So Good

There are times in a person’s life when memories from our childhood can come flooding back into the mind. Certain experiences or events can trigger those memories. Recently, some events in my life created one of those instances. I was reflecting upon how certain situations fell into place. I had a need for the Lord to intercede in my life and the lives of some individuals who I deeply love. Naturally, this prompted me to engage in a sustained period of frequent and diligent prayer. I turned to family and trusted prayer warriors in my life. While I firmly believe that the Lord always works faithfully in the lives of God’s children, I could have never foreseen the great show of faithfulness which I recently experienced. This led me to remember a song from my childhood.

Growing up in a small, rural community, I had the blessing of being nurtured into the Christian faith by loving people in a small church. Every Sunday morning, children, youth, teachers and the pastor would gather in a basement room for the Sunday School opening. We would sing songs, hear a passage from Scripture, and say a prayer before splitting into our classes by age. One song which we sang frequently is, God is So Good. I would also later sing this song at church camp.

As I considered the Lord’s recent guidance and blessings in my life, the words of this song flooded my mind.

God truly is good and has been extremely good to me. I love God so!

A New Understanding

Read Acts 10:9-23a

Various cultures have different understandings of what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Everything from how a person enters a home to what foods are acceptable to eat. Government diplomats actually have training in regard to customs and behaviors prior to being stationed in foreign posts. This training is important so that the diplomat does not inadvertently offend citizens and government officials where they are sent. The rules and customs of a group of people have deep roots. Some of these are linked to history, some to religion and some due to practical reasons.

Peter was a rule abiding Jew. He prided himself on being faithful to the laws and customs of his Hebrew heritage. The Jews had strong dietary laws. Today we would view these laws as practical based upon what we now know in regards to food safety. In Peter’s time, the laws were linked to his faith since they were recorded in the laws which Moses handed down. When Peter had a vision in which he was instructed to eat foods forbidden by the Law, he naturally declined. The purpose of the vision was to communicate to Peter that rules and understandings can change as God reveals new information to us. This was an important message because soon Peter would be called upon to act in a manner considered wrong by Jewish standards. Peter would be asked to go to the home of an officer in the army which occupied Israel. If the vision had not opened Peter’s eyes to God working outside the rules and customs, he likely would not have gone and the good news would not have been shared.

The lesson for Peter is important in our lives as well. We easily become accustomed to our customs, habits and understandings. Our faith can be attached to what we have been taught when we were younger. What we must always keep in mind is that we believe in a living God. Our God is always at work in the lives of people. Our God is constantly revealing new understandings to us as we are better equipped to receive them. As we grow in our knowledge of the world, God gives us new insights. None of us follow all the dietary laws of Peter’s time because we have refrigeration and better ways to store and prepare food. Why would our other understandings of God, faith and the world around us also not change?

One of Us

Read Mark 9:38-40

There is a phrase which is frequently stated when a stranger comes into a new area, “you aint from these parts are you?” In the use of the phrase, the idea that the newcomer has done or said something which is unusual to the local culture is communicated. The person has been identified as an outsider, someone who does not belong. Since the individual is not “one of us,” they might be made fun of or even ostracized. This can cause the stranger to be denied certain privileges or opportunities.

The passage for today is found in Mark’s gospel shortly after the telling of Jesus’s transfiguration. A few of Jesus’s disciples come to him to let him know that an outsider was using Jesus’s name to cast out demons. The disciples indicated they had stopped the man. They anticipated words of appreciation and a pat on the back from Jesus. Instead, Jesus tells the disciples that their action was wrong. Anyone doing a positive act and attributing it to the power of Jesus is not inclined to speak ill about Jesus in the next breath. He says that a person who attributes their acts of love and compassion to Jesus is a benefit to the ministry.

Those who constitute the fellowship of the Church have at times acted like John and the disciples in this passage. Too often when word of a person or group who are making positive impacts within the community is received, those within the fellowship make disparaging remarks or attempt to sabotage the work. The expectation of a person having met a human-determined set of criteria as the only way to attribute the name of Jesus to their work has prevailed in the Church at times. Yes, a sense of caution is necessary to ensure that only actions aligned with the Lord’s teachings and purposes are associated with the Lord. But when this alignment exists, it is not our place or a benefit to halt the association. Afterall, all good things are from and a part of the Lord. The Church should be more concerned about the destructive nature of some of the actions which its members do while evoking the Lord’s name.  In these situations, we should seek to partner with those attributing their actions to the Lord.  

