“Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You say to him, ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ And suppose he calls out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and my family and I are all in bed. I can’t help you.’ But I tell you this — though he won’t do it for friendship’s sake, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you whatever you need because of your shameless persistence. And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. You fathers — if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead? Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Luke 11:5-13, NLT (Italics mine)
So, suppose instead you went to the house of your friend, Jesus, whether at midnight or whenever, wanting to borrow a dash of His Holy Spirit. You say to Him, “The whole world is in need of your presence, a fresh experience of your visitation, and I myself have nothing to give them.” And instead of, say, calling out from His bedroom, you can hear Him rushing to the door; it gets thrown open and almost pulls you in with its gust of wind blowing by. “I’m so glad you called on me first,” Jesus smiles. “My door is never locked, and I’m absolutely never in bed. I can help any time, any minute, any day.”
And, furthermore, Jesus tells us this Himself — that what He does He does for friendship’s sake – you are His friend – and if you continually knock, He will continually answer because of your joyous persistence. And it is He Himself who tells you, keep on asking, and you will literally receive what you actually ask for. He says: Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door of the Kingdom will be opened to you. For everyone who asks… “everyone” most certainly including you… receives. Everyone who seeks… “everyone” still most certainly including you… finds. And to everyone who knocks… and you are still a part of “everyone” here… the door will be opened.
If you yourself are a father – or if you can imagine a good father – if his children ask for a fish, he would not give them a snake, would he? Or if they ask him for an egg, would he give them a scorpion?
“Of course not!” Jesus laughs, as He says.
“So if sinful people know how to give good gifts to their children” – and here Jesus grins with the readiness of a wonderful reminder coming – “or, if formerly sinful people who I’ve set free with my blood know how, then how much more – listen… HOW MUCH MORE will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
“Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” (Ezekiel 36:26,27, NASB)
Imagine meeting a Man on the street-corner, or at a beach, or along a mountain path, and He immediately stops His day to talk with you, to hear your story, to know you. His initial opening question had caught your attention by its directness; you’d never met the Man before and now you’re pondering and answering equally directly. For some reason, as you answer Him about your day – and your life – you feel a strange relaxation of your usual guardedness. You are apt to trust this Man’s ability to understand you. It is a strange sensation, instantaneously trusting Him.
Why, you ask yourself, are you talking to this Man in this way?
Perhaps it’s because of the way, when He first saw you, that His eyes lit up: the look in His eyes was a look of immediate recognition: like He knew you. And then, too, there was the way He totally stopped His own momentum – His walk, His day – and became consumed with the answer you gave to His initial inquiry. And, especially, it was the way that – as you talked – He was so totally rapt with attention at every detail you felt so strangely comfortable sharing. Again, you had never met this Man till fifteen minutes ago; now, you are wanting to spend the rest of the day together.
What is it about this Man?
It feels to you like every ounce of His energy is brought into focus for the particular moment He’s inhabiting. That’s something. And the set of His eyes – the openness of His countenance – seems to reflect an inner peacefulness that’s nothing like anything in the whole world. He is fully alive, right now, to you. Unto you. Directly toward you. There is something within this Man that calls down into the inside of you and whispers of wonders and newness and new life offering itself to you. His presence – even without words – somehow speaks of a whole new thing He’s offering… if you’ll only just--
What is He asking? you wonder.
Whatever it is, you’re interested in giving it.
Ezekiel 36 probably made absolutely no sense to Ezekiel’s original hearers and readers because they’d never set eyes on Jesus of Nazareth. Ezekiel 36 should make perfect sense to us because we’ve already met, we already know, that Man I was just writing about.
I was describing, of course, Jesus Himself. As it’s very clear He was, when you read through the four Gospels. His face and carriage and countenance and the way He spoke to any and all were the most arresting experience anyone had ever had. They found themselves “telling Him the whole story.” They broke the necks of bottles of alabaster and anointed His feet. They sang in the streets when He came through. They clamored and clung to Him; they “jostled at His elbow.”
Because the “new heart” and the “new spirit” of Heaven had been revealed, once for all time, and the people’s “hearts of stone” and fleshly spirits yearned for exchange. Even if they couldn’t have explained that fact. When they crowded Him by the tens, and hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands, what they really wanted was Ezekiel 36. They wanted what was in Him, in them. And they had to be in that Presence, as long as they had it.
The glory of this promise is that – already and forever – the realities it speaks of are already and forever yours. Jesus has already and forever given you a new heart and a new spirit; He has plucked the old right out of you. Already and forever, He has lavishly poured His own Spirit upon you and – to the degree you’ve desired – within you. There is every opportunity – now and already and forever – for you to knowingly walk in His statutes.
Jesus is your sanctification. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
And while I love the heavenly reality that everything I’ve just said is already and forever accomplished for you, I also appreciate the last line of this promise: “And you will be careful to observe My ordinances.” There is demonstrable work for you to do, today. The only action that you properly bring to the equation of your sanctification is to get LOST in the words and life of Jesus. To listen to Him. And obey.
