Will You Recognize the Kingdom When it Comes?

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we looked at how we are transformed by the renewing of our mind and how that can and does affect the way we treat each other, both as outsiders and as members of Christ’s body, the Church. Today I want look briefly at three stories from God’s rescue plan for humanity to see what they can tell us in terms of how we are expected to respond to God’s gracious gift of life offered to each of us.

In each of our lessons today, we see a different aspect of God’s overall rescue plan for sinful humanity. The three lessons overall show us clearly that God has promised to rescue us from our exile from him and to end the alienation that has existed between God and humans since the Fall. Each lesson also shows us that God is big enough to deliver on his promises. But in each of the stories we also see that while we humans desperately want God to rescue us from our sin and the death it causes, we typically want him to rescue us on our terms, not his.

For example, in our OT lesson, God calls Moses to be his speaker and human leader for his people Israel, but Moses doesn’t want any part of it because Moses knows that he is not a good speaker and doesn’t really believe God has thought about that. And of course the beat goes on in our day and age. We still want God to rescue us from our sins but we aren’t much interested in doing what God asks because putting to death all the stuff in us that keeps us hostile toward God and dehumanizes us is hard work. It takes effort and discipline on our part, not to mention that doing so is impossible without the help of the Spirit, and we’ve got better things to do with our time and life, frankly.

But it is to the glory of God that despite our stubbornness and denseness, God remains faithful to us, even when we are faithless toward him (cf. 2 Timothy 2.13). From all eternity, God has had a plan in place to rescue us from sin and death, and he does this because he is loving and gracious. God created us to have a relationship with him and each other; and in the death of Jesus, God has done what is necessary to end the hostility and alienation that exists between God and us. God has not wavered from his plan and he is infinitely patient with us, even when we try to tell him that we know better about things than he does. When we finally realize this, it makes all the difference in the world for us because we can stop trying to pursue our own agenda of self-help and self-hope.

But before we can enjoy this freedom from fear and anxiety and not demand that God rescue us on our terms instead of his, we have to know what God expects from us and be familiar with the ways in which God works, at least as best as we are able with our finite minds and mortal perspectives. Here again we can learn from each of today’s lessons. In our OT lesson, we are reminded that God is indeed unchanging and eternal. We see this illustrated in God’s name that he reveals to Moses—I Am Who I Am. What this means for us is that we have a God  whose purposes will not be thwarted because like him they too are constant, and we can stake our very lives on that because we don’t have to worry about God changing his mind about us.

God’s use of Moses to rescue Israel from Egypt also shows us powerfully and clearly that God often acts in unexpected ways and that nothing is too difficult for God, not even our own sins and sometimes stubborn refusal to listen to God. God is a God who can and does rescue his people from our exile from him. But Israel didn’t always get that memo and this caused them to rebel against God in the wilderness after God delivered them from their bondage. We can shake our head over this and wonder how they could be so stupid. But we have to remember that we read these stories with 20-20 hindsight, hindsight the Israelites did not have, and hindsight that we do not have when we are in the midst of our own desert struggles and fears. When this happens to us, like Israel, we often lose sight of the fact that God Is Who God Is. We end up in despair and need to be reminded of the truth that God is a God who is unchanging and who delivers for us—if we are willing to accept what he has to offer and believe that he really does have our best interests at heart. Everyone in this room knows how hard that can be at times.

Likewise with Peter in today’s Gospel lesson. Peter had just confessed Jesus to be God’s promised Messiah but then Jesus tells his disciples that he did not come to be the Messiah they expected or wanted. He wasn’t going to be a military hero or political liberator. Instead, he tells them he is going to have to suffer and die so that humanity can be reconciled to God. Worse yet, Jesus tells his disciples (and us) that if they wanted to follow him, they would have to do likewise. What’s that all about? Where’s the power and prestige and status and honor and glory that come from hanging out with the Messiah? Instead of the goodies we want, Jesus tells us that if we want to follow him, we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. If we want to save our life, we have to lose it for his sake. In practical terms this means that we are going to have to give up our desire to be the center of the universe. We are going to have to look out for others, especially our fellow believers, and we are going to have to accept the fact that we are no more special than anybody else (or to put it a different way, everybody else is as special as we are because each of us is made in God’s image, no matter how distorted or damaged that image may be).

When Jesus told his disciples that there would be those who would see him coming in his kingdom, the overall context of this passage surely means that he was referring not to his second coming but rather to his resurrection in which he would inaugurate his Father’s kingdom and which he calls each of us to take part, precisely by denying ourselves, taking up our cross each day, and following him. We are called to be kings and priests in God’s new creation, but we are to be servant kings and humble ones. This means that we have work to do. We must kill off all that is in us that resists this healing transformation in us—with the Spirit’s help, of course.

And we see Paul take up this theme in his letter to the Romans. We must remember that Romans is a letter written to a real church on the ground that was dealing with all the problems that real churches have to deal with today. In fact, the church at Rome probably had more than its share of problems because Jews and Gentiles were seeking to put their mutual hostilities behind them and worship Jesus together.Hence, we who want to be part of Christ’s body must pay attention to what Paul is saying to them because what he says to them applies equally to us.

Paul reminds us that if we want to be part of the New Creation that Jesus’ resurrection has inaugurated, we must march to the tune of a different drummer. We must imitate and copy our crucified and risen Messiah. This means that we are to bless and not curse our enemies, even when we’d rather punch them in the mouth. We are to rejoice in our hope and persevere in our suffering. In other words, Paul is reminding us that following Jesus does not give us a get-out-of-jail-free card. The world is hostile to Jesus and we can expect it to be hostile toward us as well. That means we can expect to suffer for the Name and we are called to do it joyfully no less (cf. Romans 5.3; Matthew 5.11-12)! But that takes massive trust on our part. It means that we have to believe that God really does love us, even in the midst of our suffering. It means we have to believe that God is big enough and constant enough to deliver on his promises to rescue us. We have to remember that God Is Who God Is. We have seen his glory in the death and resurrection of Jesus and must act like we really believe it. This isn’t the way the world does business but it is the way we must do business if we want to be rescued from ourselves and start to enjoy what being fully human is really all about.

