I've continued on with that writing project I told you about back in January, where, with every single slice of the four Gospels, I write an imaginative vignette that paints either the "before, during or after" of that moment. I was doing some editing this week and came upon one that I really enjoy. Wanted to post it here.
James & John ask for prominence in Jesus’ Kingdom
Then Zebedee’s two sons James and John approached him, saying “Master, we want you to grant us a special request.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” answered Jesus.
“Give us permission to sit one on each side of you in the glory of your kingdom!”
“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I have to drink? Can you go through the baptism I have to bear?”
“Yes, we can,” they replied. Then Jesus told them, “You will indeed drink the cup I am drinking, and you will undergo the baptism which I have to bear! But as for sitting on either side of me, that is not for me to give—such places belong to those for whom they are intended.”
When the other ten heard about this, they began to be highly indignant with James and John; so Jesus called them all to him, and said, “You know that the so-called rulers in the heathen world lord it over them, and their great men have absolute power. But it must not be so among you. No, whoever among you wants to be great must become the servant of you all, and if he wants to be first among you he must be the slave of all men! For the Son of Man himself has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life to set many others free.”
* * * * *
Many years later…
An old man sits on his stoop and looks out at the view. Below, the breeze is riffling the yellowish-greenish grass back and forth; here and there a stand of wildflowers likewise sways with its onshore gusts. The sun is still and set in its meridian brightness. Distant olive trees are thick with their clumpings of fruit. Even farther down, the land ends sharply at the drop of the cliffs; the color of the sea is as hauntingly blue as it always is. This old fisherman, too tired now to ever overnight again, wonders what this time of year produces for the village’s fleets. He can faintly hear the plash of the waters against the shoreline. It reminds him of the small lake upon which he’d grown up; the call of the sea.
Creakingly, he stands to his feet and returns inside his shanty house. He sits back down to the writing table in the corner. He reads again—still a bit uncertain of its contents—from the letter he’s considering sending out by seven different dispatches. He reads from the opening paragraphs:
Grace and peace be to you from him who is and who was and who is coming, from the seven Spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, first-born of the dead, and ruler of kings upon earth. To him who loves us and has set us free from our sins through his own blood, who has made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and power for timeless ages, amen.
See, he is coming in the clouds and every eye shall see him, even those who pierced him, and his coming will mean bitter sorrow to every tribe upon the earth. So let it be!
“I am Alpha and Omega, says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is coming, the Almighty.”
I, John, who am your brother and your companion in the distress, the kingdom and the faithful endurance to which Jesus calls us, was on the island called Patmos because I had spoken God’s message and borne witness to Jesus…
The old man leaves the letter and goes for a walk. He will consider its sending-out as he walks down toward the sea.
"We ourselves are eye-witnesses able and willing to testify to the fact that the Father did send the Son to save the world. Everyone who acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God lives in him, and he lives in God. So we have come to know and trust the love God has for us. God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. So our love for him grows more and more, filling us with complete confidence for the day when he shall judge all men—for we realize that our life in this world is actually his life lived in us." (1 John 4:14-17)
* * *
"The closer any creature draws to God, the more it shares in His goodness and the more abundantly it is filled with gifts infused by Him. Thus he who comes closer to a fire shares to a greater extent in its heat. But there can be no way, nor can any be imagined, by which a creature more closely adheres to God than by being united to Him in unity of person. Therefore, in consequence of the very union of His human nature with God in unity of person, Christ’s soul was filled with habitual gifts of grace beyond all other souls. And so habitual grace in Christ is not a disposition for union, but is rather an effect of union."
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
"For all those words which were written long ago are meant to teach us today; that when we read in the scriptures of the endurance of men and of all the help that God gave them in those days, we may be encouraged to go on hoping in our own time. May the God who inspires men to endure, and gives them a Father’s care, give you a mind united towards one another because of your common loyalty to Jesus Christ. And then, as one man, you will sing from the heart the praises of God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. So open your hearts to one another as Christ has opened his heart to you, and God will be glorified." (Romans 15:4-7)
Isn't it interesting that when the original readers of these words looked back to "words which were written long ago," they were thinking only of the Old Testament? These words weren't "scripture" to them, then—they were just words written on parchment from a contemporary believer. They thought of Paul as just another follower of Jesus, like themselves. Which, to me, is what makes the last two chapters of Romans just a little more poignant...
And when I think of "endurance," of the "Father's care," of "a mind united towards one another," of a "common loyalty to Jesus Christ," of singing "from the heart," of "opening their hearts to one another as Christ had opened his heart to" them—what period of time do you think I immediately think of?
