Calming Storms

Karemin1094, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: When faced with challenges, the human default is to fearfully resist what is happening and angrily look for someone to blame – not an effective strategy. When we put on the Mind of Christ, however, we peacefully accept the challenge, trusting that that help is always available and that every challenge helps us grow spiritually.

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

Scriptures: Mark 4:35-41

In 1951, comedian Red Skelton and a party of friends flew to Europe, where Skelton was to appear at the London Palladium. As they were flying over the Swiss Alps, three of the airplane’s engines failed. The situation looked very grave, and the passengers began to pray.

Skelton went into one of his best comic routines to distract them from the emergency as the plane lost height, coming closer and closer to the ominous-looking mountains. At the last moment the pilot spied a large field among the slopes and made a perfect landing. Skelton broke the relieved silence by saying, “Now, ladies and gentlemen, you may return to the evil habits you gave up 20 minutes ago.”

Skelton’s joking advice underscored the truth that whatever religious “commitments” those terrified passengers may have made were strictly temporary. The minute they stepped safely out of that aircraft, all deals with God were off.

But for the disciples of Jesus, there were no temporary commitments or cancellations. Once they got into that boat with Him, they were on board for the duration. There were times when the disciples wondered what they had gotten themselves into with Jesus. Today’s story was one of those occasions.

We are continuing with the Gospel of Mark, the most chronological of the four gospels, meaning that the events in Jesus’ life are laid out in the order in which they actually occurred. Two Sundays ago, we looked at an event early in Jesus’ ministry, where he was accused of being demon-possessed by not only the religious leaders but also by his own family because they couldn’t understand why he treated the perfect strangers who came to him for Torah learning and/or healing with family-level devotion.

Jesus continued his ministry of teaching and healing beside the Sea of Galilee. His favorite way of teaching the people was to tell them parables, but he explained the meaning of the parables to the disciples in private. On this particular day, he taught what the kingdom of God is like using several parables: the sower, the lamp under the bushel backet, the growing seed, and the mustard seed.

He used the parables to help the listeners imagine the tremendous potential within the kingdom of God. The smallest of actions may not seem like much, but under the right conditions, those actions can yield tremendous benefits not only for us personally, but for everyone. With God, all things are possible.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. It had gotten late, and Jesus was tired. He was human after all. He needed to get away from the crowd and get some rest, so he asked his disciples to take him over to the eastern side of the sea. Even then, he couldn’t totally escape because some other boats followed.

I’m sure Jesus fully intended for them to reach the other side without incident, but the Sea of Galilee can be treacherous. The valley where it is located is more like a tunnel with hills and mountains on both sides, so if the wind is blowing through there, it creates a wind tunnel that can cause the sea to become a churning nightmare.

In that case, riding in a boat is a lot like trying to ride on the back of a bucking bronco. That is what Jesus and his disciples experienced. Now, did Jesus do anything wrong? No. Did his disciples do anything wrong? No. No one did anything wrong. That’s just life.

But how did the disciples respond? They woke Jesus up saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” They were afraid, and they were angry, and it was Jesus’ fault because how could he possibly be asleep at a time like this?

You see, when life doesn’t go our way, we tend to take it personally. Very personally. We have this attitude that says, “Stuff doesn’t just happen. Someone has to be at fault, and that someone has to pay!” Then we try to figure out who is to blame, so they can pay us whatever it is we think we’re entitled to.

We’re like little children that way, aren’t we? We want life be like an overindulgent parent and spoil us rotten. We want life to say, “Aww, did I make you feel bad? Here … have a cookie.”

But that’s just the mind of me, right? It’s just the part of our mind that believes that life is supposed to revolve all around us because we are the star of this show – the MVP. That’s why we resist life so much because the truth is life doesn’t revolve around us.

Storms happen. Accidents happen. Pandemics happen. That’s life. Many Christians mistakenly believe that following the Lord will spare them from life’s storms; however, following the Lord often leads us into more storms, more challenges. The disciples learned that lesson early in their walk with Jesus.

In contrast to the mind of me, the Mind of Christ doesn’t resist life. It doesn’t resist life’s challenges. It accepts challenges as part of life. It accepts the way God designed life, and God designed life to be challenging. God wisely and thoughtfully designed life to be challenging in order to help us grow spiritually – not to spoil us rotten.

