Posts Tagged With: unity

Final Thoughts & Thanks

We have made it!

One chapter a day, five days a week, every full week of the year.  Really, that is a not a lot of reading.  But I have a whole string of years where I couldn’t even muster the fortitude to be that disciplined.  Maybe you do too.  There seems to be something about reading the Bible that creates a challenge even for the most ardent readers.

Yet we did it.  And we can be thankful for our seemingly small feat.  I know there are big, monumental experiences that shape us in significant ways.  But more often than not I find we are formed as humans by our little habits, small victories, excusable vices, short lines in sand, and tiny changes.

As far as blogging is concerned, I don’t know yet what next year brings.  I will keep my personal, periodic blog going, but this blog comes to an end today, though all posts will stay up and accessible and the comments will stay open.  This is now two consecutive years I have written a blog of this sort — two years ago with the Qur’an and this past year with the New Testament.  I do not have plans to undertake a project like this for this upcoming year.  I have discerned that it is best for me to spend time with physical and domestic health instead.  I am drawn to The Message again, the translation I almost used this year, before N. T. Wright published The Kingdom New Testament, his interesting but not significantly different translation.  I hope to keep reading on the same schedule but without the writing.  Maybe one of you will find value in a writing discipline like this and invite us to join you next year?

As you might expect from a teacher, I would like to end with a question.  Not all of you have wanted to post comments this year and that has been fine.  Do consider posting on this one.

What have you learned from a year spent reading God’s Word to the Church?

 

I share three reflections I have had several times this year.  I look forward to your thoughts as well.

1.  For many of us, there is no better spiritual practice than reading the Bible.  Spiritually, people are wired differently.  Some are shaped strongly my worshipful experiences.  Some have been turned into reading-the-biblewho they are by fervent, honest prayer.  Others become different people through service to those they love and those in need.  For many, though, the regular practice of Bible reading is the number one shaping influence in their spiritual growth.  This is where the Gospel, in its many forms, speaks good news into the vagaries of our life.  This is where we are confronted by words that have been read — spoken, really — and therefore cannot be ignored.  This is where our minds of flesh are turned spiritual.  Almost without exclusion, those I respect the most spiritually all have one thing in common: they read their Bibles.  In a million different ways.  But they read.  And I want to be one of these same people, so I read.  When one truly gives him- or herself to the words of the Bible as we have done this year, we are not left the same person.  Sometimes, like echoes bouncing around in the chasms of our hearts and minds, those words hit us months later, but the word of God is “alive and active” (Hebrews 4:12).  These words do not “return void” (Isaiah 55:11).

2.  The Bible is always best understood when read and interpreted together.  Blogs have long been cited as tools that have overly-democritized the marketplace of ideas.  Whether you are 8 or 80, you can create a blog and post your ideas.  Then search engines put all search results side by side by topic, not knowledge or research or experience or anything else.  That is why the best blogs always have a robust community of readers and comment-makers so as to raise the discussion past the opinions of the one author.  That is what I was hoping we could produce here.  Likewise, Protestants (as most of us reading this blog are) have always made much-ado about the “priesthood of all believers” and the importance of the Bible.  Put them together and we all feel like we can read the Bible by ourselves and our personal arabs-studying1interpretations have equal authority.  For sure, all should read their Bibles and all perspectives should be considered, but the interpretations that are hammered out in groups of people are almost always better than what individuals come up with themselves.  That is the value of Bible classes in church contexts.  That is why we read other people’s books.  That is why education has (until lately) always been a communal undertaking.  I am extremely thankful to all of you who have taken the time to read my posts.  I am even more thankful to those of you who took time to comment and ask questions and bring up alternate viewpoints (and not all of this was done on this blog; sometimes it was at school or church).  I have learned from you, and where “iron has sharpened iron” our understanding of the Bible has become that much better.  From here on out, I always want to read my Bible with others.

3.  The New Testament is a whole lot simpler than we sometimes let it be.  I saw this repeatedly throughout the year, but especially in our reading of Revelation this last month.  We have tended to make the Bible much more complicated than it really is.  I think this usually comes when we isolate small phrases or passages and neglect the big picture.  I understand why that happens.  We all agree on that big picture, so we focus on the patches of disagreement that we find as we read because those are the things we feel we have to iron out.  Then we make those points of argument reasons for disunity and suspicion.  I completely understand the aggressive desire for truth in all things, but after this year of looking at the big picture of Christian Scripture I am all the more committed to continuing to do so.  With time I have found that small passages of confusion or points of contention work themselves out when we stay focused on the big picture.    I know that one of Jesus’ greatest desires is for Christian unity (John 17:20-21), so I am going forward from here today with the belief that anchoring myself in the Story of God’s good news to the world, not pet doctrines or favorite passages within a denomination, has a better likelihood of creating unity.

all-things-new

Thank you for being a part of the life of this blog.  I have benefitted from your participation.  Keep reading!  Glory to God our Savior and Teacher!