Those wondrous early days of the Early Church.
In fact, as a Monday refresher for the path we're trying to walk together this week, here's a reminder of what those days were like:
Then those who welcomed [Peter’s Pentecost] message were baptised, and on that day alone about three thousand souls were added to the number of disciples. They continued steadily learning the teaching of the apostles, and joined in their fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayer. Everyone felt a deep sense of awe, while many miracles and signs took place through the apostles. All the believers shared everything in common; they sold their possessions and goods and divided the proceeds among the fellowship according to individual need. Day after day they met by common consent in the Temple; they broke bread together in their homes, sharing meals with simple joy. They praised God continually and all the people respected them. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were finding salvation. (Acts 2:41-47)
Among the large number who had become believers there was complete agreement of heart and soul. Not one of them claimed any of his possessions as his own but everything was common property. The apostles continued to give their witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with great force, and a wonderful spirit of generosity pervaded the whole fellowship. Indeed, there was not a single person in need among them. For those who owned land or property would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and place them at the apostles’ feet. They would distribute to each one according to his need. (Acts 4:32-35)
By common consent they all used to meet now in Solomon’s Porch. But as far as the others were concerned no one dared to associate with them, even though their general popularity was very great. Yet more and more believers in the Lord joined them, both men and women in really large numbers. Many signs and wonders were now happening among the people through the apostles’ ministry. In consequence people would bring out their sick into the streets and lay them down on stretchers or bed, so that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall upon some of them. In addition a large crowd collected from the cities around Jerusalem, bringing with them their sick and those who were suffering from evil spirits. And they were all cured. (Acts 5:12-16)
So the Word of God gained more and more ground. The number of disciples in Jerusalem very greatly increased, while a considerable proportion of the priesthood accepted the faith. (Acts 6:7)
The whole Church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria now enjoyed a period of peace. It became established and as it went forward in reverence for the Lord and in the strengthening presence of the Holy Spirit, continued to grow in numbers. (Acts 9:31)
[And] the Word of the Lord continued to gain ground and increase its influence. (Acts 12:24)
When you read all that, what specifically sticks out to you for your day today?
“We are not dependent on a Christ who lived and died, we are dependent on a Christ who lived and died and who is alive for evermore. Since he is alive, he is here in such a way that we can draw upon him for power other than our own.
“The work of Christ, therefore, enables us to deal effectively through him with the situations in which sin had rendered us helpless. It enables us to deal with the situation which sin had created between a man and himself. A man remains a split personality, poised between goodness and badness, between right and wrong, between heroism and cowardice, between sainthood and sin, between the ape and the angel, until the power of the Risen Christ takes possession of him, and makes him a personality integrated by this new centre within it. ‘It is no longer I who live,’ said Paul, ‘but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2.20). Through the work of Christ a man ceases to be a battle-ground of opposing forces and reaches mature manhood (Eph. 4.13).”
William Barclay, The Mind of Jesus
* * *
“For everyone who is with Jesus is stronger than death.”
Origen, Commentary on Matthew
In the last two weeks, the final version of my children's Bible, Moments with Jesus, went through its last revisions and is on its way to production for a fall release. Friends, I'm very excited about this! It's been such a joy to get to look at these files in final form.
I wanted to send you a two-page spread as my weekly "thought" this week--the moment when Mary Magdalene runs into the risen Jesus near the tomb. I pray these words and visuals are a sweet reminder of His Resurrection for your Monday!
"...the present time is of the highest importance—it is time to wake up to reality. Every day brings God’s salvation nearer. The night is nearly over, the day has almost dawned. Let us therefore fling away the things that men do in the dark, let us arm ourselves for the fight of the day! Let us live cleanly, as in the daylight, not in the 'delights' of getting drunk or playing with sex, nor yet in quarrelling or jealousies. Let us be Christ’s men from head to foot, and give no chances to the flesh to have its fling." (Romans 13:11-14)
A few questions for you: What if everybody you ever met knew precisely where you stand, what matters more to you than anything else, because the Way of Jesus--His very life--IS your life? What if, in the world's economies of meaning—its passing fancies: sex, money, power, politics, celebrity—we were absolutely invisible? What if, instead, in the economies of Heaven, the eternal realities of Jesus of Heaven--His holiness, His trust, His authority, His glory—we were conspicuous in the ways He was conspicuous?
What if we only stood out like He stood out?
And what if, the rest of the time, we were quietly busy doing good?
In fact, what if the Early Church had the daily-weekly recipe right?
