Why Should We Love One Another?

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: We all know the Lord’s commandment to love one another, yet some Christians claim that hatred is justified in some cases – such as when people hate us or sin and do not repent. The apostle John believed that love is all that is needed to save the world. Why was love so important to John?

Related post: I wrote the parable No Greater Love to express my view of why God sent Jesus to redeem us. The setting is heaven, and God (Source) and Christ (Life) are having a conversation about how to save souls that are lost.

Scripture: 1 John 4: 7-21

Click here to listen to a recording of this sermon.

We all know what Jesus taught us: that we should love one another. We call this the “Greatest Commandment” and the “Golden Rule.” Yet many people, including some Christians, believe hatred is justified some cases. Why should we love one another – especially people who don’t live their lives the way we think they should or who don’t love us or who hurt us? Is love really the answer in those cases?

In our scripture reading for today, the apostle John answers these questions. Remember that John wrote this first epistle around 85-90 A.D. By this time, he was an old man and the only living apostle. All the others, including Paul, had been martyred. He wrote this letter to encourage his audience of gentile believers and to counter false teachings.

If there is one thing that John encourages his audience to do the most, it is to love one another. He emphasizes it in chapter 2: 9-11, where he writes, “Whoever says, ‘I am in the light,’ while hating a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates a brother is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.”

He emphasizes it again in chapter 3 verses 15-17, where he writes, “All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?”

And John emphasizes loving one another again, heavily, in our scripture reading from chapter 4. So, for three chapters in a row, John emphasizes that whoever loves his brothers and sisters lives in the light, and whoever hates his brothers and sisters lives in darkness – in all cases.

The church father Jerome reported that there was a point at which the apostle John was so weak from old age that he had to be carried into church meetings. At the end of the meeting, they would help him to his feet to give a word of encouragement to the church.

He would consistently say, “Little children, let us love one another.” The believers began to grow tired of the same words time after time, so they finally asked him why he always said the same thing. He replied, “Because it is the Lord’s commandment, and if this only is done, it is enough.”

Why is love so darn important to John?

First, John explains that God is love, so if we say we are united with God in Christ, we must be love as well. Most people believe that love is a feeling – like our romantic love. But God’s Love is not a feeling; it is a choice.

We don’t always feel like loving others, do we? That’s our human side. But we can still choose to demonstrate love even when we don’t feel like it. We can choose to demonstrate love anyway because we realize that love is who we truly are, not this imperfect personal self who may feel hatred and desire vengeance.

So, love is not only a choice but also an action. As we read in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

For millennia, Christians have believed that we must love one another because God is love, and he demonstrated his love by sending his Son to die for our sins.

This is what John teaches, and I understand that it was easier for the gentiles in John’s day and for John himself to relate to Jesus as a sacrificial atonement for sin. In ancient times, human sacrifice to get on the good side of the gods was a common pagan practice, and the Jews themselves practiced the sacrifice of animals to atone for sin.

But I believe that idea is now too ancient for people to relate to. Today, many people ask, why would God, who loves us unconditionally, need his wrath appeased through the death of his own son? It’s no wonder Christianity is failing to inspire the masses today as it had back in ancient times.

Some pastors argue that while God is unconditionally loving, he is also a God of justice, so sin must be punished. I believe that God does not punish us because when we come before him as sinners, his verdict is “not guilty.”

Some might ask, “How is that possible, Pastor Joan? That doesn’t make any sense because clearly, we are guilty of sin.” Well, even in our human justice system, we do not hold people accountable for crimes if it can be proven that the individual was insane when he or she committed the crime, right?

That person is judged to be “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Even in our own human justice system, we know it’s unjust to punish people who commit crimes when they are not in their right mind. When they are not in touch with reality. When they don’t know who they are. When they know not what they do.

In 1 John 3:9-10, John writes, “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” So those who are in Christ cannot sin. Those who are in their right mind, the Mind of Christ, cannot sin. Those who are in touch with reality as God created it cannot sin. Those who know who they are cannot sin because they are fully aware of God’s Law of Love and practice it perfectly.

Most of us are not there yet. Most of us are still susceptible to moments of spiritual insanity, so when we do sin in those moments, we are judged by God as “not guilty by reason of spiritual insanity.”

That doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. We still experience the natural consequences of the sin we commit. That is the Law of Karma, but it isn’t meant to punish us. It is meant to teach us. People learn better from the natural consequences of their bad behavior than they do from some authority figure imposing a random punishment that often doesn’t fit the crime.

There are those who would then ask, “Pastor Joan, what about those who aren’t sorry for their sin? Who don’t seek forgiveness? Does God forgive them too?”

I believe God does forgive them too. I think about it this way. Does an insane person realize he or she is insane? No – that’s the problem – and the chances of them figuring it out are pretty slim especially if they are around a lot of people who are just as insane as they are. Most people in this world are spiritually insane – more or less. I like to call Earth the Asylum for the Spiritually Insane.

We are here in this asylum to help heal these people: To help restore their spiritual sanity as ours has been restored. And aren’t we glad for that! Aren’t we grateful?

That is why it is so important for us to shine our light – to show people what spiritual sanity looks like – so that those who are spiritually insane can look at our behavior and say, “Wow – look at how rationally he behaves. My behavior is ludicrous compared to his. What’s wrong with me? Wow – look at the peace and joy she always has. Why am I so miserable?”

Some might ask, what’s the point of asking for forgiveness then, Pastor Joan? Well, it’s not to appease God and avoid punishment. That’s childish, right? Does the child really know that he or she has done wrong in that case? No – only that he or she wants not to get punished.

The spiritually mature point of asking for forgiveness is a recognition on our part. We can’t stop sinning until we realize that a behavior is sinful and that we and/or others are suffering because of it. That recognition makes us feel sorry and to want to end the suffering caused by our sins. Seeking God’s forgiveness should be a cry for help to change our ways, not simply a tactic to avoid his punishment.

John writes in verses 18-19, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.”

What does God’s love look like? Jesus answered this question perfectly in the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke chapter 15. In the parable, the son sinned against the father by asking for his inheritance before his father died and then leaving the home and squandering his inheritance on corrupt living.

The consequences for his sinful behavior didn’t come from his father; they came naturally. He ended up feeding pigs during a famine, where there was so little food available that he wasn’t even allowed to eat the pigs’ food. To be around pigs much less to be treated as less important than one would have been extremely humiliating to a Jew.

As a result of experiencing the natural consequences for his sin, the son realized that he had sinned, was sorry, and returned to his father’s house, where he expected his father to punish him by at least by stripping him of his sonship and treating him like a hired hand.

But that isn’t what happened at all. When the father saw him coming, he ran toward him and embraced him, forgave him completely, and restored his sonship. Then he threw a party to celebrate his son’s return. That is how God loves us and how we should love one another.

But many act like the other son – the other son wasn’t happy to see how his father treated his prodigal brother. He believed his prodigal brother should be punished, and he himself should be the one for whom a party is thrown since he had always been with his father. He refused to attend his prodigal brother’s return party.

This is the attitude that many people, including Christians, have toward those who have sinned. By choosing not to attend the return party, they step out of the light and into the darkness. John writes in verses 20-21, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Christ came down to earth and lived and died through the man Jesus not to appease an angry God but to point to and demonstrate the true savior of the world – Love.

When all of humanity cares about one another like that – enough to take the risk to love in a world where it’s not popular – it will be the end of sin and the end of suffering. The Kingdom of Heaven will arrive. Love is all that’s needed. That is why love was so darn important to John, and why it should be just as important to us.

Let’s pray together: Father, we know that you love us, for you sent Jesus to save us. In gratitude for the love you extended to us through him, we vow to love our brothers and sisters so that they too may awaken to the saving knowledge of who you are and who they are in Christ. Amen.  

Sources:

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 19: Why We Must Love (1 John 4:7-11).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-19-why-we-must-love-1-john-47-11.

Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.

John 2021

Source: https://teachingcatholickids.com/st-john-the-apostle/

Scriptures: 1 John 3:1-10

Synopsis: When the apostle John wrote his first epistle, times had been tough for his audience of first-century Christians. He wrote the letter to give them assurance, encouragement, and warnings. Times are tough for us twenty-first century Christians as well. If John were alive today to write us a letter, what would it say?

Our scripture reading for today comes from First John. Now, John also wrote the Gospel of John, but our reading comes from the first of three letters he wrote. These letters, and others like them in the New Testament, are known as epistles.

Some epistles are written by other authors in the name of apostles. But first John is believed to have been written by John himself somewhere between 85-90 AD. John is known as “the disciple Jesus loved.” He was one of the sons of Zebedee. Jesus, during his crucifixion, asked John to take care of his mother, Mary. He, his brother James, and Peter were the Lord’s closest confidants.

John wrote this letter to several gentile congregations in order to reassure them in their faith. Times were tough. Both Christians and Jews had been suffering under heavy Roman persecution. The Romans had captured Jerusalem and destroyed the second Temple. By the time John wrote this letter, he was the only apostle left; the others, including the apostle Paul, had all been martyred.

As an elder statesman in the church, John addresses his audience as “dear children” and opens his letter with his credentials: He experienced Jesus for himself. He saw Jesus heal, heard him teach, watched him die, met him arisen, and saw him ascend. He witnessed Christ revealed through the man Jesus. You see, John also wrote this letter to counter a false teaching going around that Jesus was not the Christ.

What’s in this letter for us? Do we need assurance? Do we need encouragement? Do we need to be “set straight” on certain matters of belief? Times have certainly been tough for us nationally and globally. Nationally, we’ve experienced political and social strife. Globally, we’ve lost many lives due to the pandemic, and many are grief-stricken. And we’ve heard so much conflicting information that it’s hard to know what to think. If John were alive today, in 2021, to write us a letter, what would it say?

