promote themselves outwardly are compensating for some serious sinfulness inwardly. We all have our hypocrisies. You know it. I know it. God knows it. If we can admit that (see last night’s post), however, we can move away from that practice, and a lot of it begins with just being quiet and doing what we are called to do. 

John has some great advice to glean when he says, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister, is still in the dakness” (1 John 2:9). While “brother or sister” pertains to fellow believers in the text, I don’t think John would object to me expanding the meaning to include all people whom God has made. We can’t say we love God or are walking in faithfulness to God if we actively (or passively) are defined by emotions and actions that express hatred or lack of concern for those made in the image of that same God! 

If we are going to be faithful, it must begin with the real, personal practice of faith in the moments where no one will see or know. This is where I have failed before, and I bet you have, too. We must resolve to develop the habits of faithful love for ourselves and for (ALL) others internally before we can begin to externally direct our energies.

This means when we see or hear something that would normally have us jumping mercilessly down the throats of others, perhaps we stop and think about whether or not what they are doing or saying is comparable to any facet of our own lives. Maybe we let the hate or foolishness speak for itself this time around, and reserve our judgments for a more opportune and wisely discerned moment. Maybe we take that experience home with us and change how we handle our business first. 

***Disclaimer: If you witness a hate crime or bullying, yes, get involved to put a stop to it. Call the cops, make your presence known so that there are witnesses, etc. Don’t just stand there with your phone out or enter into this philosophical meditation before helping someone; just be sure your involvement is geared toward help of the victim, not punishment of the assailants. As always, be safe.***

There comes a time when we have to just stop talking and start (or keep) walking. We are in a world with so many voices, and so much deception, that genuine faith is really going to have to be something personally and communally lived and enacted, not just “promoted.” 

As we enter into the holidays (and the rest of our lives, really), let’s go forward seeking to actually live the love of Christ for others, and not just talk about it. Let’s DO something different so that we and others might experience something different. 

As we all know, this world could use some “Godly difference.” 

Happy Thanksgiving!

Peace be with you!

A Joyful Confession?

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” — 1 John 1:8-9, NRSV

Well, I am happily back in my hometown for Thanksgiving with my wife, parents, and brother. Driving took most of the day, so that is why today’s post is so late! Anyway, I am in 1 John for my New Testament devotional reading, and I love this selection!

The author of the Gospel of John/The 3 Letters of John is often concerned with light and truth when it comes to following Jesus. We are to “walk in the light” in order to “have fellowship with one another” while “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Being a follower of Jesus means living a life that brings light to the world in the form of self-giving love that heals and inspires in our most “everyday” moments.

This brings us to our Scripture for this post. Now, no one likes talking about sin or being sinful, mostly because this is accompanied by some expectation of condemnation. If, however, we can walk through this set of verses together, maybe we can see this confessional text as good news rather than bad. 

“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves,” not God. This is often seen as bad news. We can’t fool God! Dangit! Busted! Well, yeah. I don’t know why we ever think that’s possible. But what if it isn’t so much a cause for dismay as it is for healing?

You can’t work to heal a disease you are unaware of. You can’t heal a relationship without acknowledging a problem. Just the same, knowing that God knows our deepest sins and hurts is the key to healing those hurts and being cleansed of that sin. If we try to lie, and pretend that we are justified by our feelings or that the wrongs we do aren’t all that bad, the only person being deceived is ourselves, and healing is indefinitely postponed. 

“If we confess our sins,” however, things take a different direction. If we can take comfort in God’s full knowledge of us, and in the fact that He loves and calls us all the same, we can gain enough confidence to face ourselves, sin, pain, wounds and all. We can admit to God and to ourselves our need for forgiveness, guidance, and support, and then “he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (verse 9). 

Confession is not a time for shame and a sense of worthlessness, as it has often been taught to be by authorities in the Church. It is, rather, a chance for all of us to realize and speak the truth: we need help. All of us need help. The pastor, the president, the rich, the poor, the holiest, and the lowliest all need grace and guidance in order to live lives of fullness and light. Confession, therefore, is humility, but it is also expectation. We can rest safely assured that our honesty and humility invite God’s work in our lives. We can expect that our confession is not met by derision or wrath, but by understanding (by the God who “was tested by what he suffered” in Christ, Hebrews 2:18), by forgiveness, and by an empowered freedom to move in a better direction for a life that is both blessed and a blessing. 

