In Secret

Read Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

When I was in college, a donor gave a large sum of money to the institution which I was attending. With this money, the college would be able to build a partially underground building to house the school of business, a new dining hall with snack bar, a new technology center with mainframe computers, a new bookstore, a new information center, a new auditorium, new classrooms, new student organization offices and a new mail center. In addition to the new building, there would be money available to improve some of the existing facilities. The catch with the donation was that the donor wished to remain anonymous (this catch would be removed about five years later when the donor was revealed to be Harold Walter Siebens). There was much speculation about the source of the donation of such a large gift. The donor was adamant that he wished to do something good without hype and focus upon him. The focus should be on the students, faculty and education was the desire. An act of doing something beneficial not for the glory but because it was right seemed to be the donor’s thought.

Jesus is teaching the crowd in the passage which we read from Matthew. Three of his teachings focus on faith acts done in secret. Giving, praying and fasting are the actions which Jesus focuses upon here. He uses contrasts to communicate what behaviors the Father desires to be associated with what was seen as righteous or acts demonstrating faith. In all three examples the public exhibition of carrying out each action is presented as the undesirable method of completion. The contrast, and preferred method, is these acts are done in private with only the Father being aware of their completion.

Just as Mr. Siebens desired initially to act in secret, Jesus tells us that when we are acting as part of our faith, we should do so anonymously. The reason for this is due to the importance of the focus. If we make a fanfare or a great show or a visual demonstration of our actions, then the focus is on us as an individual. Giving to others, praying to God and practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting are all intended to place the focus on God. Jesus is teaching here that it should not be all about us but should be about the God in whom we believe. This proper focus is what truly makes these actions acts of faith.

Gathered Together

Read Hebrews 10:19-25

Early in the 1970s Neil Diamond released the song, “Solitary Man.” The lyrics of the song speak of a person’s many failed romantic relationships. The decision is made that until the person can find a partner who will not leave the relationship for someone else, the individual will remain solitary. For a variety of reasons, there are people who choose to go through life without a partner. Some individuals even attempt life isolated from others altogether.

In the letter to the Hebrews who are, or are considering, becoming followers of Jesus Christ, we find words intended to encourage the people. The passage encourages the recipients to be drawn to God and strive to remain strong in their faith. Then the importance of regularly gathering as a group of believers is placed before the reader. The purpose of these regular gatherings is to encourage each other and prompt one another to love and participate in beneficial actions for others.

Living out faith has never been intended to be a solitary enterprise. The Christian faith has always been fully experienced as communal in nature. In establishing the Church, the Lord intended to create a community where love, support, encouragement and positive accountability is a vital aspect of following Christ. This is evident in the family-oriented language of Scripture, not just a bloodline family but a community which bands as family. For the full development of our faith, we need one another.

No Favortism

Read James 2:1-9

Throughout a person’s life, each of us experience some level of favoritism. Favoritism manifests itself in large and small ways. The first encounter which a person may have is in elementary school at recess time. A friendly game of kickball may be forming and two captains are choosing who will be on each of their teams. Eligible candidates line up while one by one, names are called out alternating from one team to the other. Those viewed as best players are chosen early while lesser players are left standing until the last. Favoritism is part of the winnowing process.

Today we see a warning against favoritism among believers. The writer of the letter of James warns that believers in Christ must never show favoritism in welcoming others into their fellowship. The writer lifts up a commandment from the early law which Jesus states is the second greatest commandment, “Love your neighbor.” The author says that if favoritism is found among believers, it is a violation of this commandment. Also pointed out here is the often experienced reality that the preferred often bring hardship to the fellowship while the unfavorite bless the fellowship.

Favoritism frequently raises its ugly head in our world. Those who are not considered or treated as favorites feel the sting of rejection. A sense of worthlessness often shrouds the individual. These experiences can impact self value in negative ways. There is, and never has been, any place for favoritism in the fellowship of the Lord. Jesus made this abundantly clear in his ministry. In this epistle, it is made clear once again. Yet from the start of the church until this very day, favoritism continues to be witnessed in every aspect of the church way too often.