Christians often think that if God really loves us, life should be easy. But just as life wasn’t easy for John’s audience of first-century Christians, it’s not easy for us twenty-first century Christians. When we’re suffering so much, it’s tempting to doubt God’s love for us.

But just as John assured his audience, I believe he would assure us that God loves us because we are his children. That is who we are whether we know it or not, or whether we accept it or not. Our worth is firmly and forever established through our relationship with God. We don’t have to do anything to earn it. God’s Love has been given to us as freely.

Those of you who have children – would you make them earn your love? Of course not. You give it to them freely because they are your children. If you, as imperfect human beings, would love your children unconditionally, why do we doubt God’s love for us?

Christ is God’s Image – the face of God. Every human being is part of God’s Image, which he judged to be good. There is a wonderful story called “The Vessel” in the Talmud. The Talmud is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law and Jewish theology.

The story begins like this: Once Rabbi Elazar son of R. Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He rode along the riverside on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah.

There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man, who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, my master!” R. Elazar did not return his salutation but instead said to him, “How ugly you are! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?” “I do not know,” said the man. “But go to the craftsman who made me, and say to him: How ugly is the vessel which you have made!”

You see, we can’t reject any part of God’s Image without rejecting God. People who do not know or accept this truth do not know Christ. They believe worth is earned through the accumulation of wealth, power, or fame – or through belonging to the “superior” gender, race, religion, culture, or whatever.

No matter how much wealth, power, or fame they have, and no matter what “elite” group they belong to, they still don’t feel good about themselves. That’s because what they choose to believe doesn’t change the fact that our worth is established through our relationship with God only.

Anyone who considers himself or herself to be inferior or worthless does not know Christ. Anyone who considers another human being to be inferior or worthless does not know Christ. If we know who we are, then there is no doubt that we are worthy – no doubt that we are all are equally loved by God.

If we believe that all are worthy and equally loved by God, then we can accept that whatever happens in our lives is for our good. If we are all children of God, then God’s grace must be involved in our national and global lives as well as in our personal lives.

We know from the life of Our Lord that God may not deliver us from suffering; suffering is sometimes necessary for healing and new life.

Jesus suffered because he cared. He knew the reason why we suffer – because we sin. But he didn’t say, “Not my sin – not my problem.” He took on the sins of the world. His heart broke for the suffering of humanity ensnared in sin. Our hearts should be breaking too, but with compassion, not with judgment, or helplessness or hopelessness.

In John chapter 16:33, Jesus said, “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” We can have courage and peace while our hearts are breaking because he who conquered the world lives within us.

John writes in verse 2, “What we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” Similar to what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13:12: “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

What do these verses mean? I believe they mean that we will see Christ in all his glory when all of humanity has become like him. We will see him literally face-to-face – in our own face and in the faces of others – glowing out of the loving eyes of every brother and sister on this planet just as they see Christ glowing out of our loving eyes.

This should motivate us to purify ourselves. I believe these past few years have been like a crucible for humanity. When gold is purified, it is burned in a crucible over a very hot fire. We are purified in the same way. Through stress. And we’ve had lots of it.

And that brings us to a subject we don’t like to talk about: sin. I believe John would tell us the same thing he told his first-century Christian audience: Don’t fool yourself. We all struggle with sin. I love what James wrote in his letter in chapter 4, verse 8: “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”

Here is the rest of that story “The Vessel.” Realizing that he had done wrong, R. Elazar dismounted from his donkey, prostrated himself before the man, and said to him, “You are right. Forgive me!” But the man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made.’”

R. Elazar kept on walking after him until he reached his city. The residents of the city came out to greet him, saying, “Peace be upon you, O Teacher! O Master!” Said the man to them, “Whom are you calling ‘Master’?” Said they, “The person walking behind you.

“Said he to them: “If this is a ‘Master,’ may there not be any more like him in Israel.” “Why?” asked the people. Said the man: Such-and-such he has done to me. “Nevertheless, forgive him,” said they, “for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.” “For your sakes I will forgive him,” said the man, “but only if he does not act this way anymore.”

Soon after this, R. Elazar entered the study hall and taught: “A person should always be pliant as the reed, and let him never be hard as the cedar. And for this reason, the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah.”

R. Elazar was proud of himself for studying much Torah, just as there are many Christians today who are proud of their knowledge of the Bible. But what good is that knowledge if it doesn’t deepen our love of God or lead us to the knowledge of Christ?

The man R. Elazar called ugly didn’t let him off the hook with a simple “I’m sorry.” He needed to make a commitment to change. We must make that commitment also. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. We can’t love God and our sins. If we want the world to be a better place, we must start with ourselves.

If there were a false teaching for John to confront today, it would be the lie that some people’s lives don’t matter – whether it be women, people of color, incarcerated people, poor people, members of the LGBT community, immigrants, etc.

Every human life matters. No one’s life matters more than another’s. Every human being deserves to enjoy the gifts of Creation God gave us out of his love for us – for all of us. We all deserve equal opportunities and access to an enjoyable, fulfilling life. We should fight for it not only for ourselves, but for others because they deserve it too.

John writes, “Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” In Judaism, righteousness refers specifically to helping others. A righteous person does whatever he or she can to help those who are in need.

In Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, you will know them by their fruits.”

Anyone who ignores the needs of others or works to limit people’s access to life’s basic resources does not know Christ no matter what religious beliefs they claim.

John writes, “Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.” What does John mean? I believe he means that if we are like Christ, we would never sin. However, most of us are still in the process of becoming like Christ.

We all struggle with areas where temptation is strong and habits that are hard to break. If we ignore these areas, we are choosing to keep our distance from God. But if we are trying our best to be more like Christ, we do not intentionally sin. We do not cherish certain sins and continue to commit them.

John calls sin “lawlessness.” As a Jew, John recognized the Torah as law. In Matthew chapter 22:36-40, we read that a Pharisee asked Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

John doesn’t mince words when he writes to his first-century audience, and I believe he would be just as straightforward today. There’s no wriggle room in verse 10 where he writes, “All who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.”

I believe that if John wrote us a letter today, he would in his own fatherly way reassure us of God’s love and wag his finger at us to beware of sin and of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Trust in God’s word, he would say, not in the word of human beings.

We usher in the Kingdom of Heaven and the end of suffering when we all learn to love one another. Christ’s seed has been planted within the fertile ground of our hearts. As it grows, we become more like him. The seed needs the light of God’s love, the water of our repentant tears, and plenty of support from our brothers and sisters around us.

Let’s pray together:

Father, we know we are your children, and we accept that you love us even though we have suffered a lot. We acknowledge that we suffer because of our lack of love for one another. We are willing to change so that we may become more like Christ, who was created in Your Image, the image of Love. Amen.

Resources

Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.

“The Vessel (Talmud, Taanit 20a–b).” Chabad.org, www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/909930/jewish/The-Vessel.htm.

God Shows No Partiality

Gerbrand van den Eeckhout, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Artwork on the wall of the Saint Paul’s Community Church in Swiftwater, PA is alluded to in this sermon. The piece is an image of flowing water on a cross-shaped canvas. Jackie Lima of Easton, PA created the artwork. A picture of the artwork was not included in this post due to copyright law.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scriptures: Acts 10: 34-43

Today, we celebrate Easter Sunday, the day our Lord Jesus Christ resurrected from the dead. Every year, we celebrate and discuss how eagerly we await his return. Jesus’ disciples believed he would return in their lifetime to establish the Kingdom of Heaven. Obviously, that didn’t happen. We’re still waiting.

But I believe the door to the Kingdom of Heaven can be opened quickly if humanity so chooses. We already have the key, and it can be found in Peter’s speech from today’s scripture reading. Peter’s speech is a beautifully succinct summary of the gospel, but if we simply admire his speech without looking at the context around which he gave it, we miss a very important point.

Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

As Jesus promised, the disciples received the power of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem at Pentecost. After Peter addressed the crowd, many Jews became believers. The disciples began a commune, and there were two different types of Jewish believers in Jesus within this commune: the Hebrews, who were from Judea and Galilee, and the Hellenists, who were from outer-lying regions.

So, from the very beginning of our Christian history, there was diversity within the community of believers – even before gentiles become involved.

The Hellenists spoke Greek and had been influenced by Greek culture since they had lived outside of Jerusalem prior to moving to the city. The Hebrews spoke Hebrew and Aramaic, had always lived in the area of Judea and Galilee, and regularly worshipped at the Temple.

The Hebrews were proud of the fact that they had always spoken the language of their fathers, had always lived in the promised land, and had always worshipped at the Temple. In Acts chapter 6, the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected, so perhaps the Hebrews thought themselves superior to the Hellenists.

So, from the very beginning of our Christian history, partiality (or prejudice) infiltrated the community of believers – even before gentiles became involved.

At this point, the apostles had fulfilled the part of the mission of being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. The “to the ends of the earth” part would be more challenging. This part would be fulfilled through the gentiles who, as we know, eventually became involved.

Our scripture reading for today is a speech that Peter gives in response to the first gentile believer in Christ, the Roman Centurion Cornelius. He and his family were what the Jews called “God-fearers.”

Now the Hebrew word “fear” can also be translated in some contexts as more like the English word “awe.” So, we could say that the God-fearers revered the God of the Hebrews and to some extent attached themselves to Judaism and its practices without going through the conversion process.

Cornelius received a vision from God to send for Peter. The next day, Peter was up on the roof of his house, and he also received a vision: one that challenged him to eat foods that would be considered “unclean” according to the Torah.

You see, Jews were traditionally forbidden from associating with Gentiles. But after the vision, Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”

Then he began his speech with words that I believe are the key to the Kingdom of Heaven and would open the door quickly if only enough of humanity would truly understand them. Peter said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

God shows no partiality because we are United in Christ. But unity does not mean sameness. This beautiful piece of artwork in our sanctuary serves as a good illustration: this cross with the image of the flowing water.

It has an interesting history. It was loaned to us for a time. When the artist wanted it back, we realized that we had all grown quite attached to it. So, we took up a special offering and purchased it so that we could continue to be inspired by it.