- enamored only with the life of Jesus...
- fellowshipping joyfully with those likewise moved...
- living simply in the midst of the world's greatest, ever, calling...
- prayerful, together, that He would do it all over again...
- filled with awe...
- seeing signs and wonders consistently...
- sharing peaceably so that all are cared for...
- fundamentally unattached to the material world...
- constantly gathering for the sake of the Holy Spirit's work...
- praising Jesus as their Center, their Head, their Everything.
Now doesn't that sound like an interesting Way to live?
“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (John 15:16 ESV)
One of the greatest enemies of practicable discipleship—fulsome following of Jesus of Nazareth—is that deadly, almost unnoticed feeling of creeping overfamiliarity. You’ll know the feeling is present when you’re either listening to, or when you’re personally reading through words like these in John 15, and find yourself not stunned by them. That is the work of overfamiliarity.
Overfamiliarity is the product of a conscious, or unconscious, thought-process whereby we think we already know all there is to know of something. So, reading of that subject again, one’s mind somewhat shuts down. An unthinking instinct seems to take over—like when you sometimes arrive at home without totally remembering your drive there—and Jesus’ words become a sort of background to one’s thoughts. Words like choose, chose, appointed, go, bear fruit, abide, in My name, get filtered out by the noise of whatever the day holds.
Let us together say: Not today! Not this week!
Today, and this week, I would have us wrestling with, and reveling in, the glorious practicalities of fulsome following after that wonderful Man, Jesus of Nazareth. And I want to take two particular different angles on this promise so that these words become a bit unfamiliar, fresh, and new.
To do that, instead of Jesus speaking these words to you in the second person plural (you, as in “all of you many”), let's speak these words aloud to Him in two different voices: the first person singular (“I” and “me”) and the first person plural (“us” and “we”). I want us to do this because, in the day-to-day context in which we live our lives and follow His Way, we often tend to be His disciples very much on our own. And this is natural: He means to lead us individually—and powerfully.
And yet, if we want to overwhelm the world with the wonder of His glory, and really show His Church in the power of its full manifestation, we absolutely must reconstitute the Body of Christ—and properly.
So here’s the plan:
I want you to read aloud, with some authority, the two new versions of these verses (1st person, singular and plural) and what I want you to do is--get carried away!
Repeat these words aloud--loudly—with your whole heart and mind; strip that latent overfamiliarity right out of the equation--make them today’s battle cry! Believe what you’re reading and pronouncing. Pronounce what you desire to believe as you read it.
Here you go—take it away:
"Jesus, I did not choose You, but You chose me and appointed me that I should go and bear fruit and that my fruit should abide, so that whatever I ask the Father in Your name, He may give it to me."
And, as a member of the Body of Christ, say:
Jesus, we did not choose You, but You chose us and appointed us that we should go and bear fruit and that our fruit should abide, so that whatever we ask the Father in Your name, He may give it to us.
My friend, as a member of the Body, and as an integral part of the constantly re-coalescing Whole that is Him, you did not choose—you are chosen. In fact, being chosen, not being in a position powerful enough to choose, Jesus instead decided to appoint you to the most powerful position He could find for you—a messenger of the Gospel and a bearer of its fruit. And that fruit, by the way, will abide--as you abide in Him. And, too, just in case the foregoing information wasn’t enough to stun your sensibilities, you may ask whatever you wish of the Father in Heaven—the Heavenly Father--and He will give it to you.
Now what do you think of all that?
Isn’t this promise absolutely awe-inspiring?
“During our short lives the question that guides much of our behavior is: ‘Who are we?’ Although we may seldom pose that question in a formal way, we live it very concretely in our day-to-day decisions.
“The three answers that we generally live—not necessarily give—are: ‘We are what we do, we are what others say about us, and we are what we have,’ or in other words: ‘We are our success, we are our popularity, we are our power.’
“It is important to realize the fragility of life that depends on success, popularity, and power. Its fragility stems from the fact that all three of these are external factors over which we have only limited control. Losing our job, our fame, or our wealth often is caused by events completely beyond our control. But when we depend on them, we have sold ourselves to the world, because then we are what the world gives us. Death takes it all away from us. The final statement then becomes: ‘When we are dead, we are dead!’ because when we die, we can’t do anything anymore, people don’t talk about us anymore, and we have nothing anymore. When we are what the world makes us, we can’t be after we have left the world.
“Jesus came to announce to us that an identity based on success, popularity, and power is a false identity—an illusion! Loudly and clearly he says: ‘You are not what the world makes you; but you are children of God.’”