So, let’s go meet that Man in the circumstances of this day. It’s the only one we have. And He’s the only one we need.
"The Church will outlive the universe; in it the individual person will outlive the universe. Everything that is joined to the immortal Head will share His immortality... If we do not believe it let us be honest and relegate the Christian faith to museums. If we do, let us give up the pretense that it makes no difference. For this is the real answer to every excessive claim made by the collective. It is mortal; we shall live for ever. There will come a time when every culture, every institution, every nation, the human race, all biological life, is extinct, and every one of us is still alive. Immortality is promised to us, not to these generalities. It was not for societies or states that Christ died, but for men. In that sense Christianity must seem to secular collectivists to involve an almost frantic assertion of individuality. But then it is not the individual as such who will share Christ’s victory over death. We shall share the victory by being in the Victor. A rejection, or in scripture’s strong language, a crucifixion of the natural self is the passport to everlasting life. Nothing that has not died will be resurrected. That is just how Christianity cuts across the antithesis between individualism and collectivism. There lies the maddening ambiguity of our faith as it must appear to outsiders. It sets its face relentlessly against our natural individualism; on the other hand, it gives back to those who abandon individualism an eternal possession of their own personal being, even of their bodies. As mere biological entities, each with its separate will to live and to expand, we are apparently of no account; we are cross-fodder. But as organs in the Body of Christ, as stones and pillars in the temple, we are assured of our eternal self-identity and shall live to remember the galaxies as an old tale."
C.S. Lewis, "Membership"
"This priceless treasure we hold, so to speak, in a common earthenware jar—to show that the splendid power of it belongs to God and not to us." 2 Corinthians 4:7
Which is a wonderfully helpful verse because of the way it centers on those interconnected elements: priceless treasure; a common earthenware jar; splendid power; and, God. You see, it's the overwhelming pricelessness of the treasure that properly proves the commonness of the earthenware jar. It's the degree to which the power is shown and proved to be splendid that throws all glory at the feet of God, not us.
This verse is a practical lesson in contingency. The more priceless you find Jesus to be, the more reasonable you'll be about your own self-importance. If you are struggling with pride and self-importance, spend more time with Jesus.
And, with that: The more practically powerful you find the Kingdom of Heaven to be, the more you will naturally ascribe all glory to God. If you're fighting to be the god of your own universe, it would be worth your while to compare your power to His power.
We find true freedom when we find the promises of God to be verifiably true in everyday experience. Test the contingencies.
"The administration of the Law which was engraved in stone (and which led in fact to spiritual death) was so magnificent that the Israelites were unable to look unflinchingly at Moses’ face, for it was alight with heavenly splendor. Now if the old administration held such heavenly, even though transitory, splendor, can we not see what a much more glorious thing is the new administration of the Spirit of life? If to administer a system which is to end in condemning men was a splendid task, how infinitely more splendid is it to administer a system which ends in making men good! And while it is true that the former temporary glory has been completely eclipsed by the latter, we do well to remember that is eclipsed simply because the present permanent plan is such a very much more glorious thing than the old." 2 Corinthians 3:7-11
Do you see how Paul is comparing-contrasting this clear dichotomous pair - the Law vs. the Spirit - to bring our NEW REALITY into focus? Well, let me make the contrast even more clear!
In verses 7-11, Paul gets absolutely carried away in using different forms of the same Greek word: δόξα - "glory." In just these four sentences, he uses the word TEN TIMES:
has been glorified
having been made glorious
One senses that Paul is trying to make a point...
Well, here it is: The overriding, overpowering, overmastering reality of Jesus is GLORY. If you've ever had the sense that this is anything less than TEN GLORIES WORTH OF GLORY, you've been getting the wrong impression. We are dealing in a GLORIOUS way of life.
Which begs the question of our hearts today: Is what we're doing with all of this absolutely GLORIOUS? Do you find yourself, more often than not, feeling a little carried away by the glorious wonder of Jesus?
Or... does it feel scheduled, routine, manageable, based upon a specialized knowledge that some have and others don't; does it feel (let's be honest) a little boring? Systematic? Something that can be picked up or set back down dependent upon the way a week's going?
My friends - again - the Way of Jesus is GLORY. Anything less - anything like the old Law - is not what we're after.
Jesus Himself is what we're after. Together. Today.
"Thanks be to God who leads us, wherever we are, on his own triumphant way and makes our knowledge of him spread throughout the world like a lovely perfume! We Christians have the unmistakeable 'scent' of Christ, discernible alike to those who are being saved and to those who are heading for death. To the latter it seems like the very smell of doom, to the former it has the fresh fragrance of life itself" (2 Corinthians 2:14-16a).
Could I paint a little picture for you?