The droplets of paint that make up the image are all part of the unity of this one piece of artwork, but they are not all the same. Some droplets may be the exact same color, but some are different. If this were not so, there could be no image of the flowing water.

Without the availability of different colors of paint, there could be no image. It is a great blessing to artists to have such a tremendous variety of colors with which to create images. This artist deliberately chose specific colors to create this image that says something about the Christ, who is symbolized by the shape of the cross. The image on the cross says something about who Christ is.

We are like those droplets of paint. Together, we make up an image that says something about who God is. Without our diversity, there could be no image. God is infinite, so it makes sense to me that God would need an infinite variety of life through which to express his infinite nature.

God shows no partiality. We are created in His Image, and He places great value on each of us because each of us is part of the unity of His Image even though we are not all the same.

The different colors in this beautiful piece of artwork are all unique, but unique doesn’t mean special. Imagine if one color judged itself superior to all the others and decided to steal all the light for itself so that it could outshine the others. What would happen to the image?

Imagine if some of the colors decided that certain colors shouldn’t even be in the painting. What would happen to the image? Do mere droplets of paint even have the power to do these things? Of course not! Who do they think they are? The artist?

If a color is there, then it has value equal to all the other colors, for the image would not be what it is without each color. The artist purposely selected that specific color for the image; it was not a mistake.

The same is true of each and every human being. God is the artist, and we all know from Genesis chapter one that he liked His Creation. Everything in Creation is part of His Reflection. No part is more special than another. Each unique human being is equally valuable in God’s sight, for without him or her, His image would not be what it is. God shows no partiality.

Who do we think we are if we judge other parts of God’s image to be inferior or an abomination?

The Gospel of Jesus Christ does not ask the question, “Are you in God’s grace?” or even “Are you saved?” These questions imply that it’s possible not to be. The moment Jesus resurrected from the dead, he answered “Yes” to these questions on behalf of all humanity. “Jesus Christ is Lord of all.”

The Gospel of Jesus Christ asks one question to people of all nations: “Do you know who you are?” Do you know that you are Life itself, the Perfect Image of God, who is Perfect Being? If you do, then you can recognize your eternal life in Christ. Death has no sting; the grave has no victory. But if you don’t, then you live in fear of death, and that is hell.

God shows no partiality. These words were quickly forgotten because of our human pride. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being proud of the person we are: proud of our gender, race, culture, religion, lifestyle, and so forth.

But when our pride is inflated to the point where we decide that we are superior to others because of our gender, race, culture, religion, beliefs, lifestyle, or whatever, then we are making these things more important to us than the love that binds us together in Christ.

At that point, our pride has become the sin of idolatry. We have made our personage a golden calf, and we are bowing down and worshipping it. People who don’t know who they have no other choice. So of course, they will cling to and viciously defend this image of who they think they are. But the truth needs no defense. Our true identity in Christ needs no protection.

Jesus was very proud of his Jewish religion and culture. Certainly, his primary mission was to his own people, but he never snubbed others. Jesus taught that if you are Jewish, then follow the Torah properly, and teach others to do the same. If you are not Jewish, you are still worthy because you are part of God’s Image.

God shows no partiality. Jesus believed every human being, as part of God’s Image, is valued by God. When we talk about the unconditional love of God, we’re not talking about sappy romantic love; we’re talking about treating every human being as equally valuable and equally deserving of respect and care.

Jesus treated everyone that way – both Jews and non-Jews. His arms stretched out on the cross to embrace all people in God’s unconditional love. If we say we love Jesus, then we must embrace all of humanity as he did – and that includes ourselves.

So, I tell you, my friends, whichever part of the diversity of God’s Image you represent, represent it gloriously. Let it shine. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you are inferior. Don’t believe anyone who tells you you don’t belong. You can be proud, but always remember that the glory belongs to God.

Peter said, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” I believe Truth is like an underground river in our hearts that we all have access to. Each culture taps into that underground river and constructs a well from which to drink of this Truth. The main material is some form of scripture. Each culture attempts to live life to the fullest based upon their understanding of their scriptures, out of which beliefs and traditions also emerge and become part of the well.

Since each culture is different and understands things in different ways, the materials used to build these wells are all different. The wells may look different, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t express the Truth each in a different way. I believe Christ is the only way to the Father, but I also believe that Christianity is not the only way to Christ.

God shows no partiality. With this statement, Peter confessed that Judaism was not the only path to Christ. Eventually, he turned the reins of the gentile mission over to the Apostle Paul – a pharisee who dedicated his life to Torah. He placed the burden of Torah on himself as a Jew, but he did not insist that other believers in Jesus become Jews.

Unfortunately, Paul was unable to convince other Jewish Christians that it wasn’t necessary for believers in Jesus to become Jewish, and gentile Christians returned the favor. They eventually began criticizing Jewish believers in Jesus for continuing to follow Torah. If both had been secure enough in their true identity in Christ; they would not have been so threatened by cultural differences.

Instead, both sides clung to their “Jewish” or “Christian” identity. In the end, both sides protected their identities by creating definitions. This made it very difficult for Jewish believers in Jesus to find acceptance because they were unwelcomed by Jewish communities for believing in Jesus and by Christian communities for continuing to follow Torah. Because of this conflict, the number of Jewish believers in Jesus began to decline.

God shows no partiality. Christ had not yet entered into the hearts of enough people for those words to stick, but I believe that has changed.

I know it doesn’t appear that way at times, but I believe most people want peace on earth and that can come only through accepting the value of every human being and every human being’s right to be respected and cared for just as much as every other human being.

How can we in this day and age allow Peter’s words to enter into our hearts and finally bring about the Kingdom of Heaven? First, we need to honestly ask ourselves, “Do I truly believe that God loves every single human being on this planet just as much as he loves me? Do I truly believe that every single human being on this planet deserves as much respect and care as I do?

It’s easy to answer, “Of course I do!” But we humans love to feel special. We can easily treat people unequally or tolerate their unjust treatment without even realizing it.

Next, we need to take the time to get to know people who are different from us. It is human nature to gravitate toward those who are more like us. We enjoy the company of like-minded people. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we don’t spend time only with people who are like us.

When we do that, it’s easier to vilify people who are not like us because we don’t know them. Often, much of what we think we know about them isn’t the truth. We humans like to pretend we already know people even though we haven’t taken the time or effort to actually get to know them. That’s why stereotypes are so popular.

If we really want to challenge ourselves, we can take the time to get to know someone we really dislike. Here in America, especially these days, we don’t seem to have as much of a dislike for people who are religiously different from us as we do for people who are politically different from us. So, I challenge you to get to know someone with different political ideas.

I’ve read several stories about a Republican and a Democrat actually taking the time to have a civil conversation. They realized that they have a lot more in common than they thought. That helped to greatly “soften” their harsh attitudes toward one another. In fact, it might even have helped them embrace one another as equally worthy human beings. What a miracle!

Let that miracle and others like it spread throughout the world, open the hearts and the arms of all to embrace every human being in the Love of Christ, and usher in the Kingdom of Heaven quickly. Amen!

Judas of Galilee Would Have Sided with the Jan 6th Capitol Rioters – Not Jesus

Jan Wijnants, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of the members of the church I serve or other organizations for which I am employed.

The Christian Nationalists who stormed the Capitol on January 6th claimed that Jesus was on their side. I don’t believe Jesus would have sided with them, but if we were to pick someone from Jesus’ time who would have sided with them, a good choice would be Judas of Galilee.

Judas of Galilee was the founder of the Zealots during the time of Jesus. The Zealots hated anyone who paid taxes to the Romans or accepted their rule. They refused to accept any ruler other than God and any law other than Torah. They attempted to undermine Roman rule through violence.

There was a splinter group of the Zealots called the Sicaris who were terrorists. They would stealthily infiltrate a crowd and stab Romans and Roman sympathizers. Either the world would be run their way, which they claimed was God’s way, or there would be hell to pay.

This attitude was not one Jesus supported. Jesus taught people to respect civil law. When the Pharisees asked him whether it was a violation of Torah to pay imperial taxes, Jesus answered, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Many Christian Nationalists clearly entered Washington, D.C. with violent intentions. Jesus would not have approved of this behavior. When Jesus entered into the City of Jerusalem, he rode in on a donkey, not a war horse. In this way, he made it clear that his intentions were not violent.

Immediately after entering Jerusalem, Jesus cleansed the Temple, calling it a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:12-13). Some say this demonstrates that Jesus was not a pacifist, and they use this incident as an excuse for their violent behavior. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, he wasn’t protesting political behavior; he was protesting religious behavior.

Jews were coming from long distances to worship God at the Temple. Since it was difficult to bring sacrificial animals long distances, people would buy them at the Temple, but first their money had to be converted to Temple currency. The moneychangers converted foreign money at a low rate, and the merchants charged high prices. So essentially, people traveling long distances to worship God at the Temple were being robbed in God’s own house.

This made Jesus very angry. How would you feel if visitors coming to your church to worship God were being treated this way? Wouldn’t you protest? Well, Jesus didn’t simply complain about it; he protested using a demonstration – one that didn’t hurt anyone, only the pocketbooks of the corrupt.

Jesus taught that the greatest commandment is to love God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves. And when a Pharisee asked him, “And who is our neighbor?” he opened the door to one of the greatest parables ever told – the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The Samaritans were the people the Jews hated the most – and the feeling was certainly mutual. Yet when a fellow Jew was robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road, two other Jews refused to help him for “religious reasons.” They were too concerned with cleanliness to practice the greatest commandment.

What good is going to church every Sunday, partaking in the sacraments, and studying the Bible if it doesn’t teach us to love one another? If it doesn’t teach us that every life is worth saving? The Samaritan went above and beyond to take care of his “enemy.” He might not have followed the Torah as closely as those two Jews, but he knew and actually practiced the Spirit of Torah better than they.