Let us take a stand against this type of behavior. We each must work every day to eliminate any favoritism within the fellowships in which we actively participate. The church should be a place of welcome and safety for every and all individuals. Living out the commandment to love your neighbor should have no preferential treatment associated with it. We may all be surprised how we may be blessed by the least favorite.

Being Christian

Read Acts 11:25-26

In our verses for today, we hear of a gathering of disciples in a place called Antioch. This is where Barnabas brings Saul to help teach people about Jesus Christ. We read here that the followers of Jesus were first referred to as Christians in Antioch. This recording of the name given to disciples of Jesus led me to think about what it means to be called Christian.

Growing up in the church and attending Sunday School almost every week, I learned a lot of songs about Jesus, God, and aspects of following Jesus. One such song which was learned was “Lord, I Want To Be A Christian.” The author of the song is unknown and it is listed as an African-American melody. Here are the lyrics:

Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart.

Refrain 1:
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be a Christian
In my heart.

Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart.

Refrain 2:
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be more loving
In my heart.

Lord, I want to be more holy
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be more holy
In my heart.

Refrain 3:
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be more holy
In my heart.

Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart.

Refrain 4:
In my heart, in my heart;
Lord, I want to be like Jesus
In my heart.

As I recalled these lyrics, a few items stood out to me. First is the repetition of the phrase, ” in my heart.” The general understanding of the use of heart in relation to a person is that we are speaking about the core of a person’s life.Since the heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body, and blood is necessary to sust ain life, humans have viewed the heart at the center of our life. The desire to be a Christian in this song is a desire that our very core of life be identified as Christian.

Second, the progression of the verses is purposeful. The first verse communicates the overall desire to live as a follower of Jesus. The remaining verses detail how this will be demonstrated and acted upon. The song says that a Christian will be more loving, more holy, and more like Jesus. The song is actually a prayer that with the help of the Lord, the person may truly live from the core as a disciple of Jesus, given the name of Christian at Antioch.

May this be a daily prayer and good for each of us.

Sharing Good News

Read Matthew 28:1-10

Think about a time in your life when you had exciting news to share. Maybe you had something to tell your spouse, your parents, or your best friends. Remember how it felt to try and keep this news contained until you had the opportunity to share it? The time it took to get ahold of or come to the person who you wished to receive the news may have seemed way too long. Your excitement drives you to hurry without delay. In your thoughts you hope that the recipient will be as overjoyed upon hearing the good news as you were upon learning it.

The passage lifted up today is a familiar one from Matthew’s account of the first Easter morning. In Matthew’s telling of events, two women who each were named Mary come to Jesus’s tomb. When they arrived there was a violent movement of the earth and the stone at the door of the tomb was moved away. The image of someone is visible. The women are told the good news that Jesus is not in the tomb because he is resurrected as he said he would be. They are invited to verify this news with their own eyes. Then the Marys are told to go tell this news to the disciples and to direct the disciples to meet Jesus in Galilee. Jesus appears and verifies the news. Matthew tells us that “the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy…”

The enthusiasm, joy and urgency of the women as Matthew tells the story is much like how we have felt when we have had great news to share. Do we feel these same feelings when we think of Jesus’s resurrection today? For many believers, the good news that Jesus is risen has become just an everyday element of their faith. Since this happened centuries before us and our learning of it may have been many years ago when we first became involved in the church, we have lost the enthusiasm, joy and urgency. A sense of it may return if we attend a worship service on Easter morning but it is likely to fade again a few hours later after the songs end and we return home.

The word “gospel” means good news. This good news of the Christian faith is in part the reality that Jesus is not dead in a tomb but risen and alive today. Each one of us has had someone who has declared the gospel with us. We are given opportunities to share this good news with others. May we recapture the enthusiasm, joy and urgency we had when it first became real to us if we have lost it. May we be like the two Marys who “hurried away from the tomb, afraid and filled with joy” as they ran to tell others that Jesus is no longer dead. Share the gospel with energy and urgency because you are so excited that you cannot contain it!