No Fear

Read 1 John 4:16-18

Over the course of human history, there have been leaders who sought full control over the people who they were to lead. These leaders have employed a variety of tactics to establish and maintain this control. One of the methods utilized by every one of these leaders is the employment of fear. They establish techniques which will instill in the people a fear which prevents them from acting in any manner not prescribed by the leader. This fear is based on witnessing or anticipating repercussions if the leader’s desires are not met. Such repercussions  may include banishment, imprisonment, torture, seizing of assets, dismemberment, loss of statics, financial ruin, or even death. The people follow the leader not out of trust but out of fear.

The writer of I John presents a leader who has an opposite approach. In the midst of a discussion which equates God with love, the writer speaks of a relationship between humans and the Divine. Because we live in love, we have no fear in our relationship. The writer points out that love and fear are incompatible. We do not have to fear anything from God. In fact, since God is love, fear is pushed out of our relationship.

There are church leaders who attempt to use fear much as the world leaders mentioned earlier. These leaders create fear as a way to control while masking it as an attempt to “save” people from God’s wrath. This originated with the Jewish leaders and has come down over centuries to the Church. Jesus spoke against this technique during his ministry. In our passage, we see the incongruity of using fear in regards to a relationship with God. Instead, the message we receive, and should pass to others, is that it is love which draws us into a relationship with God. Love is the source of all of God’s actions, teachings, and promises. Love not fear emboldens us to be in relationship with God. Our actions, teachings and promises should flow out of love.

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.

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.

Conflict Resolution

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17 (NIV)

Humans have conflicts when they are in a relationship with one another. This occurs in every type of relationship because each of us is unique and has different perspectives. We form opinions based on our personal experiences, our interpretation of information, and the various influences in our lives. Because each of these are different for each person, the opinions formed will be different. These differences can be small and easily resolved or they can be large which often lead to conflict arising. The manner in which we handle conflict can lead to a reconciliation among people or a severance in the relationship.

The body of Christ on earth is not immune to differences of opinion or conflict. Jesus was aware of this reality even before there was an official organization of his followers. So he provides a road map for conflict resolution. He instructs his followers to go to the other person and make them aware when they have created conflicts which cause you some sort of pain. This first step may be the only one necessary if the conflict is resolved. Failure in the first step should be followed by bringing one or two others to witness the attempt toward reconciliation. Unachieved reconciliation leads to bringing the matter before the body so mediation and resolution may result. Jesus says if this still does not restore absence of conflict and injury, the accused should be set aside.

When we read this step-by-step plan, it appears simple and logical, at least until the final step. The last step can appear to be harsh treatment and most church bodies refuse to take it. Yet, the plan Jesus lays out here has the full intention of healing and reconciling a relationship. The plan does not call for hasty and emotion-filled actions. There is opportunity for awareness, mediation and support. There is also accountability woven throughout the approach. Punishment does not surface until the very end and there is no permanency even at that point. The opportunity to reconcile always is available. Important also is an emphasis on the health of the body, the church, and the health of the individual members of the body, both the accused and the accuser.

Conflict and hurt will occur, how we choose to respond to it will impact the outcome. Jesus gives as a healthy roadmap to follow.

Together and Prayer

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

James 5:13-20 (NIV)

Have you ever noticed how much more effective a group is in solving a problem than one individual is alone? Bringing a variety of perspectives together often results in a solution which one perspective alone could not have achieved. In addition, having many hands and heads working together increases the rate of outcome and lessens the burden of the individual. This view has led to sayings such as, “two heads are better than one,” or “many hands make light work.”

In the letter of James we hear a discussion of community and prayer. The writer impresses upon the receivers the importance of turning to one another when they are experiencing troubles. There is an understanding that when someone turns to others, the response will be to join with the troubled one and use the power of prayer. The letter clearly emphasizes how powerful prayer can be to bring about healing and restoration. A reader gets the sense that believers in Christ are to care for the needs of one another.

As we read this passage written a few thousand years ago, we see reflections of the role the church is to play in people’s lives. The church is to pray for those who are troubled, sick, or fighting sin. These prayers are called intercessory which occur corporately as part of worship services and individually through prayer chains or during home visits. The church is to also be engaged in bringing those who have wandered from the truth back into the fold. This is the role of reaching out, hearing confessions and providing assurances of forgiveness.

An important reality which we all must remember is that while this happens on a corporate level, usually in the midst of a worship service, each of us have a responsibility to make sure these things occur as part of our daily life. We are supposed to reach out to other believers when we are dealing with challenges in our lives. We are to be available to one another when there is a need. The power of prayer is to always be utilized as a tool of response. We are the church, individually and together.