All this suggests that we need to keep (or start) doing the things that will help remind us of who God is and how God works. We read Scripture regularly and systematically to know the story of God’s rescue plan for us intimately so that we can better recognize our part in it. We look for signs of God’s kingdom in our lives and as we have seen, we must remind each other that God often works in surprising ways. If you are journaling, this week you might make note of stories that you read that surprise you and/or challenge you. We also enjoy each other’s friendship so that we are reminded in tangible ways that God does love us and provide for us by giving us each other. This, of course, assumes that each of us is trying to follow the Messiah’s example in how we treat each other. Last, we come to the Table each week to feed on our Lord’s body and blood, both to remind us of the costly and gracious love God has poured out for us and to remind us of the great feast that awaits us when God’s New Creation comes in its fullness.

As we have seen, God has always had a plan to rescue us from sin and death and this entails inviting us to live in his new kingdom. But the kingdom’s economy is not the world’s economy. We are called to follow and imitate Jesus our Messiah and this often violates our expectations about what it means to live as God’s people. When we try to make God fit our mold and expectations, we can expect trouble to ensue. But when we are humble enough and open enough to take the time to learn about God’s rescue plan and the ways he works among his people, we will find grace and blessing sufficient for our needs. And when we finally realize that God is big enough to deliver on his promises, we will know that we have Good News, now and for all eternity, even in the midst of our trials and fears.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Being Transformed by the Renewal of Your Mind

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we looked at how our fervent faith can bring God’s healing and merciful future into the present. Today I want to look at a different manifestation of our faith. Specifically, I want to look briefly at how the renewal of our mind affects the way we interact with each other as Christ’s body, the Church. As we will see, we have to do our part before we are ready to be part of Christ’s body. But how we renew our mind is ultimately grounded in our faith.

The mission statement of our future church, St. Augustine’s Anglican, is as follows: Changed by God to make a difference for God. If we are going to make a difference for God in his broken and hurting world, we have to first be changed by God so that people will take notice that something is a bit different about us and the way we interact with others. But what does that look like? Paul gives us a partial answer in today’s Epistle lesson. He tells us not to conform to the patterns of this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our mind.

And we can relate to what Paul says about conformity because we all know what it means to conform to the ways of the world. We don’t have to be a teenager to remember the pressures that were brought to bear on us to be like everyone else. This often led us to behave in ways we knew were wrong or that made us feel uncomfortable. But we went along with the crowd because we were created to have relationships and we wanted to fit in, to be popular.

Likewise as adults. We are under constant and massive pressure to conform to the ways of the world. Sometimes we are confronted by in-your-face demands to conform as when we are confronted with political correctness. Other times the pressure is more subtle. For example, I heard on the news last week that a study had been released which suggested that it pays to be overbearing and less agreeable in the workplace. If you are, and if you are a male, you can make on average about 18% more than your more agreeable counterparts. Unfortunately, if you are a female you’ll only make about 5% more than your more agreeable counterparts. Apparently the old adage is true. Nice guys (and gals) do finish last.

But this begs the real issue. At what cost? The short answer is “your life” because you are doing the things that indicate you are worshiping a different god instead of the one true and living God. But that’s a different topic for a different day. The point here is that this study illustrates what is important to the world, greed and self-aggrandizement being among the most important characteristics. Consequently, we are encouraged to do what we have to do to make as much as we can and be as powerful as we can. We are told to be a self-made person so we can have as much control as possible in our life. These are some of the things to which the world wants us to conform and it is seductive because we are profoundly broken people. After all, who doesn’t want to be in control?

Paul catalogs other ways of the world in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. Among other things, Paul identifies sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy. We see many of these characteristics in the above mentioned study as well as the recent riots in London, the so-called “flash mobs” in Philadelphia, and the developing story of scandal in the University of Miami’s athletics program. These behaviors will turn heads all right, but not in the manner that most of us would want or desire. Most of us don’t want to be recognized by our picture on the FBI’s Most Wanted list!

So how do we resist being conformed to the patterns of this world, patterns that must lead to destruction and chaos? Paul tells us in today’s Epistle lesson. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. But what does that mean? It means we are to use our minds to think biblically about what kind of human beings God created us to be. In fact, Jesus tells us what our goal as humans is–to be perfect just as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5.48). Don’t panic. Jesus didn’t have in mind the impossible goal of being mistake-free when he said this. The Greek word Matthew uses is teleios which can mean a goal or end to achieve. But it also refers to completeness, being full grown or fully developed. And when we think about it (there’s that mind renewal thingy again), this should make sense. Who among us doesn’t want to be a whole or complete human? Most of us spend a lifetime chasing after this. Trouble is, most of us don’t know how to get there from here!

But Christians should know how to get there. We, of course, use Jesus as our model because he told us that we must deny ourselves, take up our cross everyday, and follow him. Paul tells us likewise in several of his letters. He urges us to put to death or crucify our sinful nature and put on Christ (cf. Romans 6; Philippians 2; Colossians 3 among others) because Jesus is the true image bearer of God, just the way God created all humans to be.

So what does being an image bearer of God to the world look like? Among other things, our behavior will consistently reflect the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Yes, these are fruit of the Spirit but they do not come naturally or easily because we are inherently hostile toward God. Instead, we have to cooperate with the Spirit by working diligently to develop appropriate habits that reflect the Spirit’s fruit so that they become part of us and our character, just like we would work to grow and cultivate a real fruit tree. So, for example, when someone does wrong to us, we learn to forgive rather than to retaliate because forgiveness does not come easily or naturally. If you think that once you are in Christ you will automatically get the Spirit’s fruit without any effort on your part, well, you really ought take something for that.

Furthermore, if we are going to follow Jesus then we would expect to see humility and service in our thinking and acting. We will stop trying to make ourselves the center of the universe. We will actively think about what is good for others and then work to help them achieve this. We will challenge the bizarre notion that love always gives the beloved (ourselves included) what he or she wants or desires because we know what comes out of the heart and we want the best for our beloved instead. But here again, we have to use our minds to do this. We have to think about what we are doing. If you really want to develop the mind and character of Christ, you have to work at it.