A Purpose

Read Jeremiah 17:7-8

During a recent podcast from our city’s mayor, she was interviewing a chaplain who serves as a mentor and guide at one of our local universities. She was asking the gentleman about the advice he gives to his own children and the young adults with whom he works daily. One piece of advice he mentioned was to realize that wherever God has led someone, there is something which God intends for them to do there. This comment was a reminder for me of a charge which a friend of mine gave at the end of every worship experience. The image of God planting us somewhere to produce fruit came into my mind. This image raised the passage from Jeremiah in my thoughts.

What does it mean to be planted in a location to bear fruit? First, it raises the idea that wherever we land in life is not by chance nor is it solely based on decisions which we make. There is a partnership in action when it comes to the community we claim as home. God guides us in the process but does not dictate the decision. We may not always adhere to God’s guidance but whether we do or not, God will provide opportunities for us to bear fruit wherever we land. When we trust God’s guidance, the landing is a little softer and the opportunities a little clearer.

Second, we are made aware that wherever we are, we have the opportunity to bear fruit in the Lord’s name. This bearing of fruit looks different for each person. Just as there are different colors, tastes and benefits of the fruits we find in nature, the produce from our actions and lives are different. The fruit which the Lord desires us to produce is the type which builds up others, introduces to them the possibilities with God, and communicates the love and grace of the Lord.

Jeremiah reminds us that where we are planted, we will find the necessary items which will feed us and sustain us. As a tree needs a water source to sustain its leaves and bear fruit, we need a source which feeds us spiritually. The Lord provides us that living water source so we never have to fear, can endure challenges, and are able to bear fruit for the Lord.

Quoting my friend:

” You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there. He (sic) has a purpose in you being there. Christ who dwells in you has something he wants to do through you where you are. Believe this and go in his (sic) grace and love and power.”

– The Reverend Rich King quoting Mark Batterson

Just As I Am

Today I ran across the lyrics of one of my favorite childhood hymns, Just as I Am. This hymn was written by Charlotte Elliot in 1835. One night before a fundraising event hosted by her brother who was a pastor, she lay awake, troubled by her doubts and fears regarding her usefulness and her salvation. The next day, still troubled, she sat down to write her understanding of the Gospel message. The verses which she wrote became the hymn we have today. (This history was found on Wikipedia.)

Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidst me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt,
Fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need in Thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thou wilt receive,
Wilt welcome, pardon, cleanse, relieve;
Because Thy promise I believe,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, Thy love unknown
Hath broken every barrier down;
Now, to be Thine, yea, Thine alone,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Charlotte Elliot, 1835

The words of this hymn resonated with me as a young boy and at various times throughout my life. Elliot’s words remind me that I can, and should, approach the Lord exactly as I am. I do not need to hide any part of myself. I do not need to have it all together in some proper way. All I need to do is come. When I do, I am certain to find love, acceptance, forgiveness, healing, and cleansing. There is no reason to doubt, fear or struggle in the Lord’s presence.

The Unseen

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.

By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12 And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

Hebrews 11:1-12 (NIV)

As the gift of science has advanced, we have learned fascinating truths about our world, nature and our very selves. The discoveries have not been limited to just our world but have included understandings about space, planets, and our universe. We have come to gain insight into neutrons, protons, electrons, microscopic animals, amebas, germs, parasites and an endless list of objects which are undetectable with the naked eye. Aspects of the air we breathe, the air which moves the trees and the weather around us are all not visible to us but science has helped us understand these in deeper ways. What once was invisible and unknown to us has become familiar.

The writer of Hebrews speaks of the unknown. Here the unknown is in regards to spiritual matters and humanity’s relationship with the Lord. The passage starts with a definition of faith. Then the writer gives examples of faith from the forming of the universe, to Abel, to Enoch, to Noah, to Abraham. Faith is required of us to trust in that which we cannot physically confirm.