Most of the Zealots were from Galilee. The fact that Jesus was also from Galilee probably contributed to his crucifixion. Given the behavior of the Zealots, the Roman authorities seriously doubted that a religious teacher from Galilee was a peacemaker, not an insurrectionist.

When Pontius Pilate gave the crowd the choice to release Jesus or Barrabas, they chose Barrabas – a Zealot who had committed murder. Some Christians hate the Jews for this, yet they are making the same choice.

Most Galileans were not well educated. They knew just enough religion to make them dangerous, but not enough to get the point. I would say the same is true of Christian Nationalists.

The Hard Spiritual Lesson of Donald Trump’s Presidency

Image Creator: Adam “Kimded” Howie at https://images.app.goo.gl/rA1now6QECoFciRX7

Disclaimer: This is my personal opinion. It is not necessarily the opinion of the members of the church I serve or other organizations for which I am employed.

The best-learned lessons are often the hard ones, and Donald’s Trump’s presidency has brought into sharp focus the ego-consciousness that humanity must evolve beyond in order to survive.

Ego-consciousness developed out the primitive reptilian centers of the brain. Its primary focus was originally physical self-preservation: to protect us from bodily harm. That came in handy when we needed to run from saber-toothed tigers. But once we no longer needed to worry about being eaten by predators, ego-consciousness shifted its primary focus to psychological self-preservation: to protect our self-image from harm.

That shift has caused a lot of problems for humanity.

Our self-image (or ego) is the ideas we hold about who we are, but those ideas are just that. As Shakespeare wisely quilled, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players ….” Our bodies and self-image are just as unreal as the costumes and characters of a play. When our time on stage is over, we hang up our costumes, retire our character, and return to who we really are – Life itself.

When Jesus said in “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life …” (John 14:6), he meant that we are not humans experiencing life; we are Life experiencing itself as human – the One experiencing itself as many. Since we are Life itself, we do not die; we simply keep experiencing ourselves through an infinite variety of costumes and characters.

Life supports all of Life. Every aspect of life is equally worthy of care because Life is One. When we accept this truth and begin living our lives according to it, we leave behind ego-consciousness and enter into Christ-Consciousness (or Unity Consciousness).

The ego sees itself as separate from the rest of life; therefore, it perceives life as “the enemy.” It hates life because it doesn’t always cater to its desires. Whenever life doesn’t go the ego’s way, it feels “cheated,” then it does whatever it can to get its way – no matter the cost.

That makes the ego Life’s enemy – not the other way around.

Trump is obviously strongly attached to his self-image, particularly the idea of being a “winner.” In his mind, if he is a “winner,” then it is impossible for him to lose. Conceding to any loss would cause the annihilation of his “winner” self-image, so he must do everything he can to defend himself against the idea that he lost – no matter the cost.

Losing is like a saber-toothed tiger to his self-image.

No one can win all the time, so we can imagine the unbearable pressure this must put on Trump and those like him. People who are in tremendous pain cause tremendous pain for others. We need to have compassion for them while holding them accountable for their harmful behavior. We also need to increase our own awareness of ego-consciousness operating within us so that we can let it go.

That is the only way to be at peace with ourselves, others, and all of life.

The Gift of Peace

Image by janeb13 from Pixabay

Synopsis: It has been a tough year – so tough that if we could have any Christmas gift we wanted, many would probably say, “I just want peace.” God has already offered us the gift of peace through the coming of Jesus, but not many have received the gift. To receive the gift requires us to be willing to change how we relate to life.

Scripture: Luke 2: 1-20

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

This Christmas is extra special. In celebrating the birth of Jesus tomorrow, we also celebrate new birth. And we are so ready for something new. More than ever before, we are eager for the new – so eager that for several months, many have expressed how they can’t wait for the coming of the new year.

Yes, it has been a very stressful year. Nationally, we’ve faced the tension of political strife and social unrest – add to that the strain of a global pandemic. At this point, if we could have any Christmas gift we wanted, anything at all, I bet most of us would say we want peace.

But you know … we have already been offered the gift of peace through the coming of Jesus Christ into this world and his redemptive work. His peace is a priceless gift that lasts forever. Unfortunately, not many have received the gift. The main problem is that we don’t feel worthy.

I bet the shepherds felt the same way. After all, they were just lowly shepherds, watching over their flocks by night – working the graveyard shift. The next thing they knew, light was shining all around them, an angel was speaking to them, and the entire heavenly host was singing. God was sending them a message, and it was marked “important.” Don’t we wish we could mark our email messages “important” like that instead of with that little red exclamation point that everyone ignores?

When God sends an important message, it’s impossible to ignore. He sure got the shepherds’ attention! They were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t’ be afraid! I have good news for you!” Then, the angel announced the best gift ever: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Then the angel tells them something that I’m sure really shocked them. He tells them that they will find the Messiah wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Maybe they expected to hear that they will find him wrapped in the finest silk, lying in a crib of gold, inside a king’s palace. But this was not a worldly prince; this was a heavenly prince: The Prince of Peace.

The gift of peace is for ALL the people. That means you are worthy to receive it no matter who you are or what you have done.

The shepherds received it. How do we know? The shepherds said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” They went to check Jesus out. They wanted to see their gift because they had received it.

Receiving the gift of peace requires a shift in how we relate to life. The shift starts with acknowledging who we really are. We are not really these persons; we are the Christ – one with God, with one another, and with all of creation. In fact, we are part of Life itself, so we lack nothing – including worth.

Once we can accept that we are part of Life, then we can stop relating to life as if it were the enemy. Yes, life can be hard, but it is ultimately good. God designed it for our spiritual growth – so that we, like Jesus, might each become the perfect expression of Who God Is.

We humans are like a caterpillar – driven to constantly seek and consume. Inevitably, life as a caterpillar becomes too painful, so it begins to shed its skin and build its cocoon. This past year, the pain of a pandemic has caused many of us to shed the false ideas we had about ourselves, particularly the idea that we are separate beings – that our choices do not affect others. So, we entered our cocoons.

The caterpillar doesn’t know when it will transform into the butterfly, but God knows. God decides when the time is right. But the caterpillar will definitely transform, and so will we. Until then, we must accept life as it is, including the pain, trusting that all is proceeding according to God’s Plan.

The Christ cannot be found in the “inn” of our minds. There is no room in the inn or “intellect.” That’s where all our false ideas are lodged – including the idea that life is not good enough and neither are we.

The Christ can only be found in the stable of our hearts – in that peaceful, still space between thoughts – and we nurture the Christ child within us by paying more attention to that space rather than to the complaints that fill the mind.

This is the journey of becoming that we have been on our entire lives. That child represents our potential as human beings. Like all children, that child is destined to grow up and become an adult.

Once we have grown up, we are no longer becoming. We are being. We are being the gift of peace, and that will transform the world into the kingdom of heaven. Let it be so. AMEN.

Mother Mary — A Portrait of Love

By Salomon Koninck (Konstnär, 1609-1656) Amsterdam, Nederland – LSH 89006 (hm_dig3552), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28914925

Synopsis: Humanity has been presented with an unexpected, overwhelming challenge with this pandemic. How do we respond? When Mary was presented with an unexpected, overwhelming challenge, her response was the most loving response possible: to accept what is. It’s simple, but not easy. How was Mary able to do it?

Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-38

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

The appearance of an unexpected event in our lives can challenge us spiritually. When that event is not only unexpected but also overwhelming, it’s even tougher to deal with. How many of us anticipated a pandemic at this time last year? Yet, this unexpected, overwhelming challenge is the card humanity has been dealt along with many other challenges that have come with it.

How do we respond to challenges like these? We focus a lot on the life of Jesus as an example for us, but Mother Mary provided a worthy example as well. Unlike Jesus, she was not “front-and-center,” but she was there, behind the scenes, shining her great light in a quiet, humble way.

Our gospel story takes place in Luke’s gospel, which was written for a Gentile audience. At the beginning is a dedication to someone called Theophilus. No one knows who he was, but most scholars believe he was an influential Gentile for whom Luke wanted to offer an historical account of the life of Jesus Christ and the spread of the gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

The conception of Jesus is not the only miracle in this first chapter. There is also the miracle of the conception of John the Baptist, whose mother, Elizabeth, was barren.
An angel appeared to Zechariah to give him the news of his wife’s pregnancy and the upcoming birth of a son. Since Zechariah doubted the words of the angel, he was struck mute until the angel’s words were fulfilled.

That takes us to today’s reading about the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she will give birth to the Son of the Most High.

Ladies – try to imagine yourselves in Mary’s shoes. You are a young woman – 12-14 years old. You belong to a respectable Jewish family. In fact, you come from Jewish royalty. You belong to the tribe of Jessie, and you are a direct descendant of King David.

You are betrothed to Joseph, who is also of the tribe of Jessie and a direct descendant of King David. Your father arranged your marriage. You were consulted about this after the fact, but only as a formality. Even if you said, “Him … ewwweh, no way!” You wouldn’t get out of it. All you’d get was a look of extreme displeasure from your father.

Next a public announcement was made, and you were officially “engaged.” During this time, typically at least a year, you still lived in your father’s house, and you were not allowed to lie with your betrothed.

Even so, your engagement couldn’t be broken off except through death or divorce. Your father, Joachim (YO-ah-kim), would have received a “mohar” – a dowry – as payment for you. The mohar was typically paid in cash, but sometimes it was paid in service.

Once the engagement period ends, the marriage ceremony will take place where you will be escorted to Joseph’s house to begin living with him. At that time, ownership of you will be passed from your father to your new husband.

Now, imagine that at some point during your engagement period, while you were still living in your father’s house, you are visited by the angel Gabriel.

You’re not only very startled by this supernatural greeting but also shocked at the news that you will give birth to the Son of the Most High who will reign over the house of Jacob forever. You have only one burning question, “How can I possibly be pregnant?” The angel’s answer is bewildering and astounding: The Holy Spirit will impregnate you, so the child will be the Holy Son of God.