As we go about the rest of our lives, let’s remember that confession to God and admitting our frailties are not means of shame, but of grace. When we are honest in our relationships regarding who we are and what we need (starting with our relationship to the Divine), we are in a position to heal and to move forward toward a new future. So let’s not waste time on shame and regret. Let’s honestly confess ourselves so that we may joyfully (and healthily) encounter and share that divine grace!

Peace be with you!

Healed by Wounds

“He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed. Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives.” — 1 Peter 2:24-25, CEB

There’s nothing like starting off strong after a good weekend of camping and recharging! We had a great time, but I am glad to be back in the land of beds and showers. While I was on the camping trip, doing my daily devotional reading, I happened upon this text, and I was struck by a revelation, if you will.

We talk about salvation a lot in the faith, and sometimes we mean just going to heaven post-death, other times we mean that our debt is settled with God and that our sins are forgiven. In the western part of the Church, we have a legalistic view of salvation. Our debt was paid. The cosmic checkbook was balanced in Jesus and now we avoid punishment, and there is definitely biblical language that tends toward that direction. However, there are also many Scriptures like the one above, which address the idea of salvation in a different way.

It is no secret that Christians believe that Jesus took the sin of the world on his shoulders on the cross, and normally we address this once a year, around Good Friday/Easter time. It’s considered depressing or heartbreaking, and therefore, is either used too often as a tool to inspire guilt (confused with repentance), or it is briefly discussed on our way to the happy ending! After all, I consider all the flack I get from other protestants who see that I wear a crucifix, rather than an empty cross.

“Jesus isn’t on there anymore! He is risen!”, they exclaim.

Well, as true as that may be, I can’t help but think we are too eager to look away from the grisly scene of the cross. This isn’t because I’m a morbid individual who wants everyone to feel guilty. That really isn’t my scene. However, I think this passage in 1 Peter presents us with a different way of approaching the foot of the cross that, yes, addresses our sin, but also helps us understand the blessedness that comes from living life having looked to the Savior that still (in some sense) hangs there.

The Scripture teaches that “He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin” (verse 24). To me, this has the flavor of the cross as instruction. If we look to the cross and realize that our sin was part of what put Jesus there, it should not just cause guilt. Rather, it should serve as instruction. Sin, our idolizing of ourselves as opposed to living a God-centered life, costs life. Sin is the power of death and distortion, causing pain by manipulating our vision so that we no longer see the image of God in ourselves or others. When sin is committed on and individual or communal level, the innocent suffer, just as the innocent Jesus suffers on the cross.

I once had a professor in seminary that said, “We crucify Christ by our isms.” He is right. Our racism, hatred, and other prejudices against those who are different or who we feel are inferior drive the nails deeper into the wrists and feet of Christ. They add stripe upon stripe to his beaten and pierced side. They twist the crown further down on his brow. Depressing? Feel guilty? Rock on. The gravity of our sin should always be understood. However, this is not where the story ends.

There is resurrection in Christ, and new life for us. In gazing upon the cross, understanding the gravity of our actions (or inaction), we should also be instructed. We should never want anything like what happened to Christ to happen to anyone else again, and we should start living our lives seeking to make every moment one in which we give life and light to others as opposed to taking it from them. When we make this choice, the choice to accept the reality of the cross and the resurrection, we have made the leap into salvation.

Salvation, then, is both a state and process that we enter into, and this is where the remaining Scripture from today’s post comes in. We are told that it is “By [Christ’s] wounds you were healed” (back half of verse 24). Salvation is more than being cleared or pardoned. It is being healed! Sin costs life, and that includes our own. It takes years of enjoyment and fullness off of our already brief lives, but in Christ, we are given that life back with the freedom to make different choices with a different focus in mind.

