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.

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.  

Influencers

Read Matthew 5:13-16

Influencing others carries a high level of responsibility. With the advent of social media, there is a new profession which has emerged. This new profession is a social media influencer. These individuals have built an audience on a variety of social media channels and platforms. They have built a reputation of being an expert with trusted knowledge through their regular posts on a specific topic. By establishing credibility they can influence how people view a topic which can include everything from spending decisions to the vote a person casts in an election. Social media platforms and media in general will pay these influencers to post and speak on their platforms. If traffic increases on the sites and/or networks because of the influencers appearance, the company can increase charges for advertisement.

Jesus speaks of influence in the verses which we read today. He uses the imagery of salt and light as he instructs his disciples to be influencers of their day. They are told they must make a difference. He warns that if they stop making a difference in the world, they will lose their ability to serve God in a meaningful way. The influence which they are to make through their lives is to prompt people to come to the Lord in praise.

We are called to be influencers. Like the social media influencers of our day, we are to prompt people into action not by our knowledge and expertise but by the way we live our lives. Jesus tells us that as people witness our actions and choices, they should be prompted to move towards the Lord who we profess to follow and believe in. It is not about what we say as much as it is about how we live. We are to flavor people’s lives in positive ways and be a guiding light towards 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.

Temptation

Read Matthew 4:1-11

All types of temptations confront us in life. When a person is on a diet, there seems to be endless opportunities to eat foods which are packed with unhealthy calories. If you are trying to conserve or save money, advertisements on social media surface attempting to entice you to buy something you want badly. When in college, the availability of credit cards tempted me to spend money which I did not have. Temptation comes in a variety of forms from a variety of sources. How a person responds to temptation has a strong impact on one’s ability to overcome the temptation.

In today’s passage from Matthew’s version of the gospel, we witness Jesus going to the arid area near the Jordan River. Prior to this passage we hear of Jesus being baptized by John. This is the starting point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. The transition from growing up while working with Joseph and his mobile ministry of healing and teaching is marked with these two stories. While in this barren area without resources of food and water, Jesus is tempted by the tempter, or devil. The three mentioned temptations are taking care of the physical needs of food and water, testing if the Father’s protection is real, and obtaining controlling power by worshiping someone other than God. Jesus’s response is always to rely on his understanding and following of God’s directions. This response allowed Jesus to overcome the temptation.

Each of us encounter the same types of temptations as presented here. There are times when we are tempted to place our perceived needs ahead of everything else. We are tempted to take matters into our own hands to satisfy our need instead of trusting in God to provide.

The temptation to want to challenge God to see if the promises are real can surface occasionally. We may make reckless choices and say to ourselves, “if God truly loves me, I will be kept safe.” The expectation that God will get us out of perilous situations is best illustrated with the moral story of the man who drowned in a flood because he kept refusing the help God was sending.

A hunger for power and authority along with all the earthly benefits associated with them can easily creep into our everyday life. We place people and objects in the center of our lives to obtain that power, authority and benefits. These items take the place of God who deserves to always be in the center of our lives.

Jesus again provides a way to respond when these, and other temptations, confront us. Relying on the directions of the Lord is the way to overcome temptation. We can obtain this direction by understanding and applying Scripture. The fellow believers and faith leaders which God places in our lives can assist in providing God’s direction for us. Being in communication with the Lord through the Spirit also opens this direction to us. Temptation will always come our way but if we seek God’s direction as our response when it does, we will overcome it.

Living Word

Read Hebrews 4:12

What makes a book come alive? A book by nature is pages of paper with words written upon them bound together with a cover surrounding them. If you are like me, there are a number of books scattered all around your house. Yes, these days many tend to purchase more copies of digital books to read on e-readers than physical books. None of these books are alive until someone picks them up and begins to read them. Once a person reads from a book, the words become alive in the person’s mind. Images form as the words are read. Scenes take shape, characters materialize and a person is transported to another place in the mind’s eye. The words come alive metaphorically.

The verse today speaks of a special type of “Word.” In Scripture this specific word has multiple meanings. One understanding can be the written or spoken form of communication, i.e., Scripture. Another understanding comes from the prologue to John’s Gospel. Here the reference is where it says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) In this verse, the writer speaks of God’s word as living and active, Jesus Christ.  When considering the reference being associated with Jesus, we are reminded of the resurrected and living Christ. If applying the first sentence to Scripture, it points us to the importance of human interaction with the Bible. Our reading and/or hearing of the verses contained in the Bible is what causes them to come alive and move them into action in our own lives.

The second sentence in the verse stands as a warning to us. We are told that the Word will cut through all the human pretenses. The true aspects of our humanity will be made visible as the following verse states. Again, this is true of both Christ and Scripture. Jesus could penetrate the hearts and minds of people he encountered. Throughout the Gospel accounts we see scenes where Jesus cuts through the facades created by individuals and shows forth the true natures and intentions, especially among the Jewish leaders. When read or spoken, the Bible verses can call us to account and disturb our own self image.

The Word of God is not a dead entity that no longer impacts lives. The Word is active in and through each of us, not to be hidden away and only brought out on special occasions.

Making Decisions

Read Luke 6:12-16

Life is filled with opportunities to make decisions. Some of the decisions which we make are not as life altering as others. Deciding what to eat for dinner, or what to wear for the day, or which television show to watch are generally not decisions which will impact the future direction of our lives. There are decisions which do shape and direct the future course of our lives. Choosing what institution of higher learning to attend, or who we might marry, or where we may live can impact the trajectory of our existence in profound ways. The process and steps which we use to make our decisions can influence the outcome.

The passage from Luke’s gospel account presents to us a time when Jesus is faced with an important decision. He is choosing which ones of all his disciples he will closely mentor and teach. The individuals chosen would represent Jesus and minister on his behalf when he is not physically present. They would later be entrusted with the responsibility of sharing the good news with people throughout the known areas of civilization. Some of their words and actions would be shared with generations to come, even to our present one.

The passage starts by giving us insight into an important part of Jesus’s decision making process. We hear that Jesus went away to be alone. While he was absent from the cities, crowds and disciples, he prayed for an extended period of time. Upon his return, he shared his decision in regard to which of the disciples would personally be mentored by the Lord and be given special authority on his behalf.

How do you go about making major decisions in your life? Are you a lone ranger who relies solely on yourself to make these types of decisions? Does praying to God enter into your process at all? Clearly the writer of Luke’s gospel included this brief passage to emphasize to us the great importance of prayer in the decision process. As followers of Christ, our daily pursuit is to follow the example which Jesus placed before us. One such example is this one. Jesus came to the Father to consult prior to making a vital ministry decision. Should we not do the same with all of our vital decisions?

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!