As parents, it is never your intention to spoil your kids rotten, right? You also want to provide the best conditions for them to learn and grow into mature, responsible, productive, and happy members of society. God wants the same for his children, but we’re learning to become mature, responsible, productive, and happy members of not just a national or even a global society but of a universal society.

So, when we are faced with storms, we need to awaken the Mind of Christ within us to help us deal with them because the mind of me will only scream and whine. When we put on the Mind of Christ, our perspective changes, and that change in perspective gives us peace even while the storm is still raging.

How does putting on the Mind of Christ help calm the storms in our lives? It helps to calm the reactionary emotional wind and waves generated by the mind of me so that we can deal with the situation with the wisdom and strength of the Mind of Christ.

First, putting on the Mind of Christ helps us take life’s challenges less personally. I learned a wonderful proverb from an unlikely source – some smart aleck boy I knew from high school but would have never thought in a million years that he would grow up to be a “wise guy.”

Sorry … I couldn’t resist that play on words.

Anyway, years ago, I was working down at the corner mini-mart, and Wayne Dunlap was going through a tough time. I mean, he was really going through quite a storm. Everything in his life was going wrong, and I felt really bad for him. I told him that I was sorry he was having such a tough time, and he said, “Well (shrug shoulders), it is what it is.”

It is what it is. What a great attitude! That attitude comes from the Mind of Christ. When we accept life as it is, we stop getting so angry and looking for someone to blame. We stop taking our anger out on ourselves and others. We stop expecting life to make it up to us somehow and holding onto bitterness until it does.

Putting on the Mind of Christ restores our faith. Jesus asked his disciples, Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The disciples had just spent all that time with Jesus. They heard his teachings. They witnessed his healing powers. Yet they still had no faith.

If Jesus were alive today during this storm, and we lacked faith, he would have every right to say to us, “You come to church every Sunday. You study the Bible. You learn about me, both my words and my works. And yet you still have no faith?”

“You still think that you are in complete control of life, that you can handle life’s storms, that you have the wisdom and the strength and the power to handle them all by yourself? But then when you realize the truth, you cry out to me in anger and blame? You cry, ‘Don’t you care about me, Lord?’”

Where is my faith? That is a great question to ask ourselves when we are experiencing the mind of me’s emotional reactivity to life’s storms.

But what is faith really? Faith is a loaded word these days. Some people believe faith is belief in specific church doctrines or stances on certain political or social issues, but our faith in these things will do absolutely nothing for us when faced with life’s storms.

Faith is what we believe about God and our relationship with him. If we truly believe that we have eternal life in Christ, then we will not fear death. Our bodies can die, but we can’t die. Our consciousness lives on as part of the image of God, a thread interwoven into the eternal fabric of Life.

Those of us who are not afraid of death may still be afraid of pain. I get that. I don’t like pain either. No one likes pain, but just as with all challenges, pain is greatly increased by our reactivity and resistance to it. If we can peacefully accept the pain, then our suffering isn’t as bad. Our experience of it changes.

Faith is also believing that we are God’s child – God’s beloved child – really believing that God loves us. If God is for us, then who or what can be against us? No one and nothing. In fact, did you realize that God created an entire army of angels to be at our beck-and-call. Yes, he did! He created them specifically to help us. That’s how much he loves us.

The angels love us too, but we must ask them for help because they can’t violate our free will. We feel so alone in the world because often we’re too proud to ask for help. The angels would love to help us, so don’t feel silly about asking Archangel Michael for strength and protection or Archangel Raphael for healing or Archangel Gabriel for help with communication. And the Lord is always with us and more than willing to help if we call on Him. He was right there the whole time in that boat with the disciples.

But what do you think the disciples were doing before, in their extreme desperation, they finally decided to wake Jesus up? I mean, these guys were seasoned fisherman, so I’m sure this wasn’t the first time they experienced rough seas. Maybe they tried to turn the sail and catch the wind to outrun the storm. Maybe they tried to row through the waves, but they were too high. Maybe they tried to bail the water out of the boat, but the water was coming in faster than they could bail it out.