Henri Nouwen, Here and Now
Now a word to you who are Gentiles. I should like you to know that I make as much as I can of my ministry as “God’s messenger to the Gentiles” so as to make my kinsfolk jealous and thus save some of them. For if their exclusion from the pale of salvation has meant the reconciliation of the rest of mankind to God, what would their inclusion mean? It would be nothing less than life from the dead! If the flour is consecrated to God so is the whole loaf, and if the roots of a tree are dedicated to God every branch will belong to him also. (Romans 11:13-16)
Two of the things I maybe most admire about Paul are his spiritual eyes for the outsider, and, just as important, this gift he has for envisioning heavenly potential in others. He will not give up on anyone -- that's the first thing -- and, imagining them "in," he just can't stop thinking of what that might mean. How their salvation might be a first glorious domino to fall. How their inclusion might open the door to so many others.
But there really is a nexus point for both of these things: a place where eyes for the lost and vision for heavenly potentiality meet.
We together -- the Body of Christ -- are meant to be the living invitation and the limitless picture of what this whole thing is.
Do you ever stop to think of what it would mean, how the world around us would react, if, even just for a week, we all lived up to our heavenly privileges? I like the word Paul uses here: "jealous." Because think about people actually seeing this:
Men and women strangely unconcerned for their temporal needs: as if those things are already, forever, accounted for.
People who are totally unafraid.
Men, women and children so lost within a heavenly love that all other loves, likes and relationships are just saturated with the flavor of that love.
People, secure, respectful and self-respecting, with no need for earthly accolades or any sort of spotlight.
A segment of humanity who are already one with God—exhibiting His own personal character—and, thus, are already one with each other: filled with an active, observable affection that seems otherworldly.
If those were the "flour" and the "roots" of our fellowship, don't you think we'd be drawing a whole different sort of attention to Him? Isn't it possible that if you and I abide in Jesus -- if we really enjoy what's ours in Him -- that we might fill the world's heart with a heavenly jealousy?
I'd say there's only one way to find out...
This week, let's live it!
"Now how can [the outsiders] call on one in whom they have never believed? How can they believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how can they hear unless someone proclaims him? And who will go to tell them unless he is sent? As the scripture puts it: ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the Gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!’" (Romans 10:14,15)
If you're into this kind of thing, what Paul just gave us is a descending deductive chain argument, where true premises link with each other toward a clear, logical conclusion. And I call it a "descending" deductive chain because it starts at the whole and descends to the level of the individual. Take a look at how it would read if he'd taken it in the reverse, ascending order:
Unless someone is sent, then they will not go, and nothing will be proclaimed, no one will hear, and none will believe or ever call on Jesus.
But let's flip that into the positive, shall we?
If one is sent, and goes, and proclaims, then others will hear, and believe, and call on Jesus.
So let's get down to brass tacks. Who are the ones whose "beautiful feet" are meant to bear the "glad tidings of good things," ie. Who has already been sent? (I'll give you a hint: They were looking at you in the mirror, this morning, while you brushed your teeth.)
You are a "sent" one - an apostle - and it's your beautiful feet that are called to carry forth the Gospel today. If you go, in the Spirit and Way of Jesus, your proclamation will be the actual way that others get to hear. And if they hear - and when they get to see it be true in your life today - there is a wonderful chance they'll believe. That they'll say yes for themselves and call on His name...
Let's let Him do His thing, in us, and through us today!
In The Confessions, Augustine of Hippo will occasionally break out into spontaneous, lovely, uplifting prayers of personal gratitude. I so appreciate his modeling of how, right in the midst of telling a story, one may turn aside to a separate conversation with Heaven. Isn't that how we want to learn to live?
Here are a couple of my favorites of those:
"You are there to free us from the misery of error which leads us astray, to set us on your own path and to comfort us by saying, ‘Run on, for I shall hold you up. I shall lead you and carry you on to the end.’"
"Come, O Lord, and stir our hearts. Call us back to yourself. Kindle your fire in us and carry us away. Let us scent your fragrance and taste your sweetness. Let us love you and hasten to your side."
This week, for myself and you, I pray we run along His path, letting Him hold us up, being led by Him and carried by Him toward His own ends. And, as we live each day, that He'd personally stir our hearts: drawing us nearer, kindling a heavenly fire, giving us scents and tastes of Himself. Friends, let's use these days - fleeting as they are! - to learn to love Him more and to hasten into more experience of His nearness.
