When our faithfulness
Transforms into business,
The clock starts ticking.
When our faithfulness
Transforms into business,
The clock starts ticking.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. — 1 Corinthians 12:14, RSV
Believe it or not… most people disagree with their church home of choice in one way or another. I know it’s hard to believe that an institution made up of humans could ever fail to spiritually deliver, but I’m afraid it’s true. Many Roman Catholics I know disagree with the Vatican’s take on sexuality and birth control. As an Episcopalian, I know many in my denomination disagree with the unstoppable “progressive” train powering through the national church at the moment. Recently, many United Methodists were crushed by the General Conference decision to maintain and “shore up” restrictions on LGBTQ+ inclusion in marriage and ordination rites.
Anyone familiar with church history knows that there have been many times when the faithful were (or should have been) at odds with the institutional church. The Christian religion has been complicit in many less-than-stellar historical events. We were silent in the face of German fascism, and we resisted the American Civil Rights Movement. We hunted and tortured “witches,” force-converted numerous groups of people, and participated in the violence of colonization. We persecuted Jews and participated in the mutual disaster of the crusades.
Thankfully, that’s not the whole story, as we also resisted and fought for righteous change in the midst of all those dark moments.
As an institution, we have failed quite a bit. But it’s also true that when the people of God are filled with and guided by His Spirit, we actually become the Church we were intended to be, even if it means resisting the establishment. God’s Church is not limited to the Pope, cardinals, bishops, deacons, priests, or pastors. It is not limited to the conferences or conventions. God’s Church is made up of all God’s people, and that includes you.
We’ve gotten in the habit of confusing institutional decisions with the extent of the Church’s reach. When the authorities decide something, that must be it, right? Wrong! You represent the Church! If God is calling you and those like you to move, then move!
Let’s say you are a lay United Methodist who was put off by the General Conference decision last week. The UMC will not bless same-sex unions or ordain members of the LGBTQ+ community, so what can you do? Well, you and those like you could make it a spiritual practice to attend and participate in same-sex weddings for those you know and love. You could also host small groups that enable LGBTQ+ members to explore their calling to preach and teach the Word of God. What if you’re a Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Roman Catholic? You could advocate for honest, accurate, and realistic sexual education resources that will help reduce unwanted pregnancies. Are you a conservative Episcopalian? Make your voice heard as you lovingly defend traditional language and practice, advocating for a more cautious approach to ecclesiastical change.
The point is this: You are not without power, especially when you are guided by the love of God and neighbor!
When we are faced with the evils of this world, we often ask where God is. We wonder why the Church doesn’t seem to be making a difference. The answer is God is where He needs to be, and the Church will make a difference when you and I decide to be where we are supposed to be. The Church is not a building, conference, or institution. It is a people. If we can remember this and put it into practice, we can shine the light of Christ in any darkness, and it will not be overcome (John 1:5).
I’m not saying you should leave your organized religion and go rogue. We’ve had enough “Jim Jones” activity in this crazy world, I think. What I am saying is that you can still follow the path God has set before you, filtered through the love of Christ, even when the “powers that be” set off in a different direction. In fact, doing so can lead to all kinds of positive, Spirit-filled change beyond anything you initially thought possible.
Now, take heart, child of God. You are not alone, and we are nowhere near the finish line. As long as the people of God actively and earnestly strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the best is yet to come.
Peace be with you!
…That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations. — Psalm 67:2, RSV
People have a habit of looking to our human institutions to solve problems. A good example would be this past week’s General Conference for the United Methodist Church. It should be known that every person had already decided how they were voting with regard to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members in Christian ministry and marriage. While the circus may have been moving, as various speakers took to sharing their perspectives and beliefs on the matter, no one was going to be swayed away from what they had previously decided.
For myself and others, the results were disappointing, but certainly not surprising. The United Methodist Church serves the god of numbers, and whether it’s money, members, or votes, the biggest number is the clear winner, and obviously symbolizes the approval and work of God. Now, the UMC is not the only denomination or institution to function this way. Most human-based structures operate with the same basic understanding of power, and we look to such places as if this is where God has made His ways known.
The problem is this isn’t true.
As God declares in Isaiah 55, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (verse 8). Indeed, God’s “ways are higher than your ways, and [God’s] thoughts than your thoughts” (verse 9). Just as God’s ways differ from our own, so the way God reveals Himself runs counter to human expectations, and there is no better example than Jesus.