The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, “Joshua,” a common name which means, “the Lord saves.” The symbolism of Jesus’ name would not have been lost on the people of his day. As Joshua led the people Israel into the Promised Land, Jesus will lead them into eternal Life.

As we know, the Jews lived according to Torah Law, which is found in the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Bible. According to Deuteronomy chapter 22, if a girl is found not to be a virgin when the marriage is consummated, not only can her betrothed divorce her, but she can also be stoned to death for adultery.

Just imagine ladies: You’re barely a teenager, and now you have to explain your pregnancy by telling everyone about a vision you had from the angel Gabriel. Maybe you can imagine them looking at you, shaking their heads, and saying, “Sure Mary, the Holy Spirit made you pregnant.”

How scared might you be? How much might you wish this situation would just go away somehow? How much might you wish it was someone else, not you? But we all know Mary’s wonderful response upon hearing the angel’s message. She said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s response reflects the most loving response we can possibly have toward unexpected, overwhelming challenges and anything else that shows up in life – to simply accept what is. It’s simple, but not easy. How was Mary able to do it?

She said, “Here am I – the servant of the Lord.” Mary was able to respond with love because she accepted “what is” by first accepting who she is: a servant of the Lord.

We are experiencing ourselves as human beings who appear to separate from God, one another, and all of Life. The truth is that we are not separate – only different – and each with a specific function.

Just as the hand may be different from the foot but is not separate from the body, we are all part of the body of Christ with different functions all in service to God as an expression of who God is.

Mary accepted what is – the fact that she is part of the body of Christ with a specific function, and her function was to be the vessel through which Christ became manifest in the world of form by becoming a human being – Jesus.

God chose Mary for this task – a young, poor female. These characteristics might have made the people of her day doubt that anything good could come from her. But God created her for this purpose, so Mary didn’t say, “I can’t do this! I’m not worthy!”

You might think your age or lack of experience, education, or ability might disqualify you from God selecting you for any major task. But God created you. God knows your gifts and talents. If God selects you, then you should have confidence in yourself because He has confidence in you.

Mary was able to respond with love because she accepted another “what is” – that we are not all alone in this world. She knew that this was not the one-and-only time she would receive guidance from Spirit but that she would continue to receive this guidance on a regular basis.

How can we know that she believed this? Well, if she thought this one message was it, she probably would have asked a lot more questions than just “How can I be pregnant?” I think she would have also wanted to know, “How am I going to explain this to everyone? What will happen if they don’t believe me? Will I get stoned to death?”

Just like Mary, we are all capable of regularly receiving guidance from Spirit, but if we are not open to receiving this guidance, then we will not experience it. The main problem is that we don’t consider ourselves worthy enough to receive it, so we try to handle life’s challenges on our own.

Mary was able to respond with love because her trust in her connection with Spirit enabled her to stay in the present – with “what is” in time. At that moment, the only pertinent question was, “How can I be pregnant?” She didn’t ask any questions about the future because the future was not yet “what is.”

Most of our suffering is caused by our own thoughts and feelings, which create an alternate reality that is not “what is.” Our minds create stories about the past or future, and if we believe those stories, we naturally experience feelings, like regret or fear, that make those stories seem true. But feelings don’t make it so.

We so often feel like we are on our own because Spirit doesn’t “buy into” the alternate realities created by our minds. As far as Spirit is concerned, if the problem isn’t real, then guidance isn’t required. Spirit is available to us to help us deal with what is real – with what is happening now.

Mary said, “Let it be with me according to your word.” If this is God’s Will, then I accept it as it is. Mary was able to respond with love because she had the right attitude toward “what is.” No matter what is happening, life is always changing. Even if an external situation doesn’t change for a while, we can decide how we want to experience it internally. We can choose peace.

Mary was favored by God, but didn’t mean her life was easy as Jesus’ mother. Her fiancé came close to abandoning her, her peers probably ridiculed her, and her son would be rejected and murdered. Mary endured all these things trusting in God’s plan, even though she couldn’t see how it would all work out in the end.

Life is like a river. The river does what it does whether we like it or not. We can either go with the flow and be at ease or resist it and exhaust ourselves, but the river will always win. So, resisting life and being unhappy doesn’t change anything but our experience.

It’s human nature to have preferences, but the mind often turns those into likes and dislikes and insists that life always deliver according to its preferences in order to be happy.

So, I might simply prefer chocolate ice cream to vanilla ice cream, but if mind tells me that I like chocolate ice cream and dislike vanilla ice cream, and I chose to believe that, I will no longer be able to enjoy vanilla ice cream when I can’t have chocolate ice cream.

We resist half of life in this way when we forget that we simply have preferences and allow them to turn into strong “likes” and “dislikes.” I’m sure Mary would have preferred that Jesus was conceived in the usual way, but she was open to a very different experience.

We can notice the mind’s complaints and then gently remind ourselves everything is good and exactly as it should be. Nothing is lacking within you, within me, within others, or within life. When we can let things be as they are, we can let go, relax, and be at peace instead of always fighting “what is.”

Mary was able to respond with love because she allowed love to be her guide since love is “what is.” Love is all there is. She allowed the Mind of Christ to guide her, not the human mind, which generally takes us in the opposite direction of love. Love guided her actions and speech. She was the servant of Love.

We too are called to be the servant of Love and give birth to Christ in human form – in our human form. Jesus was the first to show us what Love looks like in human form, and now it is time for us to morph into the butterfly – to become the full potential of who we are.

Mary’s response perfectly illustrates a loving response toward whatever is happening in life: first, not resisting what’s happening which makes perfect sense since it’s already happening, so it’s too late to do anything about it anyway; second, trusting that life is essentially good; third, trusting that we are loved and supported, and finally, letting love be our guide.

It seems miraculous that someone as young as Mary had the wisdom to respond the way she did, but when we think about it, it is perhaps her young age that made it easier. She was still just an innocent child, and as Jesus said in Matthew 18:3 “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

There is no better time than this unexpected, overwhelming time we live in now to accept “what is” and let it be the catalyst that inspires us to become a Portrait of Love.

Let love be our guide. Like Mary, we are dealing with many judgmental, hostile people these days too. If we are tempted to say something that we know does not come from love, then we can choose to keep quiet. If we are tempted to do something that we know does not come from love, then we can choose not to do it. If we make mistakes or fail to resist temptation, we can choose love again and forgive ourselves.

Love is the strongest force in the universe, and it will save the world. One person shining the light of love can dispel the darkness generated by thousands. Just think of the saving power unleashed into the world by Mary’s loving acceptance of her task. That is how powerful we are.

Let’s pray together: Father, we are willing to accept the task of becoming the Portrait of Your Love that you created us to be by allowing the Christ to become manifest in our human form. Through the power of Your Spirit, help us to accept “what is,” trusting that You, the Author of Life, made Life good, and offer us all the loving support we need to be happy. AMEN.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “Christmas Faith: Matthew 1:18-2:23.” Bible.org, bible.org/article/christmas-faith-matthew-118-223

Lake, Gina. Ten Teachings for One World: Wisdom from Mother Mary. Kindle Edition.

Life Application Study Bible (NIV), 3rd ed. Tyndale, 1 Oct. 2019.

Schauss, Hayyim. “Ancient Jewish Marriage.” MyJewishLearning.com, www.myjewishlearning.com/article/ancient-jewish-marriage/

“Who was Theophilus at the Beginning of Luke and Acts?” gotquestions.org, www.gotquestions.org/Theophilus-Luke-Acts.html

Waiting for the Lord in Peace

Matejko|Public Domain

Synopsis: In difficult times such as these, we may begin to ask, “Why hasn’t the Lord come already to make things right?” To be at peace, we must accept God’s timing and patience as well as our responsibility to obey the Law of Love by extending Love to others.

Click here to listen to an audio recording of this sermon.

Scripture: 2 Peter 3: 8-15.

What makes difficult times even more difficult is when there is strife close to home – when there is conflict with your spouse or children or other relatives. I know of at least one friend who has sadly become estranged from her parents over their different opinions around politics and the pandemic.

The same strife can occur within the church in tough times. Christians can lose their patience. They may wonder, “Why doesn’t Christ come already and set things right?” They may wonder if Christ is coming at all. They may begin to believe those who tell them, “Stop believing in fairytales. God doesn’t exist, and no one’s coming to save the world.”

This problem is why Peter wrote his second letter to the churches in Asia Minor. Some false teachers were scoffing at the idea of Christ coming again to judge the world. Peter wanted these Christians to focus on the Word of God as their primary instruction, not on the word of false teachers.

Those false teachers were living lustful, greedy lifestyles. The teaching about the final judgement was inconvenient, so they tried to persuade other Christians to abandon their faith in the Lord’s promise. Perhaps that way, they would lose having to constantly hear about the final judgment and gain some party friends.

The first subject Peter addresses is the question, “If Christ is coming again, why hasn’t he come already?” Peter’s explanation makes perfect sense. God’s timing is different from ours. We live only about 100 years, but God is eternal. Just like $2000 is like a penny to a billionaire, two thousand years is like a day to God.

Christ will come again at the right time, and only God knows when the right time will be. Only our eternal God can see what is happening in all times: past, present, and future because God is connected to everything. Through Christ, God is aware of everything because Christ is connected to God. Everything that has ever existed, is existing now, or will exist in the future is within this One Consciousness that we call Christ consciousness or the Mind of Christ.

We all share this One Consciousness. Those who designed this church, who built this church, who created every aspect of this church, who witnessed it being built share this One Consciousness with us. That is why we can all see this church and describe it the same way. Its creation is recorded in Christ Consciousness.

We do not have the ability to be aware of everything as these personal selves, but we all have the ability to perceive beyond our personal experiences to a certain extent because our individual consciousness is part of Christ Consciousness.