And lest you think I am advocating a form of self-help and/or salvation by works, think again. We don’t do any of this to earn our salvation. That is impossible. We do this because we are profoundly grateful for the sheer gift of grace given to us in the cross of Christ and we respond accordingly. Yes, we must make the effort to think about and develop our Christian character but we do not do it on our own. We do it with the help and presence of the Spirit living in us, which of course requires faith. As I have said many times before, the Christian faith is not a program of self-help. It is a program of God-help for what ails us and for that we can and should be profoundly grateful. This, then, is what Paul had in mind when he urges us to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. This is the path toward Christian perfection, toward achieving the goal of being fully grown and complete human beings.

So where do we get the stuff to think about all this? From several places but I would mention two here. First, we get the content to renew our minds largely from Scripture. That is why it is so important for us to read the Bible regularly and systematically. When we do, God will use his word to slowly but surely shape and form our thinking (there’s the mind renewal thingy again) so that we can really start developing the mind of Christ and become more fully human in the process. Christians are called to think about how they think and what they do. We are called to think seriously about issues of morality and ethics, and we can get wonderful assistance in that endeavor by reading Scripture regularly and systematically. Not so much to discover a set of rules to be followed arbitrarily but rather to develop character and discover rules to provide us guidelines and guidance for our behavior in situations that the rules don’t specifically cover. There’s a huge difference between the two.

Second, we are to work on developing our Christian character together. The Christian faith never was meant to be lived alone or in isolation. As Paul reminds us in today’s Epistle, we are part of Christ’s body, the Church, and so we are to talk about what Christian character looks like with each other. More importantly, as we are transformed by the renewing of our minds, we will inevitably begin to treat each other differently. We will develop a real love and passion for each other and together we will develop a servant’s heart, with the help of the Spirit, of course. We respect and honor each other and don’t get all puffed up with pride thinking we are better than our fellow believers or have more to offer than they do. Instead, we realize that each of us bring gifts to the table, gifts that God intends for us to use to build each other up, not to tear each other down.

As that starts happening (and this is no small task, mind you!) people will take notice because all of a sudden we are not being conformed to the ways of the world anymore. Instead, we are loving on each other and encouraging each other to use our respective gifts to bring the love of Christ to bear on the world that desperately needs it, just the way his love comes to bear in our own lives when we feel real healing and forgiveness for our sins. And when that happens, we can be confident that God will use us to be his kingdom workers in his world. Not everyone, of course, will appreciate this. In fact many will actively oppose us and when that happens we can trust God to use us to help each other bear our respective burdens.

This is what it means to be transformed by the renewing of our minds because we think about and make the effort to develop Christian character that allows us to start to behave in truly human ways, the ways of Christ. When we do, we really do become living sacrifices, which, as Paul said, is the best and truest form of worship. None of this is quick or easy. But we persevere because we live in the hope of Jesus’ resurrection and the promise of New Creation to which it points. We know that doing so will lead us to a pattern of loving service to others which in turn helps provide us with a God-intended completeness, even in the midst of our suffering. And as God uses the renewal of our mind to transform us and we see ourselves becoming more and more human over time, we are indeed reminded that we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Why Scripture Matters

 18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrectionwhose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?” 24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

–Mark 12.18-27 (NIV)

In today’s lesson, Jesus gives us some insight as to why some of us get it so badly wrong about God and we would do well to pay attention to what Jesus has to say if we are interested in getting it as right as we humanly can about God. The Sadducees had come to challenge Jesus about the resurrection. As was typical of most of Jesus’ opponents, they tried to trap him by presenting an impossible scenario for him comment on.

But Jesus would have none of it. He cuts right to the chase. “Why are you so stupid about God and his ways?” Jesus asks. “Is it because you don’t know what is in Scripture or are you simply ignorant about the power of God?” Chances are, the answer is all of the above, and for a multitude of reasons.

We read Scripture carefully and systematically, in part, to learn about the nature of God and his dealings with his people. After all, Scripture is the narrative of God’s rescue plan for humanity, to save us from the mess our sin has gotten us into, a mess that must lead us to permanent separation from the Source and Author of all life (i.e., death). If you read Scripture and don’t try to put yourself over Scripture, i.e., you let Scripture speak to you on its terms rather than you deciding where it is right and where it is wrong, you will indeed learn about the power of God. Of course, reading Scripture isn’t the only way you can learn about God’s power but it is a massively important way to do so.

This is why there has been such an uproar in many of the mainline Christian denominations regarding homosexuality. The latter is simply the presenting issue to a much more serious problem of the human tendency to deny the authority of Scripture by refusing to submit to what it has to say about how we interact with God and each other. Sadly there are those who put themselves over Scripture and who attempt to make it fit their own image and their own worldview rather than to let Scripture shape them. Others like Dr. Rob Gagnon have spoken more eloquently than I can about this issue and I would commend you to his writings. It is not my point to raise the issue of homosexuality here other than to point out that we have to be careful in how we read Scripture. It’s not simply enough to read Scripture. We have to read it rightly.

That is why it is always a good thing to read it together as Christ’s body, the church, and to be humble enough to listen to the consensus that has emerged over time and culture. If, for example, you read Scripture but regularly omit the “hard passages,” passages like Psalm 137 or any of Paul’s writings that deal with male and female relationships that are not considered to be politically correct, chances are  you are not reading Scripture with the humility you need to really hear what God is trying to say,  just like the Saducees were apparently guilty of doing when they confronted Jesus about the resurrection.

We humans are profoundly broken and prone to error. That is why we must learn about God and about what God has done for us in and through Christ. We do that in large part by reading Scripture so that we can indeed learn about the power of God and his rescue plan for us. When we do, we have really Good News. We learn that God loves us and created us to have a relationship with him. We learn that God has done the impossible for us by becoming human and dying for us so that we do not have to bear the awful punishment of being separated from him forever. We learn about the terrible consequences of our sin and most importantly, when we read Scripture humbly and with others, we allow God to use it to shape our Christian character so that we can grow into the humans God created us to be and learn to live life abundantly.