When God made Himself known to us in the One who would be called “Christ” or “King,” He didn’t choose the way of Roman royalty. When He decided to deliver us, He didn’t become a general of legions, or the charismatic leader of an insurrection. When God wanted to teach us His ways, He didn’t spend all His time in the established Jewish synagogues or Roman temples, re-iterating the same old teachings.
No, all of Christian belief and practice began as a response to the God that shouldn’t have been. Our faith is dependent upon the child who shouldn’t have lived from a place that shouldn’t have mattered. We learn from the Teacher who shouldn’t have taught, the Healer who shouldn’t have healed, and the Prophet who shouldn’t have prophesied. Our King washes feet, our Deliverer suffers death, and the condemned Man brings us to new life in God.
Christian institutions have arisen in response to this story, and that is not a bad thing. It’s good to have a community with which we can grow in our journey. What is bad, however, is that for far too many people, the institution has now become synonymous with the God it intends to serve. Christianity has been represented by powerful organizations that look more like those who would try to silence Jesus than the people who initially embraced Him.
We have forgotten that the Spirit of God goes where It wants, and does what It wants. The Spirit cannot be wrangled or possessed, and it is not beholden to the written code of any church or government. Further, God’s Church is not confined to one set of walls. The Church is a people, filled with and guided by the Spirit of God, and it reaches across every boundary we humans try to erect.
If we want to see a change in the way the world seems to work, we must take our place as members of God’s Church and citizens of His Kingdom. Instead of looking to our government or church policies to heal this broken world, the task falls to us to live out our lives and relationships in the life-giving way of Christ. We are called to imitate the Incarnation, allowing the Spirit of God to become “incarnate” in us as we live according to the selfless example of Jesus.
This is not a call to abandon your denomination. This is not a call to anarchy. Rather, it is a plea for us to seek change from the bottom up, beginning with us and the way we choose to love God and others. As the UMC and other others have learned, human institutions have their limits, even when attempting to express something sacred. They will not always get it right, and they are not always the chosen method by which God reveals His will. Religions and governments may get things wrong, but when the people of God seek diligently after what is right, the Spirit of God still has plenty to work with.
It is my prayer that my brothers and sisters in the UMC will find comfort in the fact that God is God, with or without the votes. I also hope that those who are distressed due to governmental, political, or social issues will remember that no human power or authority has the final say. Instead, we should live intentional lives of service to each other in the name of the One who really is in charge, that His “way may be known upon earth,” and His “saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:2).
For once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light.
–Ephesians 5:8, RSV
Welp, we did it! We finished Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, and it definitely ended on a more positive note than that of Ecclesiastes. Ephesians has proven to be inspiring, instructive, and enlightening thus far and I hope you will experience more of that as we walk through these final chapters.
Beginning with Chapter 5, we find a superb extension from chapter 4 that sums up Paul’s central point about Christian life and relationship. After exhorting Christians to live lives of humility and forgiveness in 4:32, he says to “be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (5:1-2). This is a fundamental teaching that should give us pause. So often, we view Christ and God as beings that are beyond us, and in one sense, this is correct. However, the whole purpose of Christ’s coming was to teach us the way we are to walk in relationship with God, and imitating God in the Flesh is the primary call of the Christian person. We can’t just treat Christ as a “far and away” hero that we categorize as entirely separate from ourselves. Instead, we should look to him as an example and do our best to walk in his footsteps as “children of light” (5:8).
With that in mind, we come to one of the most controversial sections of Ecclesiastes, namely, the “Household Codes” of 5:21-6:9. It is here that we had to have a (passionate) discussion about the context of Scripture. Paul writes from a time when patriarchy (the inherent leadership and superiority of free males in society) was the accepted norm. As such, any familial advice he gives is going to fit within that particular framework. Unfortunately, this has led to immediate dismissal as an instructive text on the part of those who are offended by the Bible’s inherent (by our standards) sexism. However, if we take a closer look, we can see how Paul was at once a man of his time, while also (inspired by the Spirit of God) someone who saw beyond it.