Verse 25 teaches us that “Though you were like straying sheep, you have now returned to the shepherd and guardian of your lives.” Salvation is coming home. It is running into the arms of our Father in heaven that have been open since the day we entered into this world. We strayed and wandered off, seeking after our own desires. When, however, we gaze upon the cross and accept the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, we are drawn back home to the place in which God is all we seek, evidenced by us seeking the best for ourselves and for all with whom we share this world.

As you go out into the rest of your evening and week, don’t go in guilt. Yes, our sin has cost life for us and for others. We are, however, offered salvation in Christ. This salvation is not merely “other-worldly” or a balanced check book. Rather, it is the healing and restoration of our very lives so that no matter where we are in life, we are right at home with the God who loves us, calls us, and seeks to make us more and more alive with each passing moment. 

Peace be with you!

What Do YOU Say?

“He said, ‘And what about you? Who do you say that I am?’  Simon Peter said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'” — Matthew 16:15-16, CEB

“Favored and holy are those who have a share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will rule with him for one thousand years.” — Revelation 20:6, CEB

Woah, an aggressive title with matching graphic AND two Scriptures?!

That’s right! We should be having a good talk today, folks. This will be my last one for the weekend, as the wife and I are joining some friends to go camping in celebration of a birthday. It will be good to head out and disconnect, but I couldn’t do that without a final, hopefully helpful, post to send us all into the weekend.

The two Scripture passages that we are looking at are Matthew 16:13-16 and Revelation 20:1-6. Yes, these are two very different texts. One is a Gospel account, and the other is a letter. One is pseudo-historical, and the other is apocalyptic. If, however, we take a closer look at these passages, we will find a commonality that will hopefully serve to be instructive and inspiring, so let’s delve in.

The passage from Matthew’s chapter 16 is one of the most important in the Gospel. It is the moment when the usually slow disciples (or Peter, anyway) make the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (verse 16). The word “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, so kick that habit. He wasn’t born to Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Christ of Nazareth. The word is Greek, meaning “anointed,” making it a parallel to the Hebrew word “messiah,” also meaning “anointed.” Both of these terms were often used interchangeably, and to call Jesus either of them was to make a startling claim.

First, the claim is that Jesus is the one who has come to save Israel and set things right. Granted, the disciples thought this would end up looking a little differently (see James and John’s completely unenlightened request in Matthew 20:20-23), but still the claim was a serious one. Secondly, the claim means that Jesus is the rightful king of Israel, which is a problem considering that Israel already had a self-imposed king (Caesar). Too often Jesus is seen as being crucified by the Jews because of his teachings. Certain Jewish authorities turned him in because of his teachings regarding repentance and his being the Human One (Literally “Son of Man,” connection to Daniel 7:13-14), but the Romans crucified him, and it wasn’t because he was teaching love and a looser understanding of Jewish Law. Rather, persecution began with Jesus and persisted for his followers precisely because claiming to have a king other than Caesar was a big no-no. Add to that the fact that Christians were considered atheist and unpatriotic because of their refusal to make sacrifices to other Gods, to Caesar, or serve in the military, and you have a recipe for some serious mistreatment.

All in all, for Peter and the disciples to confess this about Jesus is a big deal, and it made life much harder for all of them. However, they did it anyway, and here is where I find the connection to Revelation’s text (here is the link again if you don’t want to scroll up). In Revelation’s chapter 20, we see that Satan is bound in his first end times defeat (verses 1-3), second if you count his removal from heaven in chapter 12. The next section discusses people who are taking thrones in judgment and favor. “They were the ones who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and God’s word… hadn’t worshiped the beast or its image… they came to life and ruled with Christ for one thousand years” (verse 4). The ones who end up being considered righteous before God and who are the truly blessed ones are those who held steadfast to the confession that Peter initially makes in Matthew 16. Though they lost their life, they are portrayed as gaining eternity for their decision to remain faithful. This is quite instructive for us today.

In our world today, there are still many forces that can draw us away from being faithful people, whether that be to Christ, to our marriages or relationships, to our planet, or to ourselves (to me, faithfulness to Christ encompasses all of these). These forces and voices are loud and they shout things that confuse us, cause us to despair, and distract us from the truth of who we are called to be.