If you are floundering in your life, stop and consider these things. Chances are you are floundering because you do not know the power of God. You won’t learn that by your brilliance or natural proclivity. You will learn that by admitting you are only the creature and have lots to learn about life from your Creator. When, by God’s grace, you decide to humbly submit to the regular and systematic reading of God’s word, you can expect it to change you so that you come to learn the true power of God, a power that has manifested itself in Christ’s blood shed for you on the cross and the promise of resurrection and New Creation.

If you have not done so already, what are you waiting for? Ask God to give you the grace and humility you need so that he can teach you about himself and the wondrous gift of life and New Creation he has in store for you in and through Jesus.

How Not to Have a Relationship with Jesus

 27 They arrived again in Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders came to him. 28“By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” 29 Jesus replied, “I will ask you one question. Answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. 30 John’s baptism—was it from heaven, or of human origin? Tell me!” 31 They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ 32 But if we say, ‘Of human origin’ …” (They feared the people, for everyone held that John really was a prophet.) 33 So they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.” Jesus said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.”

–Mark 11.27-33 (NIV)

In today’s lesson we get a wonderful insight in how not  to interact with Jesus if we really want to have a relationship with him. The gospels give us a wonderful picture of Jesus reaching out to people and answering their sincere questions (cf. the story of the woman at the well and the rich young ruler). Jesus will always answer our heartfelt and sincere questions–at least to the extent that we are able to understand the answer–and even welcomes them. After all, if we are ever to have a relationship with Jesus, we have to get to know him. We have to understand what he offers us and what he expects from us (to deny ourselves, take up our cross each day, and follow him is the short answer to that one).

But as with any of us, Jesus does not respond well to pride, presumption, and hubris when it is aimed at him. When we approach him as if we superior to him or know better than him about life and how to live, we can expect a response that is appropriate to that which we offer. We see that illustrated perfectly in today’s story. Notice that the question of Jesus’ opponents was essentially the same as the question that the woman at the well asked Jesus. There, Jesus took the time to explain who he was and what he could offer her. Here we see Jesus essentially telling the teachers of the Law and other big shots to go pack sand. Why? Because they are not remotely interested in meeting Jesus on his terms and when that happens, we can expect silence and/or a rejoinder that is appropriate to our hostility.

So here’s the question for you. If you are not enjoying the kind of relationship with Jesus that you desire, are you treating him as his ancient opponents did? Are you demanding that he meet you on your terms and not his? It’s OK to be skeptical but it’s not OK to be dishonestly skeptical, i.e., to have already judged Jesus so that you are unwilling to change your views about him. To ask this question requires great honesty and humility on your part. But if you are willing to ask yourself that question and are equally willing to answer it honestly, you are well on your way to laying the groundwork for a real and life-changing relationship with the Lord of this universe.

To have that kind of relationship requires humility, honesty, and an open mind (I am constantly amazed at how closed minded some of the self-professed brightest and most sophisticated are; it really is telling). It requires that you acknowledge that you are creature and Jesus is Creator so that you can act accordingly. It requires that you be willing to acknowledge that you and your needs are not the center of the universe, that Jesus might actually have bigger and better plans for you than you can imagine in your wildest hopes and dreams. These plans will surely entail you being a servant to others and having a heart for the welfare of others that is at least equal to your own needs. Because that is the secret to living a happy and fulfilling life–to make it about serving Christ and others. As our Lord suggested multiple times, the key to finding your true self is to lose your selfish self. Then, of course, you really have to trust that Jesus knows best and will deliver for you, even if it doesn’t always mesh with what you really want.

None of this will make sense unless you are willing to take the plunge and try it. If you are, you can count on a wild and wonderful ride. You will be met by resistance and hostility. You will suffer the scorn and contempt of Jesus’ enemies (who will quickly become yours when they find out Whose you really are). But take heart and hope. None of them can give you real life or raise you from the dead. Your future does not belong to them. It belongs to the One who loves you from all eternity and who invites you to enter into a relationship that will give you real life and equip you with the character you need to be really human.

Are you ready for that kind of life?

Exchanging God’s Glory

19 At Horeb they made a calf
and worshiped an idol cast from metal.
20 They exchanged their glorious God
for an image of a bull, which eats grass.
21 They forgot the God who saved them,
who had done great things in Egypt,
22 miracles in the land of Ham
and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.

–Psalm 106.19-22 (NIV)

9 There was a great uproar [in the Sanhedrin], and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10 The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks. 11 The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”

–Acts 23.9-11 (NIV)

If you want to get a concise summary of the relationship between God and his chosen people, Israel, read Psalm 106 in its entirety. I have excerpted part of that psalm above because it is such a striking statement. God had delivered his people Israel from their slavery in quite a dramatic fashion. But it seems Israel kept forgetting what God had done for them, about God’s great love for them and his call to them to be his agents of healing and redemption for the world. That is why God became human in Jesus to be Israel’s true representative as God’s Messiah so that God could deliver on his promises to redeem his fallen creatures through Israel. Israel itself could not do it because they were every bit as flawed as the rest of us. But God could do it by becoming Israel’s true representative

That’s a different story for a different day, however. Back to today’s lesson, we see Israel exchanging the very glory of God for some man-made idol. Before we get too eager to condemn the ancient Israelites for their folly, let us remember that we are just like them. Oh, our idols are much more sophisticated now because we fashion ourselves to be so much more enlightened and knowledgeable than our spiritual ancestors. But a quick look around reminds us that this too is folly. Our “enlightened” state and progress have not done much to change the human condition other than to help us present our idols in a much more acceptable and nuanced light. Some of us give up God’s glory for sex or a sexual agenda. Some of us give up God’s glory for power and prestige. Some of us give up God’s glory for our own selfish desires and greed. Some of us give up God’s glory for our toys and/or love of money. Most of us give up God’s glory for our own pride that makes us want to delude ourselves into thinking we are superior or at least equal to God.