The section begins (in most scholarly translations) with an essential instruction to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). This alone should give us pause, because Paul doesn’t only instruct the women, as you might expect. Instead, he instructs all believers to submit to each other, and THEN he details what that should look like. He does tell wives to submit to their husbands, but then, he does something that is unexpected in patriarchy by instructing the men on how to love their wives. They must do so selflessly, “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (5:25). If such instruction were to be taken seriously (and I believe it is), it is not nearly as one-sided as we may have been led to think in recent times, and no matter what time period we live in, putting others before the self is something we desperately need more of.
Chapter 6 continues our culture shock by giving us a view into the ancient practice of slavery, instructing slaves to serve their masters “as servants of Christ,” chaffing against our understandable modern sensibility regarding the scars of Trans-Atlantic slavery. While the two forms of slavery differ significantly, it is still alarming to see (at best) a clear lack of rebuke regarding the ownership of persons. However, again, Paul does something interesting, instructing masters to “forbear threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (6:9). That is a loaded statement that was definitely not typical of the time.
All in all, while our sensibilities are definitely challenged by the world as presented in Ephesians (Scripture as a whole, really), we still see the Spirit of God at working to change the world into something that better resembles the kingdom of God. Further, we see God’s invitation to live life in a way that imitates and shares his love, helping to establish this kingdom.
My encouragement to you is to remember the call that is extended to you in Christ. This call is not just one to believe in our heads, but to live in our bodies as we go about our daily doings. Just as God transforms implements of war into spiritual sources of edification in 6:10-17, let us accept God’s invitation to transform our mundane, pain-filled, and hope-deprived world into a nation of peace, rooted in love. We do this as our Lord did: one person, one interaction at a time. Let’s get started!
Peace be with you!
“[God] destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
–Ephesians 1:5, NRSV
Since my departure from ministry in the church, my wife and I have been hosting a home-based Bible study that has acquired interest from a growing handful. It’s been great to just sit back, enjoy some coffee, and dig into all of our questions and thoughts as we explore Scripture. The next few posts, I’d like to share what we cover as we are now exploring a really inspirational New Testament text that I think we could all benefit from: Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
Now, Ephesians is a fun little letter. We don’t know if it was really Paul that wrote it, as there are features of the letter that seem a bit “off” from Paul’s usually rigid structure. On the other hand, even if it wasn’t Paul, it was definitely someone who was familiar with his work.
The Letter to the Ephesians is written “to the saints who are in Ephesus,” which tells us that this letter is not written to all Christians or to Jewish Christians, but to Gentile Christians. Remember, Christianity was once a sect of Judaism that eventually broke away, partly due to the large numbers of non-Jewish believers being brought into the fold. With this in mind, we can already say that Ephesians is going to emphasize the Gospel’s call to those outside the Jewish religion. Let’s look at the text!
Read Ephesians chapter 1, either in your own Good Book or by following the link, and note what you think are the talking points of the letter.
Some points include: adoption as God’s children (verse 5), redemption through Christ’s blood (verse 7), the mystery of God’s will (verse 9), inheritance (verse 11), and Christ’s ultimate dominion (verses 20-23).
If you picked up different points or have questions about these, that’s fine! You can even comment and let me know. After all, I could have missed an important one, and you could be the one to help me learn something, too!
As you read over Ephesians 1, really note this language of redemption and inheritance. We are redeemed through the blood of Christ, which sounds morbid to us in the 21st Century, but remember, the ancient world understood that life can only be redeemed (purchased) by life, and blood was seen as that which carries the life of a person. Christ paid the price to free us from slavery to sin, but because sin costs life, he offered up his to settle the debt. This fits perfectly within the ancient model of slavery, economics, and sacrifice, so just remember that when the blood talk seems a bit… much.
As a side note, if we forget this contextual information, then the whole concept really does become a bit morbid, serving as the basis for a lot of poor ministry practices. Domestic abuse, imprisonment, and oppression have all been justified by the idea that suffering (in general, but especially undeservedly) connects us to Christ and should thereby be accepted and even invited. Leaders have sent women back to abusive husbands, claiming that they are suffering as Christ suffered, and God will eventually pay them back. This is way wrong. It ignores the reasons why Christ’s sacrifice and the cross actually make sense, and it costs people their lives and sense of peace.