They were all too busy feeling afraid and trying to save themselves to let go of control. When we have faith in God, then we know there is nothing to be afraid of. And we know that whenever we are in trouble, we can always ask for help, and it will be granted. Jesus demonstrated this faith when he calmed the storm. He said, “Peace, be still!” and it was done.

The disciples were in awe of this, but Jesus was human just like us. The only difference is that he had tremendous faith. He taught us that if we had enough faith, we could move mountains just as he could calm storms.

Putting on the Mind of Christ restores our trust. Another great question to ask ourselves during life’s storms is, “Do I know the Lord in theory, or do I know the Lord in trust?” This personal self with its mind of me doesn’t trust anything or anyone. It is an incorrigible cynic. That is a very dysfunctional attitude to have toward life. It closes us down, and that only hurts us.

We are here to learn, so there is no shame in actually learning even if we need to do it the hard way. There is a lot we don’t know until we do, and no one is going to judge us for that. God designed this world to help us grow spiritually, and everyone grows spiritually here – some more gracefully than others.

We can trust that whatever personal challenges we face have a purpose. Our life is in the hands of our Higher Self, and we can trust that it will bring us exactly the lessons we need to grow spiritually at exactly the pace we need. Our life is in very good hands.

Because you see, it is our Higher Self’s intention to free us from everything that keeps us enslaved by the personal self and the mind of me – everything that causes us to distrust and everything that makes us feel small, fearful, lacking, and unworthy.

So, when storms happen, we need to accept what is, trust God, and learn whatever it is we need to learn as gracefully as we can knowing that it’s all for our good.

You are not this small self that you see. You are an eternal being, and the total expanse of your life is far vaster than the one you’re experiencing right now. Actually, it is as infinite as God. This life is the blink of an eye compared to your whole life in Christ.

When you can view the challenges you face in this fleeting life through the broader lens of your eternal soul, and your soul’s development throughout all the eons of time, they don’t seem nearly as big a deal.

The challenges you face may not make sense in the context of this nanosecond of your life at this place and time, but our personal self isn’t supposed to know – and really can’t know – what the soul is up to. That work is sacred and therefore beyond its understanding. So, you must simply trust that every experience, every challenge serves your soul’s growth in some way.

The same is true for all humanity, so we can trust that the soul of all of humanity is in the good, loving hands of Spirit and is growing spiritually through the challenges we are facing today. Knowing this truth stills all storms and gives us peace.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are in awe of the power of your faith, and it is our greatest desire to have the kind of faith that can move mountains and calm storms. When we are faced with storms in our lives, help us to release control and awaken the Mind of Christ within us. AMEN.

Resources

Admin. “Mark 4: 35-41.” Bible.org, 2 Feb. 2009, bible.org/illustration/mark-435-41.

Lawrence, Bill. “1. Stormology 101: From Theory to Trust through Life’s Storms” Bible.org, 2 Apr. 2008, bible.org/seriespage/1-stormology-101-theory-trust-through-lifes-storms-mark-435-41.

The Perils of Blind Faith

Washington Allston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Jesus never condoned blind faith. He advised people to believe in him based upon the evidence of his works. When Jesus is accused of being demon-possessed by both the religious leaders and his own family, he warns us of the perils of making such quick black-and-white judgments.

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

Scripture Reading: Mark 3: 20-35

Steven Sample, the former president of the University of Southern California, wrote a book called The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership. In his book, he writes about a critical skill leaders must possess in order to make good judgments: thinking gray. Thinking grey is an uncommon characteristic because it requires a lot of effort to develop. But it is one of the most important leadership skills.

Most people immediately label things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe. But an effective leader must be able to see the shades of gray in a situation in order to make wise decisions. The essence of thinking gray is to not form a judgement about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts.

There are many who believe that blind faith is what we are called to as Christians. Therefore, they make quick black-and-white judgments without having sought out the facts and often solely based on what they believe the Bible says. In our scripture reading for today, the perils of blind faith are not only put on display, but also Jesus gives us a very clear warning about making such quick judgments.

Of the four gospels, Mark’s is the most chronological – meaning that the stories about Jesus’ life are told in the order that they actually occurred. Mark’s gospel is also action-packed, especially around the actions of Jesus, the servant.