In Revelation, we have the Beast, the Dragon, the False Prophet, all seeking to distract or destroy believers using the might of an empire. Today, these same forces use the wealth and the lure of power in this American context. We become so concerned about our own sense of security and prosperity that we will deny God, either explicitly or implicitly by our denial of others. In Matthew, there are voices shouting over each other, trying to answer the question of who Jesus is and how he should be thought of (Matthew 16:13-14). Today, we have a ton of voices that make all kinds of claims about whether Jesus was real or not, whether the Incarnation is believable, whether faith itself is even a good thing, and whether or not we would be better off just living life for ourselves rather than for some faith that we can’t prove.

With all these voices and powers at work, we lose sight of the most important question that is posed to us every moment of every day: “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?” (verse 15). What do YOU have to say? Who are YOU going to decide to be? If we don’t make that decision, the world will decide for us and the results will be catastrophic. If, however, we make the decision to remain faithful, and to pursue the best in ourselves and others relentlessly, we may face persecution, we may face pain, we may even lose our lives… but we will have gained eternity. From the moment we make the decision to be faithful, we will have stepped out of the false boxes and categories the world tries to force on us, and we will be living true Life that extends beyond whatever boundaries humanity tries to put up. 

For me, and I hope for you, the decision to be faithful to Christ is one that I want to make and it is one that I want to make everyday. I want to relentlessly pursue a life that is beyond what the world tries to make me be and that frees me to love God and to love others with reckless abandon. I may fail or fall at times, but I still can’t help but push forward, empowered by the Holy Spirit, God’s presence with us. I hope you will realize that while everyone has an opinion on who you are, what you should believe, and what you should do, only you can or should make that choice. In Christ, we are free to be who we are called to be without bowing to whatever other self-proclaimed “gods” or “kings” are out there, and all it takes is deciding to try, moment after moment, time after time, day after day, listening to God’s voice and going where the Spirit leads us. If we go about this work, though it may cost us dearly, we truly will be blessed. 

Peace be with you! Enjoy the weekend!



Back to Speech Class

“If those who claim devotion to God don’t control what they say, they mislead themselves. Their devotion is worthless.” — James 1:26, CEB

Wow, James, way to be kinda harsh… Eh, that’s how he is. He has a point, though. How many of us have been or have known supposedly Bible-believing, faithful people who spewed the most venomous cruelty once the coast was clear? I have to say, in my time with certain holiness traditions of Christianity (Methodism and Assemblies of God), the most unholy moments were when it was perceived to be a safe space, wherein those who constantly extolled the virtues of kindness and compassion became the harshest judges in the room. This includes me, who had a lot to vent after a long day of ministering to and with other human beings.

It is this kind of behavior that put me off from the church while at university, and it honestly still bothers me. Now, like I said, I am guilty of this behavior as well. In some way, I think we all are. Watching our words is probably the hardest task to ask of a culture that so prizes instant, inflammatory, uncensored speech. I’m not just talking about swearing, but also gossip, our private hate speech, and the flat-out insensitive vitriol that we tend to release most when surrounded by those we trust, never mind the terrible witness this is to our character and beliefs.

Those of us who claim to believe in a higher power and way of living ought to know and do better, especially if we are claiming to follow Jesus. In fact, Jesus is very clear that our whether or not we practice our religion in the most secretive parts of our lives determines whether or not we are true followers (Matthew 6:1-6; 16-18). When it comes to how we speak about each other, Jesus is even more clear in the previous chapter.

So how do we start to develop habits of watching how we represent ourselves (and our God) through words? James, luckily, never stops at criticism. He always includes some manner of advice on the topic, so let’s take a look!

James addresses temptation, anger, and speech all in chapter 1, and as we will see, all of these are related in our current problem. In verse 13, James informs us that “No one who is tested should say, ‘God is tempting me!’… Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them.” Normally, this passage evokes images of adultery, greed, theft, or murder. It also, however, works very well for explaining our poor speaking habits. No outside force (including God) is to blame for the decisions we make to be cruel. Think about it. If we are angry enough to spew our careless words, it’s not because God or others made us do it; it’s because something that affects us and how we feel has entered the equation, and the feelings that we experience are then used as license to say and express whatever we want, however we want. It is an act of pure selfishness that we think we can mask with our righteous indignation or justifiable feelings.