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Revelation 7: The Blessed Life of the New Creation

Six seals down and we are all expecting the seventh seal next.  We know only more woe will come.  Before that seal is broken an angel rushes in to plead that God’s people be marked on their foreheads (a visible place that one sees immediately when meeting a person) lest they be caught up in the judgment to come.  We think of the blood on the door frames of the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt during the Exodus.  One hundred and forty-four thousand people from the twelve Jewish tribes are marked.  As 12 and 1000 are both numbers in ancient numerology that connote completeness, the point is not a literal number but that God’s plan has reached completion.

Lest we think this vision only favors the Jews, next we see a countless number of people from “every nation and tribe and people and language” (7:9) gather before the throne of God dressed in white robes, praising God and waving palm branches.  The New Creation will be a place for all people, not just the chosen people.  Not just people like us.

cityzen of world

Presently, there is once again an anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping through Europe, not unlike what was present in the 1930s and at various points before, though not to that degree and wide acceptance (remember that mass shooting at a summer camp in Norway a year ago?).  Sadly, these same feelings are becoming more and more prevalent in America as well, even in our churches.  Socially, this concerns me for what’s coming.  Spiritually, this cultural enculturation saddens and sickens me.  God’s Kingdom is the place where color, language, citizenship, and customs neither matter nor separate because there is a more important commonality in the blood of the Christ that trumps all of these.  There is no place for racism, suspicion, and cultural superiority in the Body of Christ.

That being said, today’s chapter ends with an incredible encouragement.  Imagine how welcome these words would have been to the original recipients of this letter, those who knew they would have to suffer before this passage came true.  When asked who the countless masses are, one of the elders says:

These are the ones who have come out of the great suffering.  They have washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the lamb.  That is why they are there in front of God’s throne, serving him day and night in his temple.  The one who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.  They will never be hungry again, or thirsty again.  The sun will not scorch them, nor will any fierce heat.  The lamb, who is in the midst of the throne, will be their shepherd.  He will lead them to springs of running water, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. (7:14-17)

There is suffering to come, but then there are blessed days ahead in the New Creation.

What caught your eye today?

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2 Corinthians 13: True Strength

There has been a whole lot of talk about strength in the Corinthian correspondence this past month.  Strong leaders, strong reasoning and speaking skills, a strong tolerance for sin (though too strong for Paul’s liking), a strong sense of grace (again, too strong), strong pocketbooks, strong charisma and gifting, strong leaders, strong egos, and strong boasts.  Corinth was a culture of strength, and so was this church.

We have already seen Paul say there are other strengths to have that are far more important.  They need a strong sense of unity that bridges the many divides they have allowed to form in their church.  They need a strong love towards each other shown through character, not spiritual gifts.  They need a strong spirit of generosity so as to help those who have real need in the world.  Today, Paul ends these two volumes with one more kind of true strength the Corinthians should be sure to have in a culture that seems hyper-focused on strength.  They would do well to be strong in doing the right thing.

Test yourselves to see if you really are in the faith!  Put yourselves through the examination.  Or don’t you realize that Jesus the Messiah is in you? — unless, that is, you’ve failed the test.  I hope you will discover that we didn’t fail the test.  But we pray to God that you will never, ever do anything wrong; not so that we can be shown up as having passed the test, but so that you will do what is right. (13:7)

What big idea really stood out to you during this year’s reading of the Corinthian correspondence?

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1 Corinthians 13: The Better Way

When read by itself, 1 Corinthians 13 is a wonderful passage.  Great for weddings.  An ideal chapter to learn generalities about love.  Nice for ethics (I’ll guess many of us were taught to replace the word “love” in verses 4-7 with our name as a way to determine how loving we truly are).  I would not wish to take any of those things away.

This chapter comes so much more alive when we read it in context — always a good principle for Bible reading.  1 Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14.  We looked at chapter 12 yesterday and saw its focus on spiritual gifts.  Scan ahead and you will see that chapter 14 has the same focus.  Paul’s beautiful diatribe on love is best understood within the context of a church that is using spiritual giftedness of boast and divide.

Recall that we ended yesterday with Paul claiming there is a better gift than tongues or prophecy or miracles, that there is a “better way” to live than the way of competition and glory based on performance (12:31).  What is that better gift, that better way?