Now, finally, this notion of inheritance bears mentioning. You and I, unless we happen to be Jewish in descent, are Gentile believers. This letter is great for us because it emphasizes the fact that we are still children of God (literally, “sons” in Greek, as sons were the ones who could actually inherit; yes, ladies, y’all are sons!). As such, we are included in the ultimate hope, love, and blessing of God’s presence in our lives, right here and right now. This is great news, especially if you, like me, have always struggled with belonging, wondering if there is a place for you in this crazy world. The truth is that there is a place for all of us, and God is ready for all of us to come inside and spend some quality, eternal time with Him, each other, and all the saints that are a part of this big ol’ family in Christ.
Peace be with you! See you next week for a more in-depth look at chapter 2!
“O LORD, I love the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides.”
— Psalm 26:8, NRSV
On a Sunday, few things could be more fitting than to discuss the House of the Lord! For many of us, that means our church, our local place of worship. For the author(s) of the Psalms (and much of the rest of Scripture), that term referred to the temple in Jerusalem. Judging by the state of the so-called “Holy Land,” there are many who still see God as especially present in that particular area, though the idolatrous violence would indicate otherwise. I, on the other hand, believe this Psalm, in conjunction with a little New Testament, can point us all in a better direction, closer to the One who loved us first.
What does it mean to love the house in which God dwells? Perhaps our good friend Paul can shed some light on this. If we look at 1 Corinthians 3:16, we are taught that we “are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in” us. This makes sense, considering the fact that “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands,” indicated in Acts 7, with Stephen quoting Isaiah 66:1. Further, this understanding of us being the temple of God puts us in position to fulfill a very important commandment… the greatest one, actually.
Matthew 22:34-40 teaches us that the greatest commandment is that we “love the Lord [our] God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” How do we do this?
Wait for it…
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” BOOM.
You see, one a fundamental level, the Spirit of God dwells in all who live. After all, Genesis 2:7 reveals God forming humanity “from the dust of the ground, and breath[ing] into his nostrils the breath of life,” making the first human into a living being. The Spirit is God’s breath, God’s wind, present at the moment of creation. In this sense, all that have the breath of life, especially humans (made in the image of God), are imbued with the Spirit of the living God, and thereby serve as a dwelling place for God. Now, believers are given a fresh awakening, a powerful outpouring of that same Spirit that transforms their lives, but fundamentally, all things are God’s, regardless of how they use that gift.
The point? How we love ourselves and each other is how we love God. Don’t believe me (or don’t want to)? Check out Matthew 25, wherein Jesus teaches us that whatever we do (or don’t do) for others, “you did it to me.” In order to truly love God, we must truly love ourselves and others. Why? Because God is not found in the rocks of the Holy(ish) Land, nor is God especially present in the cathedrals, garages, or worship centers we attend. God is found within His creation, within His people. As such, we must love ourselves and each other if we ever want to truthfully claim to love God.
Now, I know. Loving ourselves and each other is a hefty task. It means facing some things about ourselves we don’t want to. Perhaps it is getting the counseling or help we need so that our destructive cycles can stop (as in my case). Perhaps it is recognizing that we don’t have all the answers, and those of different opinions are just as valuable as we are in the grand scheme of things. Maybe it means starting to reduce, reuse, and recycle, ordering less food, and caring more for the world we have been trusted with. There are many ways to start truly loving, we just have to have the grace and the courage to get started.
It is my prayer that today you remember that God loves and dwells within you and others (yes, even those you don’t want to like). God earnestly desires us to understand this, evident in the teachings of Christ revealed in the Scriptures. If we can learn to take those baby steps toward loving ourselves as we are, and loving others where they are, we can look forward to the heavenly blessings God intends to shower upon this world. I believe in you! Pray for me!
Peace be with you!
“For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” — 1 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV
“My body is a temple.”
We have heard, said, or disliked someone who said that phrase at one point or another. It is a spiritual idea that comes from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, yet we somehow have taken it to mean that one shouldn’t enjoy Pringle’s every once in a while. Jerks…
Anyway, I have been reading 1 Corinthians (First Corinthians, not “One Corinthians,” Mr. President) for my New Testament devotional text, and I felt compelled to use this section from chapter 3 to talk about the purpose of the Christian faith and provide some encouragement for all of us to take it seriously. So let’s dive right in.