The definition of faith provided here is not unlike the mindset a scientist must have. The role of a scientist is to prove a theory based on assumptions or witnessing the effect something has on something else. At the start, the scientist must have confidence that there exists an element which may not be visible at first. When it comes to our faith in the Lord, we must begin with a confidence that the Lord exists and is responsible for what we experience. Then, like the scientist, we witness the evidence that what we believe is true. Until the day we see the Lord face-to-face, we find assurance and hope in our faith.

Commissioned

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20 (NIV)

Today is called Ascension Day in the church calendar. This day has been set aside in the Church to recall Jesus ascending into heaven. The day is always the fortieth day of Easter, or forty days after Easter Sunday. On this day, we reflect upon the account from Gospels (except John’s) and the recording of the ascension in the Book of Acts.

Matthew’s account is what we focus upon here. This passage at the very end of this Gospel is often referred to as the Great Commission. The eleven remaining apostles have gathered at the mountain where Jesus has told them to meet him. Most scholars believe the location is the Mount of Olives but Matthew does not name it specifically. Once gathered, Jesus commissions the apostles to go into all nations. He instructs them to make disciples of all people, baptizing in the name of the Trinity and teaching them his commands to follow. Matthew does not say if Jesus then ascends or not. The first chapter in the Book of Acts indicates his ascension was during a meal he was sharing with the apostles. The writer of Matthew emphasizes the commissioning and the promise of Jesus’s eternal presence.

For the Church, and all followers of Christ, these words in Matthew are the marching orders. Jesus commissions all of us and tells us what we are to be about. He calls us into action with the action word “go.” We are not to be idle but in motion. Then he tells us where to go, “all nations.” Our activity is not to be within the walls of the church but in the world. We are to teach, welcome people into God’s family and show what the life of a follower should reflect. Each of us are given the promise that while we are engaged in living out our commission, Jesus is present in our lives and forevermore.

On the day we acknowledge our belief that Jesus ascended into heaven, we are mindful that we have been commissioned. Each of us has been commissioned to continue Jesus’s ministry in the world. We are to actively go into this world and share Christ wherever we have been sent. We are to teach, welcome, forgive, demonstrate, listen, respond, and love as Jesus continues to do in our lives.

No Worries

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Luke 12:22-31 (NIV)

In the late 1980s, reggae singer Bobby McFerrin released a song entitled, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The tune is simple and the rhythms are energetic. The lyrics give a multitude of life situations which can cause stress and worry. One phrase reminds the listener that when we worry our troubles double. The solution is contained in a repetitive chorus of “don’t worry, be happy.” It is easy for the listener to start singing along unintentionally. A smile seems to naturally come across your face.

From Luke’s Gospel, we have Jesus lecturing his disciples to not worry. Jesus points out that the act of worrying adds nothing to a person’s life. He provides examples from nature to show that God provides all the true needs of creation. He concludes by telling his disciples to seek God’s kingdom because in so doing, a person will receive all which is needed.

This passage is as simple and straightforward as Bobby McFerrin’s song. The bump in the road is putting this advice into action. There is a natural sense of worry innate in all of us. There are some important steps to help us manage our natural worries.

First we must determine if we are dealing with a want or a need. There are a lot of wants which we have in our lives. A need is something which is necessary for our survival. An example may be the need for shelter. The want in this situation might be a 5500-square foot house with five bathrooms, an outdoor kitchen and a three stall garage.

Second, keep things in perspective. An expression which has gained some ground in society recently is, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” This saying reminds us of the importance of perspective. Is what is causing you to worry that important or life-altering enough to cause you to expend a large amount of time, energy, sleep and mental health? Can you even do anything about the situation? If not, then stop worrying.

Third step is trusting. Jesus would remind us that we need to trust that our God is big enough to sort everything out and provide all which we truly need. Do you have enough trust that God is big enough? Are you able to believe that God will always provide your needs if not always your wants?