"Jeremiah heard God say that he would make a new covenant with the people, not like the covenant that he had once made with their fathers. This would be a covenant, not established by an externally imposed law, but written on their hearts and in their inward parts. It would be a covenant in which all men really and truly knew God. ‘I will forgive their iniquity,’ God said, ‘and I will remember their sin no more’ (Jer. 31.31-35). Two things stand out about this new covenant; it is a covenant based not on law but on the inward devotion of the heart, and there is no mention of sacrifice at all.
"Two things are to be noted in the words of Jesus, as Paul relates them—‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood’ (I Cor. 11.25). Jeremiah also speaks of the new covenant (Jer. 31.31; LXX 38.31). Both in Paul and in the Greek of Jeremiah the word for ‘new’ is kainos. Greek has two words for ‘new.’ There is neos, which is new only in point of time; a thing which is neos may simply be the most recent example or specimen of something which has for long existed and which has for long been produced. But kainos means not only new in point of time, but also new in point of kind or quality. With a thing which is kainos a new quality has entered into life and the world. Since that is so, a new (kainos) covenant is not simply an old covenant which has been renewed or restated; it is a covenant of a new and different kind. Second, Jesus says of this new covenant that it is in his blood. The Greek word for in is en; en can and does translate the Hebrew word be, which means at the price of. It may, therefore, well be that Jesus said that this new and different kind of covenant is made possible only at the cost and at the price of his blood. When we put this together, we see that Jesus said that a new relationship between man and God has become possible through his blood, that is, through his life and death…
"What, then, was Jesus doing in his life and in his death? The answer must be that in his life and in his death Jesus was demonstrating to men the eternal, unchangeable, unconquerable love of God. He was demonstrating to men that God is the Father who loves undefeatably and whose one desire is that the lost son should come home. When Jesus entered the world, when he healed the sick, comforted the sad, fed the hungry, forgave his enemies, he was saying to men: ‘God loves you like that.’ When he died upon the cross, he was saying: ‘Nothing that men can ever do to God will stop God loving them. There is no limit to the love of God. There is no end beyond which that love will not go. God loves you like that.’ That is why nothing less than death on the Cross would do. If Jesus had refused or escaped the Cross, if he had not died, it would have meant that there was some point in suffering and sorrow at which the love of God stopped; there was some point beyond which forgiveness was impossible. But the Cross is God saying in Jesus: ‘There is no limit to which my love will not go and no sin which my love cannot forgive.’"
William Barclay, Crucified and Crowned
"And, while Christ was actually taking upon himself the sins of men, God condemned that sinful nature." Romans 8:3b
Did you know that, from the very beginning of the Church, all the way back to the Early Church days, up till now, there has never been one clear theology of the mechanics of the atonement? There are all kinds of opinions about how it all works - how our sin was covered by His blood, His death - but there has never been one overriding, agreed-upon "THIS IS EXACTLY HOW IT HAPPENED" sort of statement, even all the way back in the writings of the Early Church Fathers.
So I delight in the simplicity of Paul's statement - "Christ was actually taking upon himself the sins of men" - and its corollary - "God condemned that sinful nature." To put it in even simpler terms:
Our sin was put upon Jesus.
He died with it.
It died with Him.
You and I stand on the other side of history from the sinful nature; between us and it is Jesus, there, on the Cross.
I was reading this week (and perhaps you've already heard something like this before) where the writer very clearly made the following point: No matter how people explain their theology of the mechanics of the atonement, the important thing is that we all agree with the definition found within the spelling of that word in English:
What Jesus did on the Cross has forever set us free from sin and has given us opportunity to be "AT ONE" - in union - with God. The Cross re-bridges the divide started in Eden. For us, the Cross begins a new existence: a Union-Eden.
"As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth..." (Matthew 9:9)
And imagine him sitting there in the early afternoon light, tallying the morning's takings, thinking of his later supper and a walk up into the hills after he's done for the day. And imagine, suddenly, the center of town stops. Everyone's holding their breath; ceasing what they're doing; they are all watching the walk of that Man, Jesus, toward the tax collector's table. Matthew glances up from what he's writing. His brow furrows. He is studying the Man who, likewise, studies him. The Stranger leans with both hands on the desk and then, with both love and power in His eyes, says: "Follow Me."
A lightning bolt runs through Matthew.
In that moment, the past and future consider each other.
Matthew knows the pattern of his days -- the way this is destined to continue -- and, in the eyes of this Man, he sees something else. He sees a choice. Sonship. Brotherhood. Righteousness. And splendor.
He just doesn't know yet that the choice of a son to be a righteous, splendid brother is the foredecided choice of God...of him. Of Matthew.