Here is what has happened in Jesus’ life up to our scripture reading. First, he was baptized by John, and he began his ministry in Galilee. He called his first four disciples: two sets of brothers – Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Next, Jesus began to teach in the synagogue at Capernaum, which would become his home base in Galilee. People were amazed at the authority with which Jesus not only taught the Scriptures but also cast out demons. He performed many other healing miracles: healing Peter’s mom, a man with leprosy, and a paralyzed man.

Jesus then ate with the tax collector Matthew, whom he called to be his disciple. That’s when the religious leaders started asking questions. They asked why he was eating with sinners, why his disciples were not fasting with John’s disciples and the Pharisees, and why he and his disciples were picking and eating wheat on the Sabbath.

News about Jesus’ healing abilities spread so quickly throughout the region of Galilee that soon, huge crowds of people were coming to him for Torah education and healing. It was so crazy that he had to go up a mountainside to escape from people so that he could call the rest of his disciples.

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus and his disciples come down from the mountainside and enter a house. The crowd quickly grows, and Jesus is so busy teaching and healing that he doesn’t take the time to eat. He came to serve humanity – and serve he did – with a level of commitment that no one had ever seen before.

So, Jesus’ family shows up to “take charge of him.” They are basically staging an intervention because as far as they are concerned, he’s out of his mind, and they need to take care of him until he regains his sanity. Maybe they thought, “Who does he think he is? The Messiah?”

Granted, there are people even today who suffer from delusions of grandeur, who think that they are the savior of the world, but that wasn’t Jesus’ problem. Perhaps he was temporarily ignoring his need for food to take care of others, but that didn’t mean he was insane.

So, Jesus’ own family is accusing him of being demon-possessed because they don’t understand his behavior. Back in those days, people didn’t have an understanding of mental illness like we do today. If someone was acting out-of-the-ordinary, people assumed the cause was demons, and Jesus certainly was not acting like a normal person.

Jesus was not like most human beings in those days – or even today. Yes, he was a human being just like us, but he was also enlightened. I believe he was born enlightened, and the temptation in the wilderness failed to cause him to fall into identification with the personal self and the mind of me.

He was operating from his Self (with a capital S) and the Mind of Christ, but the personal self and the mind of me in everyone else saw what he was doing and said, “He’s insane!” The truth was that he was perfectly sane. When people came to him with needs that he could take care of, he took care of them. That’s a perfectly rational thing to do, isn’t it?

The Jewish people have always believed service to others to be a key component of their faith, but Jesus was going way too far in their judgment. All he was doing was demonstrating what it really means to be of service, and they didn’t like it – especially the religious leaders.

He was making them look bad, so they said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” Jesus immediately called them on the silliness of that conclusion. What possible advantage would the devil gain in giving Jesus the authority to cast out his minions? Jesus explains that it must be God who is giving him the power to tie up the strongman (or the devil) and drive out the evil influences within the minds of the afflicted.

Jesus never condoned blind faith. In fact, in John chapter 10, when the religious leaders were attempting to arrest him for blasphemy for claiming to be God’s Son, he said in verses 37-38, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I am in the Father.”

He’s saying, “Fine – don’t just take my word for it when I say, ‘I am the Son of God.’ Look at the evidence. Look at the works I have done. What do they tell you?”

The Pharisees had a “spiritual scientific method” – so to speak. When Jesus visited the Pharisee Nicodemus in John chapter 3, Nicodemus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Nicodemus had applied the spiritual scientific method of the Pharisees and came to this logical conclusion.

Along with the Mind and Christ and the Mind of Me, we also have another type of mind: the rational mind. This is our intelligence. We use the rational mind for reasoning, problem-solving, learning, and planning. If you are working on solving a math problem or putting together a recipe, for example, you are using your rational mind.

Why would God give us a rational mind and then forbid us to use it? We’re not supposed to leave our intelligence at home when we come to church on Sunday morning. Yet this is what some Christian denominations expect. That is not faith. Faith isn’t about our belief in specific doctrines or stances on political or social issues. Our faith may inform our decisions about these things, but they are not what faith is all about.

Faith is simply our beliefs about God. Do you truly believe he loves us? That he can be trusted? That he has your best interests at heart? If you say “Yes” to those questions, then you have faith, but you didn’t come to that faith blindly, did you? God must have proven it to you through his works in your life.