You are in Rome. The streets are full of shouting and celebration. It is the day when the conquering general – whether Pompey, or Caesar, or Octavian – is going to proceed through the streets in his triumph. Everyone is ready. The whole city now waits in a hush.
And now here he comes: through the Porta Triumphalis – the Triumph Gate: with the senators and senior officials at the head of the march; with the trumpeters blowing their horns in glorious unison; then the wagon-trains upon wagon-trains full of the spoils of war; then a white bull, silently being led, who will, at the end of all this, be slaughtered in sacrifice; then, in chains, the conquered princes and kings and generals who have been defeated, who have surrendered; then the bodyguards and priests who spread both the sense and the fragrance of death and life…
And then finally… the general. The victor. The conqueror. He is being pulled in his tall golden chariot by four massive horses. He is wearing a kingly robe and his face is painted with red to remind the crowds of the power of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. Over his head is held a laurel wreath by an auriga, a gladiator, whose job it is to whisper in his ear: “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!” – “Look behind you. Remember that you are but a man. Remember that you will die!” so that this conqueror won’t forget that he is still just a servant of Rome.
And then, behind his chariot, his officers, his staff, and then, behind them, the men of the ranks: the ones who have fought and bled and lost their friends to make this triumph a reality. They sing songs with their off-key soldier voices, in order to – in their own words: “ward off the jealousy of the gods…” And their favorite song is “Io Triumphe!” - O Triumph!
Why do I tell you all this?
Because Paul would have you there!
“Thanks be to God, the One always leading us in triumph in Christ...”
He would have you remember the angels and saints who came before the coming of Jesus; those prophets and kings who sounded the trumpet of the One to come. He would have you learn the overwhelming realities of the spoils of war – the infinitudes of bounty – that have been won by the victory of Jesus. He would have you look into the eyes of the once-for-all-time sacrifice who is the Lamb of God; Jesus’ perfect knowledge that His perfect life would end in death for us. And he would have you be a conquered one: a person whose personal surrender to Jesus only serves to spotlight His greatness, His glory.
And then comes this fragrance he mentions here: the “unmistakable scent of Christ,” which is both life and death.
And then Paul would have you turn the fullness of your gaze upon that One who rides in the golden chariot of Heaven. He is robed in kingly purple and His face is crimson with the blood He shed: He is the incarnate reality of the Godhead. And Paul would have you in the chariot, holding the crown above the head of Jesus with your life and worship; he would have you constantly whispering, in life and death, these words: “Jesus, I look unto you. I will never forget that you are man and God. I will never forget that you can never die!”
And Paul would have you there behind Him, a part of the General’s field staff – an officer always attached – and he would also have you in the ranks. And no matter the sound of your song, the timbre or cadence of your particular voice, he would have you never stop singing: “O Triumph! O Jesus!”
“Thanks be to God, the One always leading us in triumph in Christ..."
"It was God who preserved us from imminent death, and it is he who still preserves us. Further, we trust him to keep us safe in the future, and here you can join in and help by praying for us, so that the good that is done to us in answer to many prayers will mean eventually that many will thank God for our preservation." 2 Corinthians 1:9,10
In these two verses, there's a Greek verb that's used three times, and implied once, that I think it's absolutely imperative you leave from this email knowing. In the Phillips translation, above, and because of its changing tensing, it's translated as: "preserved us," "still preserves us," "keep us safe in the future," and "our preservation." The word is ῥύομαι (pronounced Hroo-oh-my).
And here's the reason I want you to know it: its definition. ῥύομαι means: "to rescue, to save, to deliver," and yet the means of that action are very pictorial, like, "to draw to oneself" or "to hold close as a means of salvation."
So, my friends, the next time you feel troubled, afraid, anxious or in-need-of-rescue, I want you to say aloud - to yourself and to Him: ῥύομαι! (Hroo-oh-my!) The Jesus we're following doesn't complete His rescues at a remove or from a distance: the way He does this, always, is up-close and in His arms. That's where all this ends. So why not be there now?
"I shall come to you after my intended journey through Macedonia and I may stay with you awhile or even spend the winter with you. Then you can see me on my way — wherever it is that I go next..." 1 Corinthians 16:5-7
And I would remind you that that last is not some sort of throwaway line: "wherever it is that I go next." No. In fact, from his moment on the Damascus road, to the moment of this letter being written, take a look at some of the ways that Paul's next steps have been navigated:
- After his conversion, he “stayed” in Damascus … but “without delay he proclaimed Jesus…”
- Then, under almost immediate threat of assassination, he was “let down through an opening in the wall… in a basket”
- After which, for three years, he communed with Jesus in the deserts of Arabia
- Then to Jerusalem, where he “joined... in all their activities, preaching fearlessly”
- Until, after “several attempts on his life,” the brothers “took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus”
- Out of the blue, Barnabas arrives in Tarsus “to find Saul” - then, together, they go to Antioch where, “for a whole year they met together with the Church”
- Then, those in Antioch wanted to send famine relief to the fellowship in Jerusalem, and did so “through Barnabas and Saul”
ACTS 13: THE FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY IN THE HISTORY OF THE BODY: HOW DID IT BEGIN?