If I should have prophetic gifts, and know all mysteries, all knowledge, too; have faith, to move the mountains, but have no love — I’m nothing. . . . Love never fails.  But prophecies will be abolished; tongues will stop; and knowledge, too, be done away. (13:2, 8)

Love is that better gift.  The best way to judge spiritual fervor is love.  A Christian has reached the zenith when they love.  A church can be congratulated when they love.  If you want to pursue a gift, go after love.

And not just any kind of love.  A selfless, sacrificial, enduring love that banishes the attitudes the Corinthians’ competition was bringing: jealousy, envy, pride, anger, and vindictiveness.

Spiritual gifts were only intended to build up a church until the complete and perfect (13:10) outpouring of divine love came to the church, and to a large part that was dependent on the submissive obedience of Christians to the better way of love.  None of the fancy acts we see on those religious television shows with ladies with purple hair and men with perfect haircuts, shiny teeth and designer suits will be in heaven.  They were only a vehicle to an end.  Heaven is most of all characterized by love.  Love will go on for ever.

A church can major in the minors and they may just find it only fractures the bonds of fellowship.  Or they can keep the main thing the main thing and find that it builds up the very building blocks of community.

What stood out to you in a new way in this very familiar chapter?

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1 Corinthians 12: Edification, Not Competition

Have you ever met people who can turn anything in a competition?

My two sons are this way.  They race to get to the supper table first.  The race to see who can get in the front seat of the car first.  They one-up each other when tell stories about the day.  Everything is a contest to prove one is better than the other.  I have also watched with frustration the tears and lashing out that comes when one does not win or measure up or gets pushed down so the other can stand tall.

The Corinthian Christians were a whole lot like my sons.  Everything in the church had become a contest for superiority.  Who is the wisest, the most articulate, the most respected in society?  Who has the best education?  Who follows the best leader?  Who is a part of the best group within this fragmented church?  Who can show the most grace?  Who has the best food for the Lord’s Supper (a true meal at that time)?

Now it was the Holy Spirit, this great gift of God, given to us to make us holy and pure.  Yet the gifts of the Spirit were being used to create distinctions and airs of superiority.  How spiritual a person was had even become something that puffed up the Corinthians.

Paul reminds them that the whole point of the outpouring of the Spirit and the gifts that come with the Spirit is so “that all may benefit” (12:7).  They are meant to unify and draw people closer together in dependence, not split apart in competition.  There may be many different parts or “members” but there is only one “body” (12:20).  They together make up “the Messiah’s body” (12:27) and they need each other.  As we often see in the Bible, this point is emphasized by the use of repetition.  The word “all” is used 8 times.  “Same” occurs 7 times.  Ten times the word “one” is used to mean a complete entity.  Last, the word “whole” is repeated 3 times.  Let there be no mistake, Christians exist to be a part of something far bigger than what they can create themselves.

Then Paul ends this chapter in the most unexpected and seemingly contradictory way:

You should be eager for the better kinds of gifts.  Now I’m going to show you a better way, a much better way. (12:31)

Three times Paul uses the word “better.”  But if you say something is better to a bunch of hyper-competitive, pompous, attention-seekers of course they are going to want it.  Maybe this is something else they can use to divide and puff up.  What is this better thing?  What could be better than the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit?

What did not notice in this chapter? 

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1 Corinthians 3: One Big Family

On my bookshelf I have a book that chronicles my family’s history from the mid-1970s back to the 1800s when my ancestors moved from the United States to southern Ontario to farm and do millwork, to the 1700s when my forebears came from the Old World to Philadelphia as Quakers, and even to the 1600s in England.  My sons now like to look through our family history as much as I used to when I was their age.  But what I can’t do is go through the book and rip out the pages of ancestors who are embarrassing, eccentric, or outright egregious.  I can’t pick and choose my ancestors.  They are all right there, and each played a part in the varied tapestry of my heritage.  I am a part of something bigger than just my own life.  Sure, there are aunts and uncles I have been closer to than others, skeletons in my family’s closet I am content to keep locked away, and even a great-grandfather who sold land on the moon (a story for another day!)  But there they all are, and it is only the collection of them all that makes a family.

The Corinthians were simplifying matters.  They had chosen one part of their history and were exalting it above the rest.  Maybe that part was the heritage of Paul in their midst.  Or Apollos, who it appears came along after Paul and became the steady leader in the church.  Peter (or Cephas) might have spent time in Corinth or was just well-known as the chief apostle of sorts, and some pledged allegiance to him.  Others went all the way back to Jesus himself and limited their focus to him (c.f., 1:11-12).