While we can’t control the feelings that are provoked in us in any given situation, we are responsible for what we do with them. They can either yield something righteous, something helpful, or something utterly damaging and unhelpful. When we opt to justify ourselves in using hateful speech, we potentially render meaningless any of the outward devotion to the cause of righteousness that we might otherwise have to our credit (verse 26). This may sound harsh or unforgiving, but again, think about the people you know that were supposedly faithful and righteous and loving, yet that changed the moment doors closed and the crowds departed. It’s not an unfair judgment, it is just a truth.

Now, this article is not meant to inspire guilt or shame. It is, however, designed to make us all think about how we speak and act in the moments that no one of note is watching. Shame is useless when it comes to repentance, and guilt is only useful if we refuse to remain guilty, meaning we decide to start doing some things differently. The goal of this Scripture and of the Gospel in general is not to impart judgment, but to impart grace through the understanding that we are good, that others are good, and we are free to actually act like it. Even when others don’t seem so good, we are to show grace because of the grace we would like to be shown when we don’t seem so good (Golden Rule, anyone?)

A great, often cited Scripture to help us with this is found in verses 19 and 20. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.” Indeed, we can’t always control how slowly we experience anger. Anger can be a healthy emotion. What we can do is develop the habits of listening, acknowledging our feelings, and processing our feelings all before we decide to speak and act, because it is when we let our anger dictate our speech that we end up saying, typing, or screaming some really messed up things that throw our relationship with God and others all out of whack. 

This is a lifelong endeavor. It takes work and grace for others and for ourselves. It takes the willingness to apologize and mend relationships. It takes dedication to the constant practice of these habits, and faith in the hope that this practice will lead to a better world for us and for others.

Like I said, I have a big problem with this in my own life. I actually dislike these Scriptures because they are instantly convicting. However, I also see the grace in them that tells me that I am made and meant for more. Indeed, we all are. We don’t make these mistakes because we are bad. We make them because we are human, and we all have ways in which we can  grow healthier and healthier in our love of God and others. So as we go out into the rest of our day, and the rest of our lives, let’s go forward resolved to make kindness and compassion our lifestyle, not just in the light of day, but also in the darkness of night when we think or know no one is watching. In doing so, we witness to the transforming power of love and grace, and we add just a little more light to our world.

Peace be with you!


What Will We Build?

“All of these people died in faith without receiving the promises, but they saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them. They confessed that they were strangers and immigrants on earth.” — Hebrews 11:13, CEB

We’ve got a short one today, folks! Honestly, that may make this post more “devotional-like,” as opposed to the longer ones I typically put up. Anyway, I have been reading the Letter to the Hebrews as my New Testament devotional text for the last few days. I love Hebrews because every time I read it, I get a personal experience of God’s love and grace (just a warmth of heart, not a “swing from the ceiling fan, visions with fire” kind of thing), in addition to seeing an ancient Christian interpretation of the Hebrew Bible that is fascinating. All in all, I definitely recommend Hebrews for a good, challenging, but hopeful read!

As indicated, the passage that stuck out to me for today was chapter 11. The quote above sort of captures what I love about it, but follow this link to see the whole text so that the quote will make more sense. Chapter 11 of Hebrews re-tells the stories of many of the “heroes” in the Judeo-Christian faith, specifically those who, despite many setbacks, persecutions, or shortcomings, were able to do amazing things through faith in God.

Because the author is a Christian, they do present the Hebrew Bible as a foreshadowing of the true salvation of God, which occurs in Christ. With that in mind, the author presents these “heroes” as being even more wonderful because they operated faithfully knowing they probably wouldn’t live to see the revelation of God that saves all people and redeems the whole of creation. This brings us to the quote that inspired this post.

These people knew they may not see the fruit or fulfillment of their labors… They, however, persisted in faith nonetheless. They “saw the promises from a distance and welcomed them,” knowing that their example was still important for future generations to be inspired, come to faith, and feel empowered to pursue their own walk with God through Christ.