- While everyone there was worshipping and fasting, “the Holy Spirit spoke… saying, ‘Set Barnabas and Saul apart for me for a task to which I have called them.’”
- So, immediately, they sail off…
ACTS 16: LATER, on the THE SECOND MISSIONARY JOURNEY:
- While “making their way through Phrygia and Galatia… the Holy Spirit prevented them from speaking God’s message…” in that region.
- Then, when they “came to Mysia… the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them” to enter in there, either.
- After which, in a town called Troas, Paul “had a vision of a Macedonian man” saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”
- And so, immediately, they set sail for the unknown…
Really, it's apropos how much of Paul's life and ministry happened because of ships, because, like a ship's, Paul's obedient ear acted like a rudder for the Early Church. WHOLE MASS MOVEMENTS are set off on their way because this ONE MAN was listening and obeying the Spirit of Jesus.
I will consistently maintain, until the day I'm dead, that nothing is different now: that individual lives in the Body can hear, respond and help direct the whole Body. Is that life your life? Are you "the one"?
The only way for you to find out is by listening today... and obeying.
"We are not meant to remain as children at the mercy of every chance wind of teaching and the jockeying of men who are expert in the craft presentation of lies. But we are meant to hold firmly to the truth in love, and to grow up in every way into Christ, the head. For it is from the head that the whole body, as a harmonious structure knit together by the joints with which it is provided, grows by the proper functioning of individual parts to its full maturity in love." Ephesians 4:14-16
* * *
"As far as I am concerned, the value of an ideal is measured not by its abstract beauty or purity, but simply by its capacity for being made incarnate. My realism is not the realism of the flesh; it is an incarnate realism. There is a world of difference here: the saint is the least carnal of men for the simple reason that he is the most incarnate."
Gustave Thibon, Back to Reality
"For I passed on to you Corinthians first of all the message I had myself received—that Christ died for our sins, as the scriptures said he would; that he was buried and rose again on the third day, again as the scriptures foretold. He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve, and subsequently he was seen simultaneously by over five hundred Christians, of whom the majority are still alive, though some have since died." (1 Corinthians 15:3-6)
Now, even though we don't have a record in the Gospels or Acts of this 500-person encounter with the Resurrected Jesus, I want us to ponder on it just a little. FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE! Presumably, with there being FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE there, these must've been people who had tracked with Him over part, or all, of His three-year ministry.
So, perhaps they'd sat amongst the 5,000 and had a share of the bread and fish. Maybe they'd been there for the Sermon on the Mount. I wonder how many of them had been standing along the street at His triumphal entry, waving the palms, shouting the praises?
For these people, whether with Him for a day or for the whole three years, I can almost guarantee I know the thought that ran through their minds throughout: "What I'm seeing here is historic. This is once-in-a-lifetime stuff..."
BUT... then He died. Thereby moving from "historic" to "historical." What yesterday was unprecedented always get crushed under the weight of the Present...
EXCEPT... if death - and time - no longer rule. If a Man should walk back out of the tomb...
For these FIVE HUNDRED PEOPLE, imagine assembling, being together, and then - THERE HE IS - ALIVE - JUST LIKE BEFORE. For the entirety of the rest of their human lives, Jesus would never be "historical": He will always be contemporary.
Where is He, for you, on that timeline? Is He "back there" or "right here"? Is His life "historical" or contemporaneously "historic" - happening right now and all the time?
Here's a hint at your answer: The way you live your daily life. It will tell you. It knows.
"Once leave your own knowledge of God, your own sentiment, and take secondary knowledge, as St. Paul's, or George Fox's, or Swedenborg's, and you get wide from God with every year this secondary form lasts, and if, as now, for centuries, — the chasm yawns to that breadth, that men can scarcely be convinced there is in them anything divine.
"Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil. Friends enough you shall find who will hold up to your emulation Wesleys and Oberlins, Saints and Prophets. Thank God for these good men, but say, 'I also am a man.' Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity. The inventor did it, because it was natural to him, and so in him it has a charm. In the imitator, something else is natural, and he bereaves himself of his own beauty, to come short of another man's.
"Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, — cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity..."
Ralph Waldo Emerson,
from An Address at Harvard Divinity School
"At present we are men looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror..." (1 Corinthians 13:12a)
Which may be one of the starkest, clearest descriptions of human life you'll ever read anywhere. Our lives are subjective, individualistic, only-personally-experienced, so the mirror-as-lens is an apt analogy. And oh! how true is the puzzlement we almost always feel!
But: "...The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God now knows me!" (1 Corinthians 13:12b)
Which takes us to the book-end of this mirror analogy - to its completion, its fulfillment - also written by Paul to the Corinthian fellowship. 2 Corinthians 3:18 - "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory..."