Some of you might have experienced this ability, known as “clairvoyance.” Some people have developed this ability to the point where they can help with things like criminal investigations by looking into the past or guide people by looking into the future.

It’s pretty cool! But not even the most skilled clairvoyant can see all that God sees, so we don’t understand what’s taking so long for Christ to return. We’re like the little kid who doesn’t understand calendar time, so she keeps asking, “Is it my birthday yet?” or the little kid in the car who has no concept of time as it relates to distance, so he keeps asking, “Are we there yet?”

Are you coming, Lord? Are you coming? Are you coming? We Christians have been asking this question nonstop at least since the 60 A.D mile marker. That’s when this letter was written. We’re at the 2,020 A.D. mile marker. Those Christians in Asia Minor thought they had been waiting a long time? Huh! The Lord promised he would come again, didn’t he? Yes, but God’s sense of time is different from ours.

Now, imagine if you were one of the people who was not yet saved when Christ returned. Wouldn’t you wish the Lord would have waited for you? What if one of your loved ones was not yet saved? Wouldn’t you wish Lord would have waited for them? That’s Peter’s second explanation as to why Christ hasn’t yet returned; it also makes perfect sense.

God loves all of humanity and doesn’t want anyone to perish. He’s not making us wait because he’s foolishly procrastinating or reluctant to keep his promise. He’s patiently waiting for as many people to come to Christ as possible. Let us not use His merciful patience against him by claiming that He can’t save us – or won’t.

It took about 100 years for Noah to build the ark. During that time, Noah preached repentance to the people, trying desperately to change their hearts. God didn’t want anyone to perish. He gave them as much time as he could to repent, but when it was it time, the judgment came in the form of a great flood, and no one could escape it.

That’s how it’s going to be when Christ comes again. If everyone is not saved by the time He comes, it isn’t because God failed; it’s because of our free will, which God gave us. Some will not enter into the kingdom of heaven, but eventually, all will return to the Kingdom of God.

What’s the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the Kingdom of God? I believe the kingdom of heaven is what we are working toward – the part in the Lord’s prayer where we say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At some point, most of humanity will choose to follow God’s Law of Love, and that will transform all of our lives on earth.

I believe humanity joined with Christ will judge the world, using God’s Law of Love as the measuring stick. Love supports Life unconditionally. Christ will judge all our earthly institutions, systems, policies, and laws to determine if they support Life. If they don’t, they will be destroyed or reconstructed to support Life. That’s my vision of how the kingdom of heaven will come.

I think Peter is alluding to something else: The Day of the Lord – the day when all of heaven and earth will pass away. I think of it as the pause between God inhaling and exhaling. When God exhaled, that was the Big Bang. Everything came into existence. Eventually, God will begin inhaling – drawing everything back into Himself. When all has returned, that is the Day of the Lord, the Kingdom of God – the pause before the next exhale. No manifested forms, only the Spirit of God.

Peter imagines this day as there being another loud noise, like the Big Bang, and everything being disclosed before it is dissolved in fire. It’s the end of the world – all worlds – all of Creation, and the beginning of a new Creation. It’s the Cycle of Life, and the Universe is part of it. It begins and seems to end only to begin again anew. 

So, while not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven when it arrives, all will eventually be drawn back into God Himself, the Kingdom of God, and purified before the next round of Creation begins.

Peter’s description of the end of the world is terrifying for those who don’t know who they are, but it isn’t terrifying for me or for you. Beneath all of the layers of my humanity, I know there is a part of me that will always be me, and that part is God.

And you know that beneath all of the layers of your humanity, there is a part of you that will always be you, and that part is God.

I will always be aware of me, and you will always be aware of you, and we will always be aware of each other because in Christ, we are literally God’s identity. We are his “I AM.”

That is the good news that Jesus came to not only teach us but to demonstrate to us. There is no need to fear because in Christ we never lose our “I AM,” not when we die physically, not even when all of heaven and earth passes away.

So, what do we do with this knowledge? First, let us be grateful that we know this and have no fear of death. We know the death of our physical bodies is not the end of our “being.” But not everyone knows that, and those who don’t are living their lives very afraid. That should touch or hearts. That should inspire us to go out and spread the good news.

Unfortunately, the way we Christians have spread the “good news” has often been a fire-and-brimstone kind of approach. Fear is what blocks love. We can’t expect people to turn to love by making them feel afraid. And if we make people feel guilty or ashamed, how will that make them fear God less?

So, let us extend love to others, not judgment. The more you make people feel safe and accepted as they are, the more likely they will be open to hearing the good news that they are just as safe and accepted with God because of who they are, not what they have done. They are God’s child, and God has given them eternal life in Christ.

The more we extend love to others, the faster the kingdom in heaven will arrive. So, when you’re feeling a bit impatient, let that impatience be the fuel that motivates you to extend love to more people to alleviate their fears and to make them more open to hearing the good news from you.

Peter advises us to “strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish.” What did he mean by this?

One of the biggest misconceptions some Christians have is the belief that Jesus abolished Torah Law. Part of the problem is the anti-Semitic teachings of Marcion, who basically taught that Jesus canceled the entire Old Testament. Although he was declared a heretic in 144 A.D, some remnants of his teachings have unfortunately remained in Christian thought.

Another part of the problem is with the interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5: 17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Brad H. Young, professor of Biblical Literature in Judeo Christian Studies at the Graduate Department of Oral Roberts University, believes that three words in this verse have taken on different meanings than they would have had in ancient Jewish thought.

First, the word “law.” The Hebrew word “Torah” comes from the root “yarah,” which means “shoot an arrow,” or “teach.” So, the word Torah refers to the teaching or instruction that is true and straight so that it hits the bulls-eye, which is to guide us toward experiencing the fullness of life God intended for us.

So, Torah is more than just the first five books of the Old Testament with all the rules Jews follow. When Jesus used the word, it meant far more to him than that. Remember Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question about which is the greatest commandment in the law in Matthew 22: 36-40.

He answered, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Jesus loved Torah. Paul loved Torah. Torah was their life. To them, the Torah is Life because it gives Life – the abundance of Life. As Christians we do not need to follow Torah the way Jews do as part of their covenant with God, but we do need to follow the Law of Love, which is essentially the spirit of Torah. This is the bridge that Paul constructed for us – a bridge that was intended to enable Jews and non-Jews to live in harmony with one another within the community of believers.

Second, the word “abolish.” In ancient Jews thought, to abolish the law meant to destroy it through wrong interpretation. “Fulfill” refers to the proper understanding of the text, which leads to a lifestyle of holiness dedicated to God.

Another passage that is often misunderstood due to a difference in understanding the wording from an ancient Jewish point of view is Paul’s words in his letter to the Ephesians 2:8-9, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The word “faith” in ancient Jewish thought is not just belief, it is also action. It is faithfulness or obedience to God’s Law of Love. We are not saved by works, but grace doesn’t remove our responsibility to be obedient.

What’s the role of grace then? The flesh is not evil all by itself. It’s just that we humans, being of the flesh, have the potential to commit evil deeds when we forget who we really are. God designed us that way, so how can he judge us for it? He does not.

Instead, he gives us grace through how he created us. We are experiencing ourselves as human beings with a deluded nature that often causes us to sin, but who we really are in Christ never fails to follow the Law of Love because it is Love.

So, when we identify with Christ, we are freed from the condemnation of the flesh – from the “evil inclination” of the flesh. Because of what Jesus accomplished for us, we don’t need to die in order to be “released” from bondage to the flesh and its “evil inclinations.” We can experience freedom while we are still in a body.

The less deluded we are about who we really are, the more we will be obedient to God and faithful to the Law of Love and the more we will be at peace as we wait for the coming of the Lord. This is the Light that we shine, the Light that drives away the darkness, the Light that draws people to Christ, the Light that will hasten the coming of the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we feel dismayed over the events of the world, we sometimes begin to doubt your promise to return, or we become impatient, wondering why you haven’t returned yet. Forgive us, for we know that God loves everyone and is as patient with them as he has been with us. In gratitude, we are willing to extend God’s Love to others as we wait in peace for your coming. AMEN.

Resources

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 12: Why Doesn’t Christ Return? (2 Peter 3:8-9).” Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-12-why-doesn%E2%80%99t-christ-return-2-peter-38-9

Cole, Steven J. “Lesson 13: Living in Light of That Day (2 Peter 3:10-13). Bible.org, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-13-living-light-day-2-peter-310-13

Perron, Mari. A Course of Love: Combined Volume . Take Heart Publications. Kindle Edition.

Young, Brad H. Paul the Jewish Theologian. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Harvesting and Sharing

Philipp Peter Roos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: In the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, Jesus does not give us the right to judge others. Instead, he teaches us the importance of distinguishing between our goat-like human nature and our sheep-like divine nature so that we can consciously choose which nature to express in each present moment experience.

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25: 32-46

Our scripture reading for today comes from the end of Matthew chapter 25, a section entitled, “The Judgement of the Nations.” I myself have never considered this a parable, but some call it “the Parable of the Sheep and Goats.” Many Christians love this parable because it seems to say that all the evil people will be thrown into hell. Serves them right!

Unfortunately, because of this passage, many Christians have felt they have the right to say to others, “You’re going to burn in hell,” or the less harsh but just as judgmental version, “I’m concerned that you won’t be in heaven with me.” Jesus taught us in so many other verses NOT to judge one another, so there must be another way of interpreting this passage.

Before we take a closer look at it, let’s look at the context.

In Matthew chapter 25 Jesus tells two parables to illustrate his teachings in the previous chapter on the importance of being prepared for his coming. He warned his disciples not to be deceived by false Messiahs or presumptuous predictions and not to be alarmed by wars, rumors of wars, or natural disasters, for these are simply the birth pangs.

Jesus told both of these parables close to the time of his arrest and crucifixion. They both include a long period of waiting before the master returns and consequences for not being prepared.