I can just hear God now. “Let me know how that’s working out for you, especially when you are on your deathbed.”

It seems like we really don’t want to have God’s glory so that we can be the humans he created us to be. We aren’t really interested in bringing God’s healing love and mercy to bear on others–at least not without the help of the Spirit living in us. And that’s the predicament and tragedy of the human condition. We want to go it alone and we forfeit that which we need to bring meaning, purpose, and healing in our lives.

But there is a better way as today’s lesson from Acts demonstrates. When we have the humility and good sense to give our lives to Jesus and obey his command to follow him, we immediately have access to a power that is beyond the world’s ability to defeat. As Jesus reminded Paul in the midst of his awful persecution, Jesus was with him and would be with him. Therefore Paul was to take courage! What a remarkable thing to say to someone in Paul’s condition. I wonder how many of us would have the good sense to believe Jesus’ promise to us in the midst of our suffering?

Now let me be clear. When Jesus said to Paul to take courage, he wasn’t just a-woofin’! Paul’s journey to Rome was no picnic. Among other things Paul would suffer unjust imprisonment, being shipwrecked at sea, and being bitten by a poisonous snake. Sounds like wonderful fun, does it not? This stuff isn’t for wimps and without the power and presence of Jesus in his life, it is not unreasonable to believe that it could have easily broken Paul just as extreme suffering and hardship continue to break people today. That’s why we need to take Jesus’ promise to be with us seriously because most of us are probably going to need his help before it’s all over!

What about you? Are you embracing God’s glory in your life so that he can use you to bring his healing love in Christ to bear on others around you who need it or are you exchanging God’s glory for your own fallen image that by itself will bring nothing but hopelessness and despair? When you say yes to Jesus you can count on a power that is beyond your own to be with you and sustain you as you struggle to be faithful in your obedience to Christ. Following Christ doesn’t mean you will get a “get out of jail free” card to live your life. You will not be immune to life’s hurts or sufferings. You will, however, have a power that is not your own to help you overcome all that life can throw your way and even thrive. That’s the hope and promise of the Christian faith, at least for the living of your mortal days here on earth.

Bringing the Future Into the Present

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Last week we looked at the nature of faith and saw that when we speak of faith we are not talking about some kind of mindless or blind belief. Faith always seeks understanding so that it can develop and be nurtured. Today I want to look briefly at a case study of faith to see what we might learn from it. I am indebted to +Tom Wright for the idea behind today’s sermon.

How many of you were shocked at what Jesus told the Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel lesson? In a day and age when we believe in the equality of all human beings it is quite startling to us to hear Jesus indirectly call someone who was not of his race a “dog,” a term regularly used by Jews to mean they saw Gentiles as being inferior. Here we see a woman come to our Lord begging him to heal her daughter and at first he refuses to do so. This is tantamount to a traveling physician refusing to heal someone who comes to him for help. We wouldn’t think much of that physician and we have to ask ourselves, “What’s going on here?”

But we miss the bigger picture if we focus on Jesus’ initial response to the Canaanite woman. What we are seeing here is Jesus the human being struggling to be faithful to his call to be Israel’s Messiah. And we can relate to that because we struggle regularly to be faithful to our respective call. Earlier in Matthew’s narrative Jesus had sent out the 12 to preach the good news to only the people of Israel. They were expressly prohibited from preaching to the Gentiles (Matthew 10.5-6). Now it looked like he was going to ignore this Gentile woman’s request to heal her daughter. But Why? Isn’t God’s love offered freely to all?

Jesus reacted this way because he apparently believed that he was sent to remind God’s people, Israel, what they had forgotten, what God called them to be through Abraham, and to be for them as God’s Messiah what they could not be for themselves. In other words, Jesus understood part of his task to be that of reminding Israel that God had called them and blessed them so that they could be a blessing for others.

But as we have seen before, Israel forgot their calling, in part because they were as deeply flawed as the Gentile people God had called them to bless. After all, you cannot bring healing to someone else if you are not healthy yourself. All this would have raised the question: Did God make a mistake in calling Israel to be the primary agent through which God’s rescue plan was to unfold? So Jesus had work to do by calling Israel to follow him so that they could be the people God called them to be.

When we understand this, we can better understand Jesus’ initial reaction to this Gentile woman. True, there would be a day when God’s love and mercy would be extended to the Gentiles, but apparently in Jesus’ mind that day had not yet arrived because his people, Israel, weren’t yet in the position where they could fulfill God’s original call to them. And so Jesus had to work with his people first. He had to remind them of God’s promises to them and to teach them that those promises were being fulfilled in his presence, in part by living in ways that would allow God to use them to bring his healing to the world.

And here is where the story gets really interesting because the Gentile woman’s powerful faith in Jesus’ ability to heal her demon-possessed daughter apparently challenged Jesus’ expectations about his mission to Israel. It is almost as if the conversation went like this. Canaanite woman to Jesus, “Son of David, please help me.” Jesus replies, “Don’t bother me, lady. I have work to do with my own people. You see, I am God’s point man and I am going to make it possible for God’s rescue plan for humans to be fulfilled through God’s people as promised. God called and blessed Israel to be a blessing for you and your folks but Israel didn’t get the memo and I have to help get them back on track by doing what they could not do themselves. That’s why I can only deal with them at this point. Your day’s coming but it isn’t here yet. If I reach out to you Gentiles before it’s time to do so, before I get Israel back on track by completing my mission as their true representative and dying on a cross, I essentially make God out to be a liar because that means God really didn’t intend to use Israel to rescue humans from the mess they’ve gotten themselves into with their sin and rebellion. So no can do. Sorry.”

To which the Canaanite woman replied, “I get that and I accept that, Jesus. I even believe that God will rescue folks like me through his people, Israel, and specifically through you. That’s why I called you by your Messianic title, “Son of David.” But I don’t care about that at the moment. Right now I only care about my daughter and I know you have the power to heal. So why can’t you let a little of that power fall on her right now while you are busy working with your people? Are you telling me there is not enough of your wonderful love and healing power to go around? Are you telling me you are a Messiah who is not big enough for God’s world?”