You see, the time is coming - the time has come - when we may see reality whole and face to face... in His face! At present all we know is a little fraction of the truth - of this Jesus - but the time is coming - the time has come - for knowing God as He knows us.
So, if living - if life - if seeking the way of love - is like looking into a mirror, then the question becomes: Whose reflection are we looking for? Will we always assume that the Self and its puzzlement are our only lots in life, or will we look deeper? Will we strive to experience, delight to experience, our new unveiled, curtain-torn reality where the face reflected in the glass becomes more His? Will we be looking for Jesus' likeness today?
"Men have different gifts, but it is the same Spirit who gives them. There are different ways of serving God, but it is the same Lord who is served. God works through different men in different ways, but it is the same God who achieves his purposes through them all. Each man is given his gift by the Spirit that he may make the most of it." 1 Corinthians 12:4-7
One of my favorite words in French - and one that came to mind as I read these verses - is élan: it means "impetuous ardor; a combination of style and energetic confidence; a vigorous spirit; an enthusiastic and assured vigor and liveliness; and spirited self-assurance, verve, dash, enthusiasm."
Because, I don't know about you, but I get a little bit more "dashing" when I remember that the "same Spirit," the very life of Heaven, is inhabiting all of us. I get a little revved up with "impetuous ardor" when, together with you, I realize that I may directly follow and serve the "same Lord" who is Lord of all. My spirit gets a bit "vigorous" when I'm told that the "same God" who created Creation is working to achieve His eternal purposes through me. I can't help feeling a little "enthusiastic," a little "lively," I've got some "verve" for the version of my life where I can "make the most" of what the Holy Spirit's given me.
There are "gifts" - there is "service" - there is "work" - and there is opportunity for glory in this Kingdom of Heaven. Because there is a "Spirit" of this "Lord" who is "God" who is calling our human spirits to the highest heights of Heaven.
Friends, will we live these lives with élan this week? Will we "make the most" of the spiritual gifts He's so readily given us?
"Copy me, my brothers, as I copy Christ himself." 1 Corinthians 11:1
Really, this is the exact definition of the generational process we now call "discipleship": to, as closely as possible, imitate and take on the way another person intimately interacts with, imitates and personally follows Jesus. This has been an important thought for our community for years, so let's start off the New Year by saying again: Discipleship is not knowledge-about; it is not knowing-all-the-right-answers; discipleship is the literal process of literally, demonstrably following Jesus of Nazareth. And one of the best ways of doing that is to copy another - to apprentice yourself to another - who is literally, demonstrably doing that already.
Again, as Paul says it: "Copy me... as I copy Christ himself."
Which raises a pair of good New Year's looking-forward-and-looking-back questions to consider:
Who, personally, are you learning the Way from?
Who, right now, are you leading along that Way?
Happy New Year, my friends! May it be a rich one in Him!
Then Jesus made his way round the villages, continuing his teaching. He summoned the twelve, and began to send them out in twos, giving them power over evil spirits...
(Later) The apostles returned to Jesus and reported to him every detail of what they had done and taught. “Now come along to some quiet place by yourselves, and rest for a little while,” said Jesus, for there were people coming and going incessantly so that they had not even time for meals. They went off in the boat to a quiet place by themselves... (Mark 6:7 & 6:30-32)
Those last three verses, along with the sending-and-going verse above them, really give us the whole cycle of face-to-face intimacy, sending, going, ministering, testifying and intimacy that should be the cycle we're never not part of. Think of the disciples' experience of those last few days: being called near to Him, His breath on their face, His hand on their shoulder as He sent them out, two by two; then going out to preach and to cast out evil spirits and to heal many people of their diseases; and then to return, overwhelmed with joy at all they'd seen Him do through them, and to have Him invite them to come and be alone with Him; and to sail off across the waters to an unknown place...
Jesus is showing these men a pattern of life that is THE pattern for life: an ongoing continuum that proceeds from intimacy toward intimacy, traveling over roads that are only passable as we walk in intimacy with Him. Our ability to do anything in the economy of the Kingdom of Heaven is borne from how we're intimate with Him.
Intimacy with Jesus is not part of it.
Let's intimately walk with Him into this New Year of our life!
"The kingdom of God is the most astoundingly radical proposal ever presented to the human race. It means nothing less than the replacing of the present world-order by the kingdom of God. It is the endeavor to call men back from the present unnatural, unworkable world-order to a new one based on new principles, embodying a new spirit and led by a new Person. As Jesus announces this new kingdom we find some things begin to rise into prominence as essential elements. God is our Father, and trust in him with its rest and poise is to replace the present order based on self-centeredness with its worry and inward frictions. Men are brothers, and the brotherhood of our common humanity is to replace the present order based on race, color, money, and class distinctions. Human personality is of infinite value, and this conception is to replace the present order based on the exploitation of others. Service is the only sign of any way to greatness, and is to replace the present order based on conceptions of power through command of the service of others. Self-renunciation is the way to self-realization and must replace the present order based on self-assertion. The cross is its manifestation and symbol. Love is to be the working force of the new kingdom and is to replace the present dependence upon force. The seat of this new kingdom is in the heart — 'the kingdom of heaven is within you' — and it works from this center to every human relation. This is to replace that in the present order which organizes life in things outside of the man."