We took a look at the first parable, the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, where Jesus teaches that only those with the “oil” of spiritual resilience are empowered to keep shining their lights in the darkness and are prepared to participate in the celebration when Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the Parable of the Talents, Jesus teaches that only those with this empowering faith will enter into the joy of the master because they will put the gifts God has given them to work to profit His Kingdom.

And that brings us to the end of chapter 25 with what some consider a third parable, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. Jesus once again begins with the setting, but rather than creating a fictional one, Jesus opens with a non-fictional one – a real event – the coming of the Son of Man, who is seated on the Throne of His Glory as King and judge of all the nations, placing the sheep on his right hand and the goats at the left.

Jesus’ disciples would have been familiar with this setting because in Matthew 19:28-30, Jesus tells them that at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the Throne of His Glory, they will each sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. All those who have left their families and vocations for his sake will inherit eternal life. The first will be last, and the last will be first.

Jesus’ disciples also would have been familiar with the importance of separating sheep and goats. During the day, sheep and goats often mingle as they graze. At night, they need to be separated because they have different needs. Prior to specialized breeding, it wasn’t easy to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat because they look very similar, but a good shepherd could tell the difference.

Who are the sheep that Christ the King places at his right hand? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real sheep are like. Sheep are extremely dependent upon their shepherd. If they get rolled onto their backs, the shepherd has to lift them back up on their feet because they will die. They can’t “right” themselves. They are also easily panicked to the point where they would run themselves right off a cliff.

Sheep depend upon their shepherd for the basics of life – for food, water, shelter, and protection from predators. But even though they are so dependent on the shepherd, they still have a tendency to go astray. A shepherd must find lost sheep, or they will die because they are essentially defenseless.

Shepherds lead sheep, and the sheep listen intently to the shepherd’s voice. Sheep are very calm in the presence of the shepherd because they trust the shepherd. With the shepherd, life is easy: All they have to do is listen and follow.

We are the sheep; we belong to God. We are completely dependent on God for all our needs. Because we are not of this world, we are vulnerable – not because we are weak, but because we are gentle ones living in a harsh world. Without a shepherd, we can be easily frightened, go astray, and become prey to malicious people or evil tendencies.

God has appointed the Good Shepherd to take care of us. In Mark 6:34, we read, “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”

Christ the King says to the sheep, “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

People get confused by these verses because it sounds as if the Lord is giving salvation to those who earned it through good works. But we know that we are not saved “by” good works. We are saved “unto” good works – “released” to do the good works God gave us to do.

The sheep are confused by the King’s reward because they do not recall ever having seen their Lord hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned. But because they did good works for “the least of these,” they did it for the Lord. The “good work” that God created us to do in Christ is to love and serve the Christ in all. We love our neighbor as we love ourselves because in Christ our neighbor is our Self.

Who are the goats the King places at the left? To get a clue, let’s talk about what real goats are like. Goats are very independent. If they want to do something, they’ll do it whether you like it or not. For example, goats love chewing on hair. A goatherd might punish a goat or chewing on his hair, but if he took a snooze out in the field, he’d probably wake up with less hair and a very happy goat.

Goats also have a huge appetite; they will eat anything. A goatherd has to be careful not to let a mother goat eat her young’s food because a mother goat will use her head to shove her young out of the way to eat their food – basically letting their own young starve.

Goats are extremely selfish; they want what they want, and they don’t care if they destroy things to get it. Goats generally don’t need protection from things; things generally need protection from goats. And goatherds don’t lead their goats; they follow their goats because the goats just browse around looking for whatever they feel like devouring, and the goatherds just do their best to protect the environment.

Christ the King says to the goats, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Just like real goats, these ill-fated ones led very selfish lives. They wanted what they wanted, and they didn’t care if they destroyed anyone or anything in the process. They were not “released” from their self-absorption and selfish desires. They rejected God’s love, so they did not depend on Him to provide for their needs. Instead, they relied on themselves while trampling on others.

The goats defend themselves using the same words the sheep used to humble themselves. When did we see you hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick, or imprisoned? We can’t say that these “goats” didn’t do ANY good deeds. Perhaps they did, but they did them selectively – perhaps only for people they liked – or perhaps for the wrong reasons. We know that not all good deeds are done without strings attached. Perhaps they expected things in return for their good deeds or used them to manipulate or shame others or simply to make themselves look good.

In verse 46, we read, “And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is the verse where Jesus appears to say that all the evil people will be “thrown into hell.”

God created humanity in his image, so I believe that every human being, whether saved or not, has a soul that is eternally connected with God and with all of Life. That God would reject and destroy a part of Himself doesn’t make sense to me. However, since God has given us free will, we are free to make our own choices and to experience their consequences.

I believe that as more of humanity joins with Christ, the Earth will begin to move toward the Kingdom of Heaven. As the light and love of God grows to be more and more prevalent, those souls whose hearts have not embraced the light and love of God will choose to leave the earth and/or reincarnate on some other planet where there’s more souls like them. Eventually, they will all be gone.

But they will condemn themselves to a hellish world because their hearts are not prepared to live in a heavenly world. They won’t be able to tolerate it or operate within it. But God will never give up on these souls and will eventually gather them back to Him through the irresistible Power of Love.

What does this parable have to teach us today?

I don’t believe it is giving us permission to try to judge one another a sheep or goat. Human beings don’t have specialized breeding, so it is truly difficult to tell which is which. We all have our opinions, of course, and we are entitled to them, but do we really know? We can’t see inside people’s hearts – but God can, and he has given Christ, not these personal selves, the authority to be the judge.

We are part human and part divine. The human part is temporary; the divine part eternal. But in this life experience, you could say we are part goat and part sheep. That’s not a problem because God created us that way for a purpose. There is a place for our human side and a place for our divine side – just like there is a place for goats and a place for sheep in this world.

We can’t be whole if we don’t accept both parts of ourselves. I believe Jesus is teaching us that the key is to be able to distinguish between the two parts of ourselves – and be fully aware of both parts – so that we can choose which part to express in every present moment experience.

Without this knowledge, we have no choice, and that has been the problem. We have not been aware of our divine side, so our human side has taken too much control over our lives. Our human side has become our common expression and our divine side the rare one. It should be the other way around.

Since we are not shepherds, it’s harder for us to relate to this setting. How many of you are gardeners? When you go out into your garden to harvest, you might notice that some weeds have cropped up in some places or that some of the fruits or vegetables got infested with blight or bugs or maybe a groundhog stole your cabbage.

As a gardener, you pretty much accept that these things go with the territory of gardening. You really don’t have a choice because if you choose not to accept it, you’re only setting yourself up for a whole heap of frustration and disappointment, which can really zap the joy of gardening right out of you.

We should have that same level of acceptance when we look within the garden of ourselves and notice the weeds of ingratitude, the blight of intolerance, the bugs of resentment, and fear – that sneaky thief that steals our joy. These aspects of our human side are within us along with all of the wonderful spiritual produce we have inside us by the grace of God.

As a gardener, you know that when you go out into your garden to harvest the good fruits and vegetables you have grown, you often have more than you need, so you probably enjoy sharing the extras with your family, friends, and neighbors.

It’s because of our divine side that there is an infinite supply of wonderful spiritual produce to share with the world. So, we can enjoy the challenge of being human.

If we look within and see jealousy, impatience, intolerance, meanness, or even hatred, we simply need to recognize that these things are not things we want to extend to others if we are preparing our hearts and the hearts of all for the Kingdom of Heaven.

As a gardener, you know that you need to do the work to look for the weeds and the infected and infested plants, pull them up, then trash or burn them, and you need to create barriers to keep the sneaky thieves out. Otherwise, all these things can do a lot of damage to your garden.

But you don’t necessarily judge yourself a bad gardener because you need to do these things. You know it just goes with the territory of gardening. In fact, you might even enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to win these battles for an even better garden because hey, there’s always another season.

Just as there are many different types of produce, there are many different manifestations of love within us that we have to share, such as patience, kindness, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and gratitude.

We don’t realize it, but there is a huge number of opportunities to extend love every day. If you wake up in the morning, and your spouse is grumpy, extend forgiveness. If you listen to the news, and it makes you want to cry, extend compassion. As you’re enjoying your morning cup of coffee, extend gratitude. If you went out the door and forgot your mask – again, extend kindness. If the car in front of you is moving too slow, extend patience.

So, let us take advantage of every opportunity to extend love. God is calling us to share love with others – especially those who most need love – the poor, the stranger, the sick, and the imprisoned. People need it more than ever right now. When we share love, we demonstrate who we belong to – that we belong to God – that we are the sheep of his pasture – and that we want to live in a world ruled by love.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we get so caught up in our own lives and needs that we often fail to notice those who are struggling in their lives, those who are in need. Help us to slow down, be present, and be ready extend love because in this way, we move the earth ever closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.

Resources

“What is the Meaning of the Parable of the Sheep and Goats?” gotquestions.org, www.gotquestions.org/parable-sheep-goats.html

Hooper, Jodi. “11: The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25: 31-46).” Bible.org, 21 Jun. 2012, bible.org/seriespage/11-sheep-and-goats-matthew-2531-46

Spiritual Resilience

Hieronymous Francken II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How do we keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked in dark times so that we are prepared for Christ’s coming? We do what Jesus did in times like these: We surrender to our feelings and to the unknown, trusting in God’s promises.

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

Scripture reading: Matthew 25: 1-13

How many of you have experienced being “on call?” When I was in my twenties, I was an Emergency Medical Technician for Barrett Township Volunteer Ambulance Corp. When I was “on call,” I had to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. I didn’t know if we were going to get a call that day, but I had to be prepared and expectant.

Jesus uses the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids to make a point about the importance of being prepared and expectant for Christ’s second coming.

You might remember that Jesus told parables to make a point, so it’s important to know the context to understanding its meaning. Since the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids begins Matthew chapter 25, the context is in the previous chapter.