And it is this remarkable faith that confronted Jesus and seems to have caught him by surprise. Don’t let this fact bother you because at that point Jesus was fully human like the rest of us and didn’t have the entire big picture in the way he has now as risen and ascended Lord. So we can learn from him about how to deal with the ambiguities that confront us. In effect, the woman’s faith, cleverness, and perseverance allowed the future, God’s future of mercy and healing, to break in on the present so that God’s remarkable love and healing power in Christ could come to bear on both her and her little girl, and we need to pay attention to this lesson.

Why? Because if God uses fervent faith to allow his future to break in on our broken present to bring healing and change, as opposed to us sitting around and being content to wait for things to happen in the future, then it seems to me that we must bring that faith to bear in prayer, especially if we want to make a difference for Christ in the world. As Christians we look around at the things and people in this world that desperately need God’s healing love and power, and by faith we pray for God’s kingdom to come, and quickly. As we do, we remember Jesus’ parable of the widow and the unjust judge in which the widow keeps badgering the judge for justice (Luke 18.1-8). The story of Jesus and the faith of the Canaanite woman remind us to do just that. We don’t pray as if we are whistling through the graveyard. We pray with the faith and a sense of urgency that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven and we have faith that our prayers can help it along. In other words we pray with the faith and expectation that God is a God who is big enough to answer our prayers and respond in positive ways to our faith.

But we must do more than pray. We must also be willing to let God use us to help him answer our own prayers. This is what John Wesley and the Methodists did in 18th century England regarding their ministry to the poor. Many of that day were content to let society evolve as it naturally would. But the Methodists weren’t and so they prayed to God to use them to bring his love in Christ to bear by helping the poor and needy improve their lives. Then they rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to accomplish that for which they were praying.  They didn’t wipe out poverty but their work arguably helped 18th century England avoid a social revolution.

What is it that you see needs changing? What (or who) in your life do you see that desperately needs the love of Christ brought to bear on it (or them)? God uses our faith to allow the promises of his future to break in on our present hurts, just the way he allowed the Canaanite woman’s faith to bring his love to bear ahead of its time. This is hard work, folks, and it requires great faith, patience, and perseverance. But what an opportunity for us when we allow God to use us and our faith to bring his love to bear where it is desperately needed! When we see this happening in our lives and the lives around us, we are indeed reminded that we have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

St. Augustine Comments on the Worries of the Wealthy

Quite timely in light of the events in the financial world this past week (and likely more turmoil on the way), don’t you think? It’s all about priorities.

Who is happy? You say, “The man who has everything in abundance and seeks nothing more.” But is he not afraid of losing what he has? How then can you say that he wants for nothing? He many not lack possessions but he does lack security in them. And who in this world can give him the assurance that what he has will not be destroyed? Many a man has gone to sleep rich and awakened a pauper. No one can give him such security. A sensible person knows this and is therefore afraid.

–Sermon 359A, 6

Funeral Sermon: New Creation–Real Hope in the Midst of Our Grief

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Death under any circumstance is terribly difficult, isn’t it? But when death comes suddenly, prematurely, and catastrophically the way it did to Betsy, it is even harder for us to accept. Like Martha in this evening’s Gospel lesson we are tempted to throw our hands up and cry out in despair, “Why did you let this happen, Lord?” If you are hoping that I will give you a definitive answer to that question, you will be sorely disappointed because I cannot. I do not know why God in his infinite love and wisdom for his human creatures allows evil to afflict us in the way that Betsy’s lung disease afflicted her. Neither do I know why God does not let us humans in on the joke, why he does not tell us why he allows evil to exist in his good creation.

All this suggests that we would be much better served if we stopped asking the why questions and concentrated more on what God is doing about the problem of evil and death. If you listened carefully to Jesus’ response to Martha’s “why” question in the Gospel lesson, you noticed that he did just that. Jesus did not answer her question directly. Instead, Jesus gave Martha a much more satisfactory answer and that is what I want to focus on this evening because it is the only basis for real hope and real Good News in the midst of our grief and loss. Specifically I want to offer you a word of Christian hope and look briefly at what that is all about.

From all eternity God has always had a rescue plan to save us from the power of sin and death. It started with the calling of his people Israel and culminated in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is what the whole narrative of Scripture is about and I obviously don’t have the time to rehearse it all for you tonight (aren’t you glad?). In telling Martha that he is the resur-rection and the life, Jesus was summarizing a story Martha would have known very well, the story of God’s rescue plan for us. But Jesus added a new chapter to it and here it is. God has entered human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to rescue us from the tyranny of evil and death by dying on a cross for us so that we could be reconciled to him forever. God did this for us because he loves us and created us to have a relationship with him, not to destroy us.

On the cross, God has dealt decisively with evil and death, bearing himself its terrible consequences and the consequences of our rebellion against him, thereby giving us a real hope and chance to live with him now and forever. “But wait,” you say. “Look around you! Are you kidding? Evil and death are still flourishing! Betsy’s untimely and awful demise is proof of that.” True enough. Evil and death still exist in God’s good but fallen world. But the cross is not the end of the story. As Jesus reminded Martha, his resurrection gives us a preview of coming attractions of what God ultimately has in store for his people.

As both the OT and NT tell us, God does not intend to destroy his world or his people. Instead, he intends to renew it and his people in a mighty act of recreation. When Christ returns in great power and glory, he will bring about his new heavens and earth, what Scripture calls the New Creation. Our mortal bodies will be raised from the dead and we will be given a new resurrection body, the kind of body Jesus has. Our new resurrection body will be impervious to all the nasty things that can afflict our mortal bodies. In the new heavens and earth, the New Creation, there will be no more suffering or separation or sorrow or sickness or disease or evil or death—ever. There will be new life to live and new work to do, work that will bring God praise and glory, life and work that we will find infinitely fulfilling and meaningful. And best of all we will get to live in God’s direct presence forever. We need to be careful about getting too specific about all this because Scripture is not terribly specific. But whatever the New Creation looks like it will surely be more glorious than we can comprehend or imagine because God is its author.