Matthew, now the former tax-collector. The one now rising to his feet to follow.
The one who'll finish this day by banqueting with Jesus with all the other tax-collectors and disreputable folk, before, tomorrow, leaving it all behind.
The one who'll, 30 years after this day, be killed for the sake of the Good News of Jesus, 2500 miles away in Ethiopia.
The one who, right now, is still at the banqueting table, forever with Jesus, enjoying the eternal "splendor of life as one of God's sons."
Remember: The call of Jesus, to you, on this Monday, is ever always the same original call that He gave to Matthew on that day:
This week, I was reminded of where C.S. Lewis took his book title, Surprised by Joy, from: a particularly mournful poem by William Wordsworth about the loss of his daughter; the way all present and future joys would be tempered by his sadness. In some ways, it is a perfect poem to describe the disciples' anguish on the Friday and Saturday of the Cross and waking to a dead-and-gone Jesus: give it a read:
Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind
I turned to share the transport—Oh! with whom
But Thee, long buried in the silent Tomb,
That spot which no vicissitude can find?
Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind--
But how could I forget thee?—Through what power,
Even for the least division of an hour,
Have I been so beguiled as to be blind
To my most grievous loss!—That thought’s return
Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,
Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,
Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;
That neither present time, nor years unborn
Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.
But then came that Sunday--Jesus is alive! Then came the neverending realization that the human journey would never again be lived alone; that the life of God would always triumph over life, death, sin and the grave!
So, feeling a little poetical this week, I reimagined Wordsworth's words in the context of our new, never-to-be-forgotten Resurrection-Reality. Let's let this be our posture on this day:
Surprised by joy—inspirited by the Word
We turn again toward the the Living One—Oh! to Him,
To Thee, so briefly swaddled in the burial scrim,
Until your mortal ear heard Heaven's resurrection-word.
Love, faithful Love, recalls me to your heart--
You will never, ever forget me!—In your love,
Never for the least division of any part,
Have you been e'er distracted by your work above
To loose your eye from mine!—That knowledge's knowing
Is the greatest joy my heart forever wears,
My Lord, My God, forever, and ever, sowing,
And knowing my heart’s treasure I may always bear;
That in both present time, and those years unrolling,
Can my reborn sight to your heavenly face repair.
Yahweh spoke to Joshua, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘Assign the cities of refuge, of which I spoke to you by Moses, that the man slayer who kills any person accidentally or unintentionally may flee there. They shall be to you for a refuge from the avenger of blood. He shall flee to one of those cities, and shall stand at the entrance of the gate of the city, and declare his case in the ears of the elders of that city. They shall take him into the city with them, and give him a place, that he may live among them. If the avenger of blood pursues him, then they shall not deliver up the man slayer into his hand; because he struck his neighbor unintentionally, and didn’t hate him before. He shall dwell in that city until he stands before the congregation for judgment, until the death of the high priest that shall be in those days. Then the man slayer shall return, and come to his own city, and to his own house, to the city he fled from.’” (Joshua 20:1-6)
Did you know that you are meant to act like one of these cities of refuge to the world around you? You are meant to rise up each morning – a child of God set free forever by His blood – and invite all people to Jesus by the Spirit of Jesus within you. You are meant to so learn His gracious ways and presence that all men, regardless of their background, mistakes and worldliness, are drawn directly to Him by being around you.
Just consider how Jesus drew all kinds of people to Himself: “Jesus departed there, and came near to the sea of Galilee; and he went up into the mountain, and sat there. Great multitudes came to him, having with them the lame, blind, mute, maimed, and many others, and they put them down at his feet. He healed them, so that the multitude wondered when they saw the mute speaking, injured whole, lame walking, and blind seeing — and they glorified the God of Israel.” (Matthew 15)
Now, almost identically, look at the attractive, gracious spirit of the Early Church: “More believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women. They even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on cots and mattresses, so that as Peter came by, at the least his shadow might overshadow some of them. Multitudes also came together from the cities around Jerusalem, bringing sick people, and those who were tormented by unclean spirits: and they were all healed.” (Acts 15)
My friend, where you go today, Jesus goes today. How He attracted all people to Himself is how you’re meant to attract people. When the world around you is aflame with hatred, bloodguilt, division, confusion, anger, and wrath, you are meant to be a city of refuge for the hearts of men. Are you prepared, today, to be under His inviting yoke with Him? Are you prepared to give your life to this sort of appraisal –
The Father spoke to Jesus, saying, “Speak to the men and women you’ve redeemed, saying, ‘I have assigned you as the places of heavenly refuge, just as I showed you by my Son, that the sinner who sins intentionally or unintentionally may come to you in order to come to Me. You shall be to them a refuge from the grasp of Satan. They may come to you, and shall stand right before you, and declare their sin and brokenness before your non-judging ear. You shall take them into your heart, and show them Jesus, that they may live in Jesus as you live in Jesus. If Satan pursues them, then you shall not deliver the sinner back into his hand; because, before, he sinned unintentionally, and didn’t yet know of Me and My love for him. The sinner shall dwell in your fellowship until he stands before the congregation in repentance, set free by the death of the High Priest who is Jesus Himself. Then the sinner shall return, and come to the heavenly city, and to his own house Jesus has prepared for him, to the home for which he was first made.’”