What did Jesus mean when he said verses 28-29, “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

I believe that he is warning us about one of the perils of blind faith. When we refuse to change our minds when the evidence to the contrary is clear, then we are choosing to be blind, and that can cause us to misjudge a person or event that might be coming from God. 

Jesus was filled with the Holy Spirit and following its promptings, so for anyone to say that he had an “unclean spirit” was to call the Holy Spirit “unclean,” which is, of course, blasphemy. People tend to call “evil” what they don’t understand – or don’t want to.

I recently had a Facebook discussion with a high school friend who happens to be an evangelical Christian. She posted something about how the United States needs to return to God instead of overlooking sin. She listed certain issues, including the greater societal acceptance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identities.

What she sees as evil, I see as the Holy Spirit working to open the hearts of humanity. We can certainly have our opinions about things, but we have to be careful who and what we judge to be “evil.” First, we must never judge a person to be “evil” no matter what they do. That is blasphemy. Every person has a spark of the divine within them, part of the image of God, so to judge them evil is to judge God evil.

Behavior can be evil, but the most important indicator of whether a behavior is truly evil is the motivation behind the act. We often don’t know for sure what people’s motives are when they behave in certain ways. We can only guess, and we love to do that. We love to make assumptions, but the truth is we can’t be certain. Only God can look inside people’s hearts and know for certain.

So, we need to be careful what we call “evil.” We need to be absolutely certain, and there’s not much we can be that certain about. Life is not so black and white; much is grey. It is complicated and messy.

God created life to be challenging and unpredictable, but he didn’t design it that way to make it dangerous; he designed it that way to make it fun. Yes, our spiritual growth is supposed to be fun.

So … why isn’t it more fun?

Because the mind of me doesn’t like life as God created it. It has a problem with not knowing exactly what’s going on and what’s going to happen because it views life as a threat. Remember that the mind of me is the part of the mind where our identification with the personal self resides. It holds and maintains the false programming that causes us to experience ourselves as separate. It’s also where all our worries about our life come from.

When it comes to not understanding something or not knowing something, the mind of me will jump to a conclusion as quickly as possible to get rid of the discomfort of not knowing, and then it will hang onto that conclusion no matter what evidence it is presented with that might clearly prove it to be wrong. The mind of me will never admit it’s wrong for fear that you will find out the truth: that it doesn’t really know much of what it pretends to know.

We can see this phenomenon occurring within some of the Pharisees of Jesus time. Not all of the Pharisees, but many of them, refused to believe that Jesus’ power was from God even when their own spiritual scientific method proved it. The mind of me within them had already drawn a hasty conclusion, and it was sticking to it.

That leads me to another peril of blind faith related to an issue that has come up more in society recently: conspiracy theories. Many very spiritual people are falling for these – even I have at times. They are often impossible to disprove and so easily spread with the many forms of media today.

Allow me to bring up a wonderful little proverb I learned from cognitive behavioral therapy. The proverb is this: Anything is possible, but not probable. In other words, the mind of me can come up with an infinite number of possible scenarios as “problems” to worry about, but how many of them are probable? How many actually happen?

When the mind of me hears, “This is what’s going on behind the scenes,” and/or “This is what’s going to happen in the future,” it’s all ears. It wants so badly to be “in the know.” It believes it reduces anxiety, but what it really does is temporarily cover it over with a feeling of specialness. “I know something you don’t know. I have inside information.”

If the mind of me is like a fish, then conspiracy theories are like big fat juicy worms. It gets so easily hooked, and the more these conspiracy theories are repeated, the more that hook is swallowed and the more pain we feel.

Think about this: What is the probability that people who are that ego-centric will be able to put aside their extreme self-interest long enough to cooperate with others – to play nice – to the degree that would be required to pull off such elaborate schemes?

The probability of these conspiracy theories happening in reality is small. There might be some truth to them, which makes them seem more probable, but that is just another hooking tactic – to mix up some truth with the lies. They are often “based on a true story.” Just like with TV shows and the movies that are based on a true story, elements of fiction are added to make it more dramatic, and the mind of me craves drama!

Chances are better that those who come up with conspiracy theories are simply aware of our human vulnerability: the extreme gullibility of the mind of me. So they use conspiracy theories to try to influence people’s behavior or just for fun – to see how far it goes. It makes them feel powerful.