I don’t know about you but I find the hope of New Creation to be a much fuller and richer hope than the idea of dying and going to heaven to spend the rest of eternity as a disembodied spirit as some believe. And from what I know about Betsy, I suspect she would too. A person as full of zest for life and having a passion to help improve the lives of others, in large part by helping improve teaching and learning, would surely relish living in God’s New Creation with her new resurrection body where there will be infinite opportunities for her to continue to grow in her work and love for others.

So why am I telling you all this? Because this is the hope to which Jesus was alluding when he told Martha that he is the resurrection and the life. It is God’s gift of grace offered freely to everyone without exception. This is also the hope to which we commend Betsy this evening.

But what about us? After Jesus finished telling Martha about the hope of New Creation that was in him, he asked Martha the fifty-cent question. “Do you believe this? Do you believe that I am the resurrection and the life? Do you believe that those who live and believe in me will live, even though their bodies die?” Likewise, Jesus asks us the same question in the midst of our grief. “Do you believe this?” The extent to which we can answer yes is the extent to which we can have real hope and real Good News to sustain us in our grief and loss.

May the God of love and power bless us with the grace to answer yes to Jesus’ gracious question. May God bless us with a sure and certain hope so that we know Betsy is with the Lord who loved and claimed her from all eternity. May God also bestow on us a faith that will lead us to affirm the wondrous and mind-blowing truth that nothing in all creation, not the terrible lung disease that afflicted Betsy and not even her death, can separate her from God’s great love in Christ for her (cf. Romans 8.31-39). If you have that kind of hope and faith, you really do have Good News, not only for Betsy, but also for yourself, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Getting Ready to Live in the New Creation

 32 They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. 33 “We are going up to Jerusalem,” he said, “and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, 34 who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.” 35Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” 36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. 37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”  38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” 39 “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.” 41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

–Mark 10.32-45 (NIV)

Ever thought of what you will be doing in God’s promised New Creation after your mortal body is raised from the dead and you are given your new resurrection body? If so, pay attention to today’s passage as it gives us some general guidelines. As Jesus makes clear, anyone who follows him had better be prepared to love and serve others because that is how it is going to be in his kingdom.

The disciples clearly don’t get this. Jesus has just told them that he must go to Jerusalem where he will be killed by the authorities there. While they don’t completely understand this they know enough to make them afraid and wonder what on earth he is thinking. In effect, Jesus has just told them that his way is the way of suffering and the cross with his self-giving love about to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins and for our ransom from our slavery to sin and death.

This context makes the conversation between Jesus, James, and John even more remarkable because James and John clearly do not have a clue, not unlike many of us who continue to try and follow Jesus. James and John aren’t interested in the self-sacrifice and suffering stuff. Heck no! They still think Jesus is the ticket to power and glory, the kind of political Messiah that the world of their day would recognize and celebrate (as does our world today). They still equate the kingdom with political power and wealth, with status and prestige.

But Jesus calls them on it and does so rather sharply. “Do you guys have a clue? Do you really know what it means to be a leader in God’s kingdom? Your very question indicates you are clueless and immature! Can you face suffering and death the way I do? Are you willing to give yourself up for the sake of others? Do you even know the meaning of real sacrifice?”

“We do,” they answer. But of course they really do not–at least not yet. James and John sadly will drink the cup Jesus drank and will be baptized with Jesus’ baptism of suffering and death because both would end up being violently martyred. But before Jesus’ death and resurrection they clearly did not get it. They clearly didn’t understand what it meant to be a leader in God’s kingdom.

You see, leadership is not about self-aggrandizement or about being able to have your way whenever you want it. No, real leadership is about self-giving love and service. Real leaders do not look out first and foremost for themselves. They look out for the welfare and benefit of those whom they lead and they put those interests above their own. (They will also spend a lot of time helping to form and cultivate a common purpose so that those who follow can recognize that their leaders are indeed working and acting on their followers’ behalf, but that is a different subject for a different day.)

Servant leadership is Leadership Principle 101 and if you don’t believe me, check out any great leader. He or she won’t be perfect but he or she will consistently demonstrate this principle in his or her conduct. And this is what it will be like in the New Creation. If you want to lead there you had better get prepared for it by training here and now. If you expect this to come naturally you are only kidding yourself because the human heart, hard as it is, is geared toward self-centeredness and self-aggrandizement. It has to be broken and a new set of holy habits have to take its place.

Of course, if you are going to be a servant, you have to have humility, faith, hope, and love. You have to be humble enough to know you are not the center of the universe, that God calls you to serve others. You won’t much want to do that if you do not have a real love for others or if you think you are better than the folks around you. You have to have faith that you are indeed training to be a citizen of God’s kingdom in his New Creation. In other words, you have to have faith that there is a New Creation awaiting you for which you are training. Otherwise, you’d best eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow you will die. And of course the hope you have will stem from this faith. Without faith you will not have real hope.

As I suggested yesterday, these virtues do not come easily or naturally. We have to practice them in our own life and together with fellow Christians so that we have some accountability. It isn’t quite as simple as this but you get this idea. Neither do you have to be a leader to practice this because all citizens of the kingdom will have a servant’s heart. We will have that heart because we have learned to develop it over the years and we do that because we love the Lord and love always results in obedience. Not mindless obedience, mind you, but obedience that manifests a keen desire to serve the One who loved us first and gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act.

On the other hand, if you are not inclined to do any of this, chances are you will find the New Creation quite hellish because selfish, self-aggrandizing, and proud behavior will not be allowed there. If you make this kind of living pattern your god, you will certainly find yourself in hell, it seems to me.