Verse 16 of the text says that we “are God’s temple” and “God’s Spirit dwells in” us. It should be noticed (as the footnote tells us) that the “you” in this text is intended to be plural, which serves several purposes, the first of which being that the entire Church (the body of believers in Christ) is considered the temple of God in which the Spirit of God dwells. When we gather and act together (in accordance with our faith), the Spirit of God is powerfully present, revealing the love of God to the world through us. As Jesus says in Matthew, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
The “you” in this text can also refer to the body of individual believers, because each believer is said to have the gift of the Holy Spirit (see the entire Book of Acts). Both our personal and communal lives, therefore, should bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Whether we are gathered in a church, Bible study, service event, or individually at work, school, or home, the Spirit of God and our connection to it should guide our thoughts, words, and actions.
Too often, however, we are not so intentional with who we are. We react based on how we feel, our instincts, or what will seemingly benefit us the most. Our personal, political, economic, and social lives too often fail to reflect that which we claim to be when we gather on Sundays (or Saturdays or Wednesdays, depending on your denomination). In fact, we have developed a system where this is accepted, known as the confession and pardon of sin.
Not every denomination has this as a formal moment in worship (which also contributes to the problem), but for those of us that do, the ritual actually reinforces the idea that wrongdoing is just a part of who we are. If we say the words with the correct measure of guilt, everything will be okay for US, which is hardly the intended point. Similarly, those churches that don’t talk about sin and the need for forgiveness contribute to the problem by failing to acknowledge that we do harm to others. Sometimes it is intentional, sometimes it isn’t, but either way, it needs to be acknowledged and fixed.
So what does this have to do with the whole “you are that temple” talk? I’m glad you asked. Step into my office.
A self-centered life does not witness well to the love of God with which we claim to be connected. I shall repeat that in bold. A self-centered life does not witness well to the love of God with which we claim to be connected. This holds true for when we gather as the Church and when we are in the midst of our daily individual lives.
Do I go to church for me? Do I go to church for my friends or so I can go to heaven? Do I go to church so I can act how I want during the week? Do I leave my faith in my private life? Do I treat others how I want, knowing I can ask forgiveness from God later? Do I keep my faith strictly personal and make my political, economic, and social decisions based on other things?
These are all good questions to ask, and more than likely, we are all begrudgingly nodding our heads in response to some of them. After all, it is how we were all raised to see church: as a service industry. What’s worse? The institutional church plays right into this role. Church is for us. It is so we can get what we need. It is also for when we have the time to do things for others, but mostly it is for us. It’s okay to admit this, because that is how our culture views almost everything. How is it useful? What does it do for me?
Unfortunately, this is hardly how the faith was designed to work. Our intentions do matter when it comes to what we do. If we gather because we are supposed to or because we are getting what we feel we need, we are not gathering in the name of Christ. We are gathering in our own name, and the Spirit of God is silenced. We unknowingly place an idol that looks like us on the altar of Christ and defile ourselves, the collective temple of God.
When we leave our faith at the church or in our hearts, making decisions based on what will make us the most friends, money, or success, we do the same thing. If we treat our neighbors based on stereotypes, prejudice, or ignorance, we defile the temple of God within us. When we poison our earth because we feel it is there for our uses only, we defile the temple of God within us. The same happens if we believe the lies of our culture and what they have to say about us, our bodies, and our value. Whether collectively or individually, we defile the temple of God when we fail to realize our value and the value of all others.
So what do we do? We go back to square one. We hit the basics again.
We must re-accept the teachings of Christ daily, resolving to live in a way that honors the Spirit of God within us and within each other. When we gather, it must be in order to connect with God. When we go out into the world, it must be to live in light of that connection. We must be willing to change when we are in the wrong, and to stand firm in the love of Christ when we find ourselves tempted to act in self-interest.
In short, we must daily resolve to seek to both experience the love of God AND reflect it. This takes practice and grace, both for yourself and for others. It is about building daily habits of mindfulness and compassion. It is a journey that will last as long as we are on this earth, but it is one that is worth every twist, turn, and disruption.
I don’t know where you are on your faith walk, but I can tell you that all of us need this reminder every once in a while. Remember that you house the Spirit of God within you, and every decision you make either honors that or… does not. If we can all be more conscious of that, we will all get the chance to experience the love of God on a greater level. It is my hope that you will join me in this re-evaluation, so that we can all be the temple we are designed to be.
Peace be with you!