E. Stanley Jones, Christ at the Round Table
Could I offer a re-framing for your ponderings this Christmas?
Because, while it is powerful and beautiful and absolutely the real thing to focus in on the picture of the baby Jesus, swaddled on a bed of hay, as the heart of Christmas, I want to remind our heads and hearts that that amazing arrival was nothing more and nothing less than a personal invasion by the General - the General! - of the Army of the Kingdom of Heaven. Prior to that day, perhaps the greatest surprise invasion ever accomplished was carried out by Hannibal when he came over the Alps to attack the Roman army. And do you know what he said when he was told that that crossing-over was impossible?
"Aut inveniam viam aut faciam."
"I shall either find a way - or make one."
That is the heart of Christmas: the Incarnation that was a forever making-of-a-Way. The seemingly unbridgeable divide between God and man, Heaven and earth, was suddenly, catastrophically erased for all eternity.
He is with us, now.
There is no more separation necessary.
Then the Pharisees went off and discussed how they could trap Jesus in argument. Eventually they sent their disciples with some of the Herod-party to say this, “Master, we know that you are an honest man who teaches the way of God faithfully and that you don’t care for human approval. Now tell us—‘is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not’?”
But Jesus knowing their evil intention said, “Why try this trick on me, you frauds? Show me the money you pay the tax with.” They handed him a coin, and he said to them, “Whose face is this and whose name is in the inscription?”
“Caesar’s,” they said.
“Then give to Caesar,” he replied, “what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God!”
This reply staggered them and they went away and let him alone. (Matt. 22:15-22)
Isn't Jesus absolutely brilliant?
In the space of one action, one question and one comment, He is simultaneously doing three separate things: He is lowering the valuation of any-currency-ever as the denominator of life's importance; He is heightening our understanding of what our lives owe to God: ie. EVERYTHING; and, by so casually saying, "Just pay the tax," and then following that up with "And give God your all," He is showing us what the life of following Him is supposed to look like: stealthy, under-the-radar, seeming-to-fit-in while, in reality, it's working to aid and abet another Kingdom's earthly invasion!
He is setting up, here, a sort of Kingdom of Heaven guerrilla warfare. It will seem to be everywhere and yet nowhere. It will look just fine to the Caesars of this world - but they'll have no idea what's coming; Who is with us, behind us...
"Jesus got [His] divine life by depending absolutely upon the Father all His life long, depending upon Him even down into death. Jesus got that life in the full glory of the Spirit to be poured out, by giving Himself up in obedience and surrender to God alone, and leaving God even in the grave to work out His mighty power; and that very Christ will live out His life in you and me. Oh, the mystery! Oh, the glory! And oh, the Divine certainty! Jesus Christ means to live out that life in you and me."
Andrew Murray, The Believer’s Secret of the Master’s Indwelling
* * *
"The writers of the New Testament Epistles never regarded the Christian religion as an ‘ethic,’ still less a performance. To them it was an invasion of their own lives by the living Spirit of God; their response in repentance and faith provided the means by which the divine could penetrate the merely human. They lived lives of super-human quality because they believed quite simply that Christ Himself was alive within them."
J.B. Phillips, Making Men Whole
As we prepare for a national holiday centered around thankfulness, it might be good for us to remember that NO ONE has more grounds for gratitude than ALL followers of Jesus of Nazareth. For, after all, we personally know the One who created and upholds all creation... which is something! And we have had a glimpse of the glories of the Incarnation: His arrival, His life, His words, His sparkling personality. We have been set free - been set free: past tense - by the finished work of the Cross. And we now know that life and death hold nothing daunting for us: we have seen Him walk from the tomb - totally unscathed...
And so, where are we now; who are we now?
The actual, living, flesh-and-blood, personal representatives of the Kingdom of Heaven to this generation of humanity...
...who've been imbued with the selfsame Holy Spirit of God that carried that Man through the 33 years of His human existence...
...and who may always - ALWAYS! - stop on a dime, reorient our attentions, and commune with the Living King who sits upon the throne of Heaven.
I'd say we have some reason to be thankful this week! I hope it's a wonderful one for you!