I can’t help but feel that we need more of this in our world today. It seems that we have gotten so lost in the wants and needs that pertain to us alone that we forget how temporary we are. We are here for the blink of an eye in historical terms. We are merely visitors to this life, to this world. When we forget that, and when we forget the fact that we will be leaving SOMETHING behind, we often run the risk of punishing future generations for our self-serving decisions.

Sure, we may be able to enjoy life and feel like it was all good, but is that what our children and their children (the children of others, as well) are going to be experiencing? Are we leaving them with a good example of faith and self-giving, or are we leaving them the tools with which they can further dismantle faith and use the scraps to craft yet another idol? We have to decide now what it is we will be leaving behind in this world, no matter if you are in your mid-twenties (like me) or much older/younger. We are not eternal, and we do not last forever. We do not have the time as so many think they do, that we may waste it on only providing comfort for ourselves, leaving the work of love, compassion, and service to others.

Instead, we are better off looking to our exemplars in the faith, looking most of all to Christ, and finding ways in which we can impart the best of ourselves, our faith, and what we know to the world, even if in the smallest of moments in our everyday lives. We must recognize that we are all building something that will outlast us, and whether that is good and glorifying of God is up to us. We don’t always get it right. We make mistakes, break our promises, and fail. It happens. However, even those occasions can serve as a witness to our faith in something so much greater than ourselves if we but choose to get back up, get healthy, and move forward with love.

Today, I hope you will join me in looking inward and asking, “What am I building? Will the world be better because I was here and because of my faith? How can I ensure that it will?” As the text says, we may never see the fruit of our faithful work. We may never see the completed structure that we contribute to. However, if our foundation is Christ, and if our work is full of love, healing, grace, and as much “right” as we can possibly muster (so help us, God), we can rest assured that we have run our race and offered some small hope to those who come after us, honoring those who came before. 

Peace be with you!

Jesus Said… What?

“He replied, ‘It is not good to take the children’s bread and toss it to dogs.” — Matthew 15:26, CEB

You know, this is probably the closest to sinning I see from Jesus.. We know Jesus to have been without sin from the Scriptures, but surely talking to someone like this counts as some kind of problem, right? Then again, are we sure that Jesus is the main feature of this text? Could Matthew’s (and Christ’s) intent be that we look somewhere surprising for inspiration? Let’s take a look!

The passage is Matthew 15:21-28, but the story is also found in Mark. The reason it is absent in Luke and John could be attributed to the fact that these are later-written Gospels, composed at a time when the Jewish/Christian divide was growing due to the influx of Gentiles joining the Christian movement. As such, the Gospel writers probably took exception to Jesus taking such a strong stance on being “sent only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). Luke strongly emphasizes inclusion of those who are cast aside, so this story wouldn’t make sense to tell. Going even further, John’s Gospel is told in a way that clearly shows the growing gap between what was traditional Judaism and the Christian sect that would soon grow into its own separate body of faith. Remember, the different Gospels emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ ministry and reflect the experience of the church at the times they were written. 

With that in mind, we can look at the text from Matthew 15. First of all, we see that Matthew describes the woman as a Canaanite (verse 22). Interestingly, enough, those people were not around anymore. Between conquest and the passage of many, many years, no one that fit the description of Canaanite (an umbrella term) was just meandering around the area. This word choice, then, is intentional and geared toward making a point. What point? Perhaps we will find out.

She calls out to Jesus twice. Once, she is ignored (verse 23). The second time, Jesus reiterates his mission as being first and foremost to Israel (verse 24). The third time she calls out, Jesus issues the wildly insulting response we saw at the start of the post, implying that she is a dog. Now let’s talk about modern sensibilities.

Yes, this is insulting. To us, it’s unbelievably rude and makes no sense for the Jesus we were all taught to know and love (a big reason why this text is avoided by preachers). The truth is, even back then in the 1st Century, this was not a kind thing to say. Jesus exemplifies the standard Jewish attitude that Gentiles (non-Jews) are a secondary people in God’s eyes, and says that using what would be standard terminology. Remember, Jesus is a human in a particular time and place, ministering to a particular people. The notion of the Messiah is, after all, a Jewish concept. That said, he is also God Incarnate, and we would like to expect more.