Oh my friend! that you, that I, that our families, our friends, our churches, our fellowships would all exist for the sake of that paradigm of overwhelming, providential grace! That we would attract all men and women to the heart of Jesus today - this week! Let it be so!
"God, who gave our forefathers many different glimpses of the truth in the words of the prophets, has now, at the end of the present age, given us the truth in the Son. Through the Son God made the whole universe, and to the Son he has ordained that all creation shall ultimately belong. This Son, radiance of the glory of God, flawless expression of the nature of God, himself the upholding principle of all that is, effected in person the reconciliation between God and man and then took his seat at the right hand of the majesty on high..." Hebrews 1:1-3
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"The new relationship between God and man which Jesus brought is summed up in the word Father. That is to say, the new relationship is based on love and not on law. In such a relationship God is no longer thought of as the judge who must condemn; he is thought of as the Father who cannot be happy until the family circle of his children is complete.
"But the almost necessary reaction to any such message is that it is too good to be true. How can I believe that? What possible guarantee have I that that is true? The guarantor of the new relationship is Jesus. He did not come only to tell in words that this is the case; he came in his own person to demonstrate that this is the case. ‘He who has seen me,’ he said, ‘has seen the Father’ (John 14.9). ‘The word became flesh’ (John 1:14), or, as we might paraphrase it: ‘The mind of God became a person.’ Jesus is the exact demonstration of what God is like, of the mind of God, of the attitude of God to man. In Jesus we see one who fed the hungry, healed the sick, comforted the sorrowing, was the friend of outcasts and sinners. And, because Jesus is one with God, he is the guarantee that God is like that. To put it at its very simplest, Jesus is the guarantor of the love of God. It is through him and him alone that we know what God is like; he lived and he died to show us the heart of God; he is the guarantor of the possibility of the new relationship with God, the relationship in which the old fear has become the new love."
William Barclay, Jesus As They Saw Him
I want you to imagine a particular split-second in the course of human history; just a second that went by like every other second for everyone else in all the world - except for one man. In the moments before this second, that man was motioned to by another man - "Come with Me" - and so he followed that man outside of his village. We can imagine them walking along together, winding their way along a trail, until they're now standing on the brow of a clifftop, overlooking the sea. Neither of them is looking at the sea. They're now squared off to each other, and the one is motioning to the other, trying to explain with gestures what He's about to do. The other man stares silently at the Gesturer, just as he always does with everyone, trying to make some sense of it.
You see, the man who's about to experience the split-second of his whole life - the redefining moment - stands on the top of that rise unable to hear. And unable, we're told, to speak intelligibly. His whole life - the every single second that has fleeted before this, the every single day after day after day - has all been a great silence. Every moment has been a vacuum of the senses. Until now.
Until the Man standing opposite suddenly plunges His index fingers into his ears, holding them there for one very awkward moment. Then, dabbing the tips of His fingers across His own tongue, the Man opens the other's mouth and gently touches the tip of his tongue. Then He glances up to Heaven. Lets out a deep breath. His lips move. He has whispered the command: "Open!"
The split-second is happening now.
It is happening before the deaf man even realizes.
He suddenly hears the breeze through the seagrass, the distant calls of the seagulls, the whistling of a shepherd nearby.
He can hear the sound of the village market, the laughter of the schoolchildren, the jangle of riggings on a boat down below.
All at once, he hears it all. We can imagine that the experience nearly staggers him.
Until, looking forward again, meeting the eyes of the Healer, he hears the very first question he's ever heard in the course of his life:
"How does it all sound to you?"
"Christianity is not a doctrine, but an existence communication. (This is the source of all the nuisances of orthodoxy, its quarrels about one thing and another, while existence remains totally unchanged.) Christianity is an existence communication and can only be presented – by existing..."