"For I should like to remind you, my brothers, that our ancestors all had the experience of being guided by the cloud in the desert and of crossing the sea dry-shod. They were all, so to speak, 'baptized' into Moses by these experiences. They all shared the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink (for they drank from the spiritual rock which followed them, and that rock was Christ). Yet in spite of all these wonderful experiences many of them failed to please God, and left their bones in the desert. Now in these events our ancestors stand as examples to us, warning us not to crave after evil things as they did." 1 Corinthians 10:1-6
When we hear of the idea of "failing to please God," it is easy to accidentally fall into an Old Covenant way of thinking. Like: "I hope that I don't fail to please Him..." or, "Uh oh. Am I pleasing?" But, again, that's Old Covenant thinking; that's a walking-around-in-the-wilderness sort of view of our new spiritual scenario...
In the New Covenant, Jesus is the guarantor - the perpetual keeper of His Father's good pleasure - the whole "pleasing" account is rendered through Him. This new arrangement isn't contingent upon your goodness in the Father's sight; the whole thing hangs upon Jesus' perfection, Jesus' relation to the Father. And so it's only when we stand outside of Jesus - whether to do "bad" or, even, sometimes to do our own idea of "good" - that we get ourselves in trouble.
You see, our whole job now is to Abide in Jesus, to disappear into Jesus. For we will always ALWAYS be pleasing to the Father as we hide our lives in His perfect Son: that is the perfect finished work of Jesus for us.
Shall we engage with that wondrous work this workweek?
"Is there any doubt that I am a genuine messenger, any doubt that I am a free man? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord with my own eyes? Are not you yourselves samples of my work for the Lord? Even if other people should refuse to recognize my divine commission, yet to you at any rate I shall always be a true messenger, for you are a living proof of God’s call to me. This is my real ground of defense to those who cross-examine me." 1 Corinthians 9:1-3
And that last sentence is the key - not only to this opening section, but also to Paul's purpose in the previous chapter - to understanding the real Way of the Spirit of Jesus versus settling for a knowledgeable religiosity about Jesus. So, what are the evidences, the "real ground of defense" Paul offers?
A clear-cut acted-upon Calling.
Personal first-hand Experience of Jesus.
And, just as important as the rest, verifiable Spiritual Fruit in others' lives.
And this is actually important enough that I'm going to take the time to write all that again. The evidences of the real Way of the Spirit of Jesus are:
A clear-cut acted-upon Calling.
Personal first-hand Experience of Jesus.
And, just as important as the rest, verifiable Spiritual Fruit in others' lives.
My friends, it's easy to not be free - almost everyone is doing that; it's also fairly easy to assume there's no higher spiritual calling for our lives. We settle in and we're "members" of something or another: but - I believe - each of us is called to be either an Apostle, a Prophet, an Evangelist, a Shepherd or a Teacher (Eph. 4).
And, sadly, too often we've come to accept not expecting first-hand experience of Jesus as the norm: perhaps we think it's too high and heavenly that He'd radically reveal Himself to each of us. And perhaps there's no greater reason for not seeing fruit in others' lives than the simple reality that we've got nothing to share, nothing to witness to. What I mean is: Why would anyone want to know Jesus if we don't know Jesus; how will they come to Abide in Him if we don't Abide in Him?
Oh, friends, let's be free, let's accept our calling, let's experience Jesus for ourselves, so that all lives might encounter, and be changed, by Him!
"In this matter, then, of eating meat which has been offered to idols, knowledge tells us that no idol has any real existence, and that there is no God but one. For though there are so-called gods both in heaven and earth, gods and lords galore in fact, to us there is only one God, the Father, from whom everything comes, and for who we live. And there is one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom everything exists, and by whom we ourselves are alive." 1 Corinthians 8:4-6
Let's approach these verses from the angle of that ending: "Jesus Christ... by whom we ourselves are alive." Or, rather, let's use that present position-in-Him as a counterpoint to the other items Paul's talking about. Like this:
"In this matter, then, of eating meat which has been offered to idols..." we ourselves are alive!
Or: "knowledge tells us that no idol has any real existence..." but we ourselves are alive!
Or: "though there are so-called gods both in heaven and earth, gods and lords galore in fact..." we ourselves are alive!
You see, it's really our experience of - and, really, it's the degree of our experience of - our aliveness in Jesus that overturns all fearfulness of, argumentation about, and even comparison with the false economies flying all around us in the world. Those Christians who are constantly shaking their fist at the world tend to be Christians having a low-dose experience of the Christ. Close friends of Jesus should be unafraid and ALIVE.
Let's take a measure of our own experience this week, shall we?
Some of you know that I did a long fiction-nonfiction writing project, a few years back, to try to bring the Book of Acts into a more first-hand focus. Below is a little bit of it. First, you'll see the passage where some of the disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene decided to go ahead and start preaching to the Gentiles in Antioch, not just the Jews. Then, from there, you'll see my imaginative write-up of, perhaps, what it was like when one of those men suddenly decided that it was time to do so. I tried to bring into focus the potential presence of Simon of Cyrene (who carried the Cross with/for Jesus) among them. Hope it stirs your heart for this Monday!