My question, though, is whether or not Jesus is the one we are supposed to be looking at and emulating in this passage, and my answer would be no. You see, Matthew has a habit of revealing the least expected as the most faithful, while the children of the promise (Israel) turn out to be rather faithless when it come to the Christ walking around healing and teaching people about God’s kingdom. Examples include:

  1. Matthew 3:5-9, where right off the bat, John hints that being a child of Abraham isn’t just about your genetics (*hint*)
  2. Matthew 8:5-13 and the healing of the Centurion’s servant
  3. Matthew 11:20-24, as Jesus remarks that Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom will be better off than predominantly Jewish areas on the judgment day due to their willingness to repent

Truly, at the end of this seemingly disheartening passage, Jesus heals the woman’s daughter, praising her faith (verse 28). What faith? That would be the kind of faith that would move a woman to ignore the sting of prejudice in order to pursue the gifts of healing that the kingdom of God has to offer. After Jesus responds with the dog comment, we see that her answer is not to stomp off angrily or curse him as you and I probably would. Instead, she responds in a witty way, saying, “Yes, Lord. But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall off their masters’ table” (verse 27).

BOOM. She takes his metaphor and expands on it, resulting in a spectacular show of persistence. After being ignored on the first try, dismissed on the second, and insulted on the third, this very strong mother, who is supposed to be of no account, shows greater faith and devotion than even the disciples end up having, and she actually shows this by besting Jesus in a battle of metaphors. 

First of all, what an awesome passage. It’s wildly uncomfortable, but full of so much meaning and intrigue. Secondly, though, we need to address how this fits into our perspective of Jesus. Everything written in every Gospel is designed to make a point, and often this is done by making us look at Jesus as the exemplar of the perfect unity of God and humanity. However, there are also passages that emphasize the faithfully persistent actions of others that we are intended to emulate. 

To me, this is one of those passages. Now, this doesn’t mean I am advocating that women be walked all over for the sake of the kingdom. Women have paid a steep price for such interpretations throughout the history of the church, and many still do today. What I am advocating is that we emulate her faithful persistence.

When we seek Christ, and when we seek the blessings of the kingdom of God for ourselves and for others, we will meet resistance. It will seem like God isn’t answering, has better things to do, or doesn’t believe us to be worthy of the effort. More often than not, we impose all of that on ourselves when we don’t see what we would like to see. However, like the Canaanite woman, perhaps we are being given an occasion to be persistent and to prove what is really important to us.

Would you stop seeking healing for your child or loved ones after being turned away by one doctor? Would you stop seeking fair compensation for employment after a difficult talk with your boss? Would you end a marriage because things got hard with the person you love with all your heart? I would hope not. So why do we give up and abandon faith when we meet resistance, knowing that we will absolutely face adversity when attempting to be faithful to God? When we are met with uncertainty, unkindness, loss, or despair, we often abandon faith, not by becoming atheists (though it can happen), but by reverting to our old, sinful habits and turning inward to a selfish worldview that denies God and others. We are unkind in response to unkindness, selfish in response to selfishness, and disparaging in response to despair and difference.

But what if we look to this Canaanite woman, the centurion, and, yes, to Christ, seeking to imitate their example as people who remain faithful in the face of rejection, uncertainty, and even the cross? Maybe then we would remember that the kingdom of God has come to us in Christ, and that whatever resistance we meet does not have the power to take the Spirit of God within us away. Maybe then we would be empowered to live life in light of faith and hope, rather than selfishness and despair.

It is my opinion that Matthew uses this story not to emphasize the humanity of Christ, but the faith of the Canaanite woman. No, the situation is not flattering and should not be imitated by God’s people (or anyone for that matter). However, the powerful faith and persistence of this remarkable woman are something that we can all learn from and be inspired by. As you go into the rest of your day, remember this woman. Remember her faith, and remember that if we are that faithful and persistent, we will experience the awareness that God is present in our lives, and, even better, we will be able to share that love and presence with a world that desperately needs it.

Peace be with you!