Søren Kierkegaard, from his journals
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"We are writing to you about something which has always existed yet which we ourselves actually saw and heard: something which we had an opportunity to observe closely and even to hold in our hands, and yet, as we know now, was something of the very Word of life himself! For it was life which appeared before us: we saw it, we are eye-witnesses of it, and are now writing to you about it. It was the very life of all ages, the life that has always existed with the Father, which actually became visible in person to us mortal men. We repeat, we really saw and heard what we are now writing to you about. We want you to be with us in this—in this fellowship with the Father, and Jesus Christ his Son."
1 John 1:1-3, Phillips
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Thought for this week: Our "witness" for Jesus is exactly equivalent to our experience of His existence. Nothing else - no "doctrine," no "orthodoxy," no "quarrel" - can stand against our first-hand, practical testimony to His living life. We must prove Him by our personal experience of His present existence.
"...live lives worthy of the God who has called you to share the splendour of his own kingdom."
1 Thessalonians 2:12
The Coronation of Alexander III and Maria Fedorovna, Georges Becker (1888)
If the painting above was only an infinitesimal sliver of the "splendour" of the Kingdom of Heaven, a Kingdom you are promised one day to "share" with your Savior, your Brother, the Lord Jesus...
if "in all which will one day belong to him we have been promised a share (since we were long ago destined for this by the one who achieves his purposes by his sovereign will)" (Eph. 1:11)...
if you really "are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession" (1 Pet. 2:9)...
if all that He "claims as his will belong to all of us as well..." (Rom. 8:17)...
...then a question is immediately begged:
Today - and this week - and for the remainder of this month - and this year - and for remainder of the life allotted to you - as a true son or daughter of God, a splendid prince or princess of this Kingdom, an inheritor of His glory, a sharer in His purposes, a chosen one, a royal envoy, a person made holy by His very blood: His own special personal possession...
...what sort of life will you live?
If you listen to the Unionists podcast, then you've already heard this particular thought. But, recently, in my reading, I was reminded of the life and death of the Edwardian poet, Rupert Brooke, and of his haunting WWI poem that seemed to foreshadow his approaching death:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
Rereading those words, I was struck by multiple parallels between Brooke's imagery and our Kingdom of Heaven-reality; how the spirit of Jesus lingers on in this world through us. So, imagining Jesus, the ultimate selfless Soldier, writing similar lines to us, I took a stab at an echoing sonnet:
When I ascend, remember only this of Me:
That there's a Spirit whispering in your soul
That is for ever Mine. There shall be
In that reborn life a richer life entirely whole:
A life which is My own, true, perfect in My Way,
Given, once, and always again, to point out Heaven;
The Spirit of My Body, breathing Heaven's ways,
Washed by My blood, enlivened with a higher leaven.
And know, My heart, all evil scorned fore'er,
My life, eternal, lessened not a mite
Will give you, everywhere, My mind and thoughts:
My wisdom, words; dreams joyous as the wind-fresh air;
And laughter, from My heart; and gentle might
Within peaceful hearts, whom Heaven hath bought.
If you've ever read much from Augustine, especially his autobiography of faith, The Confessions, then perhaps you already know of his breakthrough moment of beginning to believe. In concert with a group of friends, he encounters authentic experience of Jesus in the heart of a fellow North African, Ponticianus, while visiting a villa on the outskirts of Milan.
Read how Ponticianus described the difference between serving the Kingdom of Heaven and the kingdoms of the earth:
‘What do we hope to gain by all the efforts we make? What are we looking for? What is our purpose in serving the State? Can we hope for anything better at Court than to be the Emperor’s friends? Even so, surely our position would be precarious and exposed to much danger? We shall meet it at every turn, only to reach another danger which is greater still. And how long is it to be before we reach it? But if I wish, I can become the friend of God at this very moment...’
No matter what sort of day you're expecting, or what sort of week you're in, I want us all to appreciate the grandeur of that thought: 'if I wish, I can become the friend of God at this very moment.'
My friend, you are already a friend of God.
Or a daughter.
So, 'What are we looking for' today?
Only, ever, more of Him.
Jesus ministered out of His perfection (ie. His abandoned will; His will, now, to obey; His flawless obedience, moment to moment) and from His personal intimacy with His Father.
Therefore, we are learning to minister out of our discipleship (ie. our self-denial; our adherence, now, to His voice; our obedience to the Way, moment to moment) and from our personal intimacy with Jesus, our Brother.
Discipleship is nothing without intimacy.
And vice versa.