In chapter 24, after Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, the disciples began questioning him about the signs of his coming at the end of the age. They assumed the destruction of the Temple would herald the End Times, but the Lord warned them about making such predictions.

He warned them not to be deceived because it might be some time before he returns. He said to them that many will proclaim themselves to be the Messiah, and there will be wars and rumors of wars, but these are simply the birth pangs.

Using the example of the fig tree, Jesus taught his disciples to be watchful for signs of the “season” of his coming, and to be expectant, but no one knows the day or hour.

The setting of this parable is a Jewish wedding. To get an idea of what’s going on, it’s somewhat helpful to understand a first century Jewish wedding, but we can’t take what happens literally since Jesus is using it as a literary device. Like any good storyteller, he might twist or embellish facts a bit to make his point, even leave out major elements that aren’t relevant to the point – like any mention of the bride!

A Jewish wedding begins with the groom leaving his home to go to the bride’s home where certain rituals would take place. After nightfall, the bride and bridesmaids would process through the streets to his home, the bride’s new home, where the marriage celebration would take place over several days.

Everyone in the procession must carry a torch; otherwise, they might be considered party crashers or bandits. They are expected to meet the groom on his way to his house, but no one could predict exactly when the groom would arrive at the meeting place.

In the previous chapter, in verses 37-39, Jesus says, “When the Son of Man returns, it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be when the Son of Man comes.”

The bridegroom doesn’t arrive until quite late in the evening, so they all fell asleep waiting for him. When I was on call overnight, sometimes I would stay at the ambulance building, and sometimes I would stay at home. Either way, I would go to sleep, but before I went to sleep, I made sure my uniform was ready to be slipped on, and my gear bag was packed and ready to go.

The bridesmaids had all fallen asleep, but they are awoken with a shout as the groom finally arrives at midnight. That’s when we learn that some of them weren’t prepared. When they get up to trim their lamps, the foolish say to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.”

The Reverend Bob Diffenbaugh sheds a lot of light on this lamp issue – pun intended. First, he explains that the “lamp” they used isn’t the kind of lamp we think of when we hear the word. The Greek word, “lampas,” is more of a torch. It was just a large, flat bowl with a rag or rope-like wick that could be attached to a pole to light one’s way in the darkness.

Next, he notes that New English Translation Bible states that the word “extra” is not used in the original Greek – which is also true of the version we use. Some translations, such as the New Living Translation, suggest that the foolish ones took oil with them, but not enough. If that were the case, why would all of their lamps be “going out” at the same time?

Rev. Diffenbaugh concludes that they must not have brought any oil with them. He writes, “There must have been some residue of oil on the rag or wick of the five empty lamps, which quickly burned out, only moments after being lit. This would explain why all five torches went out at the same time. Perhaps, too, these foolish [bridesmaids] minimized their foolishness by describing their plight as ‘running out’ so as to look less foolish.”

If I agreed to be on call for the ambulance corp., I had to be ready to respond – period. No excuses. That meant I couldn’t leave the area because I needed to be able to get to the ambulance building quickly. I also couldn’t get delayed in any way. Little things like sitting in the drive thru at Burger King would be a problem if my pager suddenly went off. It wouldn’t cut it to say, “Sorry I missed the call. I wanted a Whopper.”

The foolish bridesmaids’ excuse for “running out” didn’t cut it either. They were supposed to be prepared. It might seem cold that the wise bridesmaids didn’t help them out, but they couldn’t.

So, the foolish bridesmaids went out to buy more oil, but by the time they got to the groom’s house, the celebration was already underway. The door was shut. They were too late. The groom probably thought that since they didn’t arrive with the other bridesmaids, they were imposters trying to crash the party.

How can we apply this parable to our lives today?

Let’s be honest. We are living in a very painful and chaotic world right now. Many are dying, many are grieving, many are afraid, and many are angry. What should be our response? What should we say to people? How about what Jesus said in times like these: “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Remain here and stay awake with me.”

If any of you are feeling great sorrow today, it’s OK. It’s totally appropriate. It doesn’t mean you’ve given up on the world. It just means your heart is wide open. You haven’t become numb through it all. You’ve been very brave.

Jesus felt great sorrow in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he accomplished his redemptive work. Even though he felt great sorrow for the world, he still had hope because he trusted in God’s promises.

Christ first came in one individual named Jesus to introduce humanity to who we really are. I believe Christ will come the second time not as a single person, but in a multitude of people. That is the only way that Christ can be revealed in all His Glory. Since His Glory is in each of us, all of it must be in all of us.

There is only one thing that will save the world, and that is the love of God. God’s Love is made known through Christ. Christ dwells within every living thing, but only human beings have the capacity to make God’s love and creativity more fully known in this physical world.

For the world to be saved, we need enough wise people to meet the Christ and to join with him in the procession back to his home, the True Self. 

As an EMT, I remember how awesome it felt to save someone’s life – to be part of a team of people that saved someone’s life. Maybe some of you have had that experience and remember how awesome that feels.

Imagine how awesome it will feel to be part of something that saves the whole world! To feel the joy of the fulfillment of all we came here to do. That’s a celebration we wouldn’t want to miss!

I would like to suggest that the lamp oil in this parable represents spiritual resilience. The word resilience means “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.”

A therapist once told me that once I make up my mind to tackle a challenge, I tackle it like a rodeo cowboy tackles a bull. I take that thing by the horns, wrestle it into submission, and bind it up tight. That kind of resilience works well for personal challenges, but when we’re dealing with world-wide challenges, spiritual resilience is needed.

Spiritual resilience is the ability to trust God, remain hopeful, and shine our light even when it’s mighty dark out there, and it’s getting late. It’s something that can be cultivated only through a close relationship with God, so it’s not something that can be faked or bought.

We can keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked through surrender. First, we need to surrender to our feelings. Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” What an honest prayer. Jesus was so brave that he allowed his heart to be wide open such that he was able to feel the sorrow of the whole world.

Maybe now, all of humanity can begin to appreciate that pain. All of humanity is feeling the pain of this pandemic and all the political and social chaos that has come with it. Like Jesus, in our humanity, we wish the pain would go away because … it hurts! Like so many people today, we just wish we could go back to normal.

There is nothing wrong with feelings. What matters is not our feelings, but how we respond to them.

There are two ways to respond to feelings. The first way is with fear. When we respond with fear, we try to push the feelings away by taking control. We make quick decisions and act on them. But actions based on fear are usually foolish. We often create more suffering for ourselves and others.

The second way is with love. When we respond with love, we surrender. We allow the painful feelings to be there, and we let go of control. We let events play out as they will, and respond only when it feels right. We demonstrate our trust in God and our willingness to allow His Will to be done.

Jesus responded to his feelings of deep sorrow with love when he prayed, “… yet not what I want but what you want.” Jesus surrendered. He turned his will over to God, trusting that God knows what it takes to accomplish the salvation of the world.

So, to keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need to surrender to our feelings, trusting God in the darkness while we are in pain by constantly praying, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

Whatever transformation you have in store for me, Father – and for all of humanity – I am willing to accept because I know you know how to save the world better than I do.

We know Christ is coming and that there will be a big party at his house when he arrives – we just don’t know how or when. To keep the oil of our spiritual resilience stocked, we need also to surrender to the unknown.

We think we know so much more than we do about ourselves, others, and life in general.

If we can let go of what we think we know, or at least hold onto what we think we know a little more loosely, we will be able respond when Christ arrives because we will recognize him. As we know, it’s our judgements that keep the Christ hidden from us.

We need to let go of who we think we are because we are becoming far more than that. Joyce Meyer writes, “Potential cannot manifest without form. There must be something for it to be poured into, something that will cause it to take shape and become useful.”

That got me to thinking about this form (body) in which God’s potential through Christ is made manifest. Through Christ, God poured His Potential into everything that is alive, including us human beings. But if we keep judging ourselves, the vast space within us that is the Christ becomes smaller and smaller because it’s like we keep choosing to pour our form into smaller containers.

How many of you have a set of those containers where there’s a big one, but then a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of it, and a smaller one fits inside of that one, so there’s maybe six containers inside this one big container.

It’s awesome for kitchenware, but not for human beings. As the Christ, we start out as an infinitely vast container with infinite potential, but each time we judge ourselves, it’s like we’re putting another smaller container inside the space within us and with each container, the space becomes smaller and smaller and smaller, and our potential shrinks along with it.

We do the same thing to others when we judge them, and they take our judgments to heart, so we need to let go of who we think others are because they are becoming far more than that. We need to stop judging people for what they think and feel. allow them to have their thoughts and feelings, and create a loving, safe space for them to be whoever they are. We might discover that there’s far more to them then what we “knew.”

We need to stop judging life also. Through judgments, we put Life itself into smaller containers also. We need to let go of our ideas about the way things “should” be happening. With God, there are infinite possibilities and infinite potentialities for life on Earth. When we are so fixated on our own ideas about how life should be, we might not see Christ’s arrival happening right under our noses.

Yes, this time could very well be the late evening through which the Christ is making his way back to his home for the wedding celebration, so we need to be ready to join the party by surrendering to our feelings and to the unknown.

Marianne Williamson has said, “Something amazing happens when we surrender and just love. We melt into another world, a realm of power already within us. The world changes when we change. the world softens when we soften. The world loves us when we choose to love the world.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, when we are in pain, help us to remember to surrender our will to God’s Will and to open our heart even more widely in acceptance of ourselves, others, and of this beautiful life we have been given. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “26. The Ten Virgins: What It Means to Be Ready (Matthew 25:1-13).” Bible.org, 10 Apr. 2005, bible.org/seriespage/26-ten-virgins-what-it-means-be-ready-matthew-251-13

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 354). FaithWords. Kindle Edition

Williamson, Marianne. “Quotes: Quotable Quote.” goodreads.com, www.goodreads.com/quotes/387102-something-amazing-happens-when-we-surrender-and-just-love-we