Paul corrects the Corinthians, though, in this chapter.  They can’t pick and choose from their family history.  Paul brought the message of Jesus, then Apollos picked up where Paul left off, and maybe Peter did as well.  Each of these leaders were parts of the whole.  Paul uses a building metaphor to make that point; each is one part of “God’s building” (3:9), one brick in the wall if you will.  All of these leaders belong to them:

So don’t let anyone boast about mere human beings.  For everything belongs to you, whether it’s Paul or Apollos or Cephas. (3:21-22a)

Of course we have people in our families to which we feel a greater affinity, people who have shaped us more than others.  To apply this more directly to our churches, of course we will probably favor our churches over others, prefer our denominations over others, appreciate some preachers and teachers more than others.  But to use this as grounds and means to divide suspends the reality that God’s family is much larger than our preferences and division does nothing to honor God and develop the spiritual mind:

You’re still determined to live in the old way!  Yes, wherever there is jealousy and quarreling, doesn’t that mean you’re living in the old way, behaving as any merely human being might do?  When someone says “I’m with Paul!” and someone else says “I’m with Apollos!” are you not mere humans? (3:3-4)

May we be the people who work to bring the body of Christ closer together, not add to the fragmentation.

What caught your attention today?

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Ephesians 4: Put On The New Humanity

Back on Friday we saw that an important part of Paul’s specially tailored gospel message for Ephesus was that the cross has made the kingdom of God open to all people, Jews and Gentiles.  There is one new humanity irrespective of ethnicity.

Today, as Paul turns from the theological to the practical, from the God-part of the book to the Humanity-part, Paul reminds the Ephesians (and us) that God hasn’t just placed a bundle of blessings on their lap, they have a job in the new creation: make that new ethnicity-less humanity a reality in their everyday life as a church (4:1, 12, 22-24).  Paul brings this point home with the many “one another” phrases in this chapter (and also the very popular “one” passage in 4:4-6):

Bear with one another in love. (4:2a)

Be humble, meek, and patient in every way with one another. (4:2b)

. . . with your lives bound together in peace. (4:3b)

. . . held together by every joint which supports it [the church body] (4:16a)

We are members of one another. (4:25)

Be kind to one another. (4:32a)

Cherish tender feelings for each other. (4:32b)

Forgive one another (4:32c)

At the same time, we are not all the same.  Not only have we come from different backgrounds, God has equipped us with different gifts, abilities, and personalities (4:7, 11).  Yet, that diversity is unified by a common purpose:

The purpose of this [diverse gifting] is that we should all reach unity in our belief and loyalty, and in knowing God’s son.  Then we shall reach the stature of the mature Man measured by the standards of the king’s fullness. (4:13)

The “new humanity” we are called to become is best seen in the life and person of Jesus the King.  He died for us.  He saved us.  He is working inside of us and through us, all with the goal of becoming like him, not the world from which we have come (4:22-24).  That’s something that can create unity.

What phrase speaks loudly to you in this chapter?

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Acts 4: Giving to One Another

There was no needy person among them. (4:34a)

Really?

No one among the first few thousand Christians in Jerusalem had material needs?

Christians can’t say that today.  Of course, there are many times more Christians today than there was back then, and in many more impoverished areas of the world.  Still, that is an incredible claim.  Oh, for that to be true today!

How was that possible?  We have part of the answer if we back up a few sentences:

Nobody said that they owned their property; instead, they had everything in common. (4:32b)

This is the thinking that makes the lack of need possible: the realization that the material blessings that come our way are not our own.  We are stewards of God’s possessions.  We are conduits not swimming pools — blessings come in order to flow through us and out, not be collected for our leisure.  I need a new mind in this regard.  The feeling that makes this kind of radical care for the community of believers is in the sentence before this one:

The company of those who believed had one heart and soul. (4:32a)

A solidarity of spirit.  A unified soul.  A deep kindredness that has knit people together as one.  When that happens how could we let our brothers and sisters in Christ suffer in need?  I need a new heart in this area too.

Maybe that is the secret.  In only three chapters since the outpouring of the Holy Spirit we have seen a sea change in these disciples.  They have a new understanding they did not have before.  They are now becoming known for harnessing extraordinary power to heal.  In this chapter especially we have seen a boldness they certainly didn’t have two months before.  Now they possess a sacrificial love for each other.  How did they do it?

They didn’t.  The Holy Spirit came upon them in a deeply transforming way.  Their new mind and the new heart came from above.

Come Holy Spirit and give us radical, giving love for each other!

Categories: Acts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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