Now those who had been dispersed by the persecution which arose over Stephen travelled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, giving the message as they went to Jews only. However, among their number were natives of Cyprus and Cyrene, and these men, on their arrival at Antioch, proclaimed their message to the Greeks as well, telling them the good news of the Lord Jesus… (Acts 11:19,20)
A Man of Cyrene on the Road to Antioch
My blood is quickened within and I walk this road and I think on the ways of the Holy Spirit, and, my brothers, I am tempted to throw all constraint on the winds which blow up from the Sea, and past us. Feel them blowing by us, west to east. Smell that scent of adventure that first carried us from the coasts of Africa to there, on Shavuot, and think of all that has happened unto us since! What is man to stand before the whims of our Jesus! Who were we to think this thing could be contained within the Hebrew race! My brothers, as we approach upon Antioch, I’m of a mind to say goodbye to the past; to walk right into the courtyards and marketplaces and, yes, synagogues; to proclaim the name Jesus to any man, woman or child who’s made of flesh and blood like me; to say that it is only in the name of Jesus that anyone finds rest for their souls and a place of heavenly peace for their minds…
Peter has broken the mold – let’s shatter it now, brothers! Let us enter the town with the roving gaze of Jesus and see all mankind as the quarry, the prey, of the whispering will of the Holy Spirit! Let us conquer the hearts of man and woman, Jew or Gentile; have no fear that wrongdoing comes on the voice of the Spirit that gave Jesus life from the dead!
I see the fear in your eyes, Simon, my brother of Cyrene. What for? Did not you yourself once fall under the gaze of the darkhearted Gentiles and are you not the very man whose shoulders quaked under the cross with our Savior, our Jesus? Brother! Have we not come too far to ever turn back now? Sometimes I place myself within your flesh and mind, using of my imagination to imagine that day, and here’s what I come to – tell me if any of this reprises anything like any of your memories…
I am standing, that day, along the road watching him pass. The smell of the crowd is thick and pungent with sweat and rage. Suddenly, all eyes turn from him to me – to you, I mean! – and I’m thrust from within my hiding into the hot sun of the Jerusalem day. I feel naked under the gaze of the people, the soldier who calls, and, most of all, him – Jesus, the sufferer under the weight of the cross. I slip under the right side of the horizontal crossbeam – Jesus slides over – his fleshless shoulders shearing against the grain – and he turns his eyes to meet my eyes.
That moment, Simon, what was it like? What came upon your mind? Did you not know that this was the Christ, our Savior, our God?
Together, as yokefellows walking, we trudge up the hill with crowds a-lining both sides of the twisting path and I talk to him of my sin, of their sin, of the whole world’s sin – past, present and for all the futures to come. He listens, walking, and I know he hears. When we finally arrive at the top of Skull Hill, I am shoved aside by that same soldier who first called me, and I disappear from the center of the moment I’d shared with Jesus. I look back down the hill and relive each and every step with him. Coming up and up the path we just trod together, Jesus and I, I see the thick drag-mark of the upright of the cross which has furrowed the dirty of the trail so deeply. His side, the right side of that furrow, is a way marked thick with blood. My side, the left side of that furrow, is clean and spotless…
Brother Simon, look ahead! Look at the town of Antioch! This town is filled with men, women and children who know nothing of the Kingdom of Heaven; who are lost as we once ourselves were; and who hunger and thirst for the taste of life – the taste of that blood – the taste of Jesus of Nazareth! Shall we not go and set them free with the Way you once trod with Him? What have we to fear when you’ve seen him dead and then risen again!
All you, fellow Wayfarers, listen unto me! Where’er and from whence you hail, I renounce all ties to the age-old past! I will descend to this city and preach to Jew and Greek alike!
Who follows? Who walks the way I walk?
I know the One who leads it!
“Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” (Mt. 9:35-38)
The pivot in this section between Jesus’ own doings and His famous words on the plentiful harvest is the “compassion” He feels when He sees the shepherdless crowds.
compassion (noun) : sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it
I think the Church of our day too often meditates upon Jesus having compassion on us because we’re “harassed and helpless,” wearied and cast-off; but remember, that’s the look of sheep “without a shepherd.” That’s no longer us; that’s over now! We stand now shoulder-to-shoulder with the Good Shepherd: our new life’s work is meant to be the “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” And how is their distress to be alleviated? He just told us: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
Friends, we must either be reaping today or praying for reapers. The harvest is plentiful; it’s the harvesting that isn’t. In any given week, we spend far more time thinking of our own harassed helplessness when, because we already have a Good Shepherd, we’re supposed to be knee-deep next to Him in the work. Along very similar lines, my favorite of the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus, had this to say in his day:
‘From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress… And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now, you are at the Olympic games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day or a single event. This is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be Socrates.’
My friends, although we are not yet totally like Jesus, we should be living as men and women who at least want to be totally like Jesus. “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Let's do it!