But when you learn to live to love and serve others, you learn to be truly free and truly human because you are living in ways that you were created to live and when that happens you will discover that you have peace that passes all understanding as well as meaning, purpose, and contentment. It will be easy for you to do this in the New Creation, in part, because you will be living in God’s direct Presence; whereas here you are not. But it will also be easy to have a servant’s heart because you spent a lifetime here on earth honing and cultivating that kind of heart, with the Spirit’s help of course, so that living in this manner will seem natural and joyous to you in the world to come.

Don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting that we will have to practice the Christian virtues before we can get into the kingdom. We get into the kingdom by believing in the great love and mercy of God expressed to us in Jesus. But developing the virtues needed to have a servant’s heart will help us live our mortals days with greater richness, meaning, and purpose than if we muck about trying to make life all about us and what we can accumulate. We will find a joy that comes from pleasing our Creator and that is not to be sneezed at.

If you haven’t started to follow Jesus so that you can learn the holy habits of the kingdom, what are you waiting for? It will be the hardest and best decision you will ever make.

Trying to do the Impossible

17As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” 20 “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. 23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”

–Mark 10.17-27 (NIV)

I have great empathy for this man who approached Jesus because for a long time I was him–and probably still am to some degree. No, I’m not rich, young, or a ruler (as Matthew and Luke add to this man’s description). But like this man, for a long time I focused on the externals, believing that if I behaved just right, my relationship with God would be OK, that God would find me to be acceptable. That’s really a terrible burden to bear because God doesn’t so much look at our outward conformity (i.e., how well we follow the rules) but rather at our hearts (i.e., at our will, mind, and affections), and as Jesus reminded us, it is out of the heart that come all kinds of things that defile and dehumanize us and make us unfit to be in God’s presence. I could (and can) relate very well to Paul’s enigmatic chapter in Romans where he talked about the “wretched man” because I was trying to do the impossible. I was trying to save myself.

But as Jesus reminds us in today’s passage, self-help and self-salvation are simply impossible precisely because we are so profoundly broken and flawed. Our heart is wayward and rebellious, beyond our ability to “fix.” Sadly we all have what Scripture consistently calls a “hard heart.” We see this illustrated perfectly in the man. He was conscientious in conforming to the law (if by “defraud” Jesus is pointing to covetousness, he cites 6 of the 10 commandments to the man) but money was his god and Jesus called him on it. It’s not that money per se is bad. Nowhere did Jesus ever condemn money for what it is. Rather, it is what money can do to us. Among other things, it can enslave us and/or make us proud and self-reliant. It can give us a false sense of security. But if we think about it for a moment we must admit how foolish that is. Just two days ago, for example, 1.3 TRILLION dollars were wiped out in one day of disastrous trading on Wall Street. One day! So much for security in money.

Jesus apparently saw that wealth had enslaved this man who came to him and so Jesus gave him the remedy to his problem. Sell all you have and follow me. We tend to stop at the sell all you have part because it seems so radical. But we miss the punch line if we stop there. Jesus told the man to get rid of that which had enslaved him and could not bring him real security and life so that he could follow the One who could.

That is a choice that still confronts each one of us. It may not be money for you. It may be sex or drugs or power or prestige or the delusion of being a rugged individualist. Whatever it is, Jesus reminds us that we have to ditch that which is false and killing us so that we can follow him. And what do we do when we follow him? We deny ourselves and take up our cross. As Paul puts it in several of his letters, we put to death–with the Spirit’s help, of course–that within us that keeps us hostile and rebellious toward Jesus, and that prevents us from following him. That is a difficult, painful, and agonizingly slow process. Great. Really makes you want to sign up for following Jesus, doesn’t it?

But if you desire real life and real security, it is the only way to go because as Jesus reminded his astounded disciples, no one can save himself. Only God can save and he has come in the person of Jesus to do just that for us. The disciples were astounded because Jewish conventional wisdom of the day had taught them that the righteous would be rewarded with material abundance. In other words, a person’s wealth could be seen as an indication that that person was right with God. “Not so fast,” says Jesus. “No one is right with God based on his or her own merits because each one of you has a wayward heart that you cannot fix on your own.”

Now let me be clear about this. Jesus is not saying that outward conformity does not matter. It does. He loved the man, in part, because he saw that the man was sincerely trying to be good in God’s sight by following the Law. Character matters. Specifically Christian character matters because it is evidence that we are trying to follow Jesus and be like him. But because our hearts are hardened, Christian character does not come naturally or easily. It has to be developed with the help of the Spirit living in us. In other words we have make the effort and do the hard work to develop the habits of Christian character, again with the help of the Spirit. After all, if we do not learn to act like Jesus, how can we ever bring his love to bear on others? If we do not display the Christian virtues of love, patience, humility, and charity (which have bound in them the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit) we can never embody Jesus for others and expose them to God’s great love and power to heal. It’s just that simple.

But here’s the thing. We don’t work on developing Christian character because we think that in doing so we will somehow be made right in God’s sight and our relationship with God will be restored. No, we work to develop Christian character because we are profoundly grateful for what God has done for us in the cross of Jesus. We know the hopelessness and futility and despair of self-help. We are convinced with all of our being that in the death of Jesus, our exile from God has ended, that God has indeed done the impossible for us. This takes the massive burden off our backs and frees us to develop the Christian character that will make us truly human and free, all the while allowing God to use us as agents to bring about his New Creation to the extent each one of us is humanly able.

When you understand this dynamic, you will really find the meaningful life and security that we all desperately seek. This doesn’t mean living a trouble-free life. To the contrary, you will discover that Jesus has many and varied enemies in this world and sadly some are even within his own body, the Church. You will also discover that Jesus’ enemies will become your enemies sooner or later. But as the NT writers take pains to tell us, we should mark our suffering and persecution for Jesus’ sake as a badge of honor because it usually means we are on the right path. Not only that but as Paul reminds us, suffering ultimately will help produce Christian character and that means we are slowly but surely becoming the humans that God created us to be.

Think on these things because in them you will find freedom, meaning and purpose for living, and real life. But you have to stop following yourself or other false gods. You have to follow the One who loves you and gave himself in a terrible and costly act for you. It will be the best decision you ever make if you have not already done so.