But what does believing these theories do to us? Usually, it just ramps up our fear and/or disgust with the world, and it may cause us to make irrational decisions that are harmful to us.

So, if we believe something that causes us to feel extreme negativity about life, we can be sure it’s not the truth – at least not the whole truth and therefore – a lie. What helps to catch the mind of me in the act of assuming it knows what it doesn’t really know is to regularly ask ourselves, “Do I really know that?”

To avoid the perils of blind faith, it is truly wise not to place our faith in anything without evidence – real, verifiable evidence. Of course, the mind of me will tell you that the evidence out there is all lies. Only it knows the truth. That’s just another one if its tactics.

Your Self (with a capital S) knows what the truth is, and it will let you know by how you feel. If you are confused, you can always ask for clarity, and the Holy Spirit will provide. If you feel peace, then you can trust what you have received.

The most important thing to remember is what Jesus said at the end of this scripture reading: “Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” He wasn’t saying that those who don’t do the will of God can be ostracized. That misinterpretation occurs when the verse is taken out of context.

He was simply answering the question that was probably on the minds of many of those who were judging him to be insane. “Why he going so far out of his way for these people he doesn’t even know?”

“Who are they to him?”

The people who were coming to him to hear him teach the Scriptures and for healing were demonstrating faith in God and were doing the Will of God. They were just as important to him as his own family, and just as he would temporarily neglect his own needs to take care of his own family members in their dire need, he would do the same for these people.

Because all of them are part of his spiritual family: the family of God. They are his brothers and sisters in Christ, and because of that, they deserve compassion and understanding, not judgment. When we spend less time judging our brothers and sisters, then we have far more time to actually care for them.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are grateful for having been given not only a rational mind but also the Holy Spirit to help us to discern the truth from lies. Help us to shun blind faith and to refrain from judgments unless we have all the facts. Let us focus instead of kindly serving our brothers and sisters. Amen.

Resources

Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.

Sample, Steven B. The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002), p. 7

How Do We Know We Have Eternal Life?

Jan Matejko, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How do we know for sure that we have eternal life? This is a question that many Christians across the centuries have asked, including the apostle John’s 2nd-century Christian audience. How does John’s answer give us confidence in God’s promise of eternal life in His Son?

Scripture: 1 John 5: 9-13

How do we know we have eternal life? This question really bothered me when I was in my early twenties. I was afraid of death. I was afraid that when I died, that was it. There was nothing else. Nothing beyond this life. Yet, I was so filled with depression and anxiety that I wasn’t even having a good time of life – but that was better than non-existence. Or was it? I wondered. If eternal life is going to be like this, do I really want it?

We know that Christians from all times have pondered these questions because in our scripture reading for today, John addresses them for his second-century Christian audience. How do we know we have eternal life?

John makes it clear that God testified to the fact that Jesus was his Son. The first time God testified to his Son was after Jesus’ baptism. We read in Matthew 3:16-17 that after Jesus came out of the water, he saw the Spirit of God descend upon him in the form of a dove, and he heard God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

The second time God testified to his Son was after Jesus’ transfiguration. We read in Matthew 17:1-8 that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him up a mountain where they witnessed his transformation as well as the appearance of Moses and Elijah. When Peter offered to make tents for them, God responded, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Why did John emphasize this testimony from God himself? To dispel two heresies that were spreading among the community of believers.

The first heresy was that Jesus was human, but not divine. If this were true, then we have no connection to God, and this is the opposite of what Jesus taught. This is the belief in “separation from God” that Jesus came and lived and died to dispel.

In John 14:11, Jesus said, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves.” So, Jesus testifies that he is not just human as his works have demonstrated.

But then, he also testifies that we are not just human. In verse 12, he says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Here, Jesus is testifying for us. We can do the same works he has done because we are also divine.

Then he makes it crystal clear in verses 18-20 where he says, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”

In this passage, Jesus is speaking not as a man, but as the Christ within all living things. Christ is the image of God, and it lives within Jesus, and within me, and within you, and within all that is alive. So, Jesus was not just human, and neither are we.

How did I come to know that I am not just human? Well, my heart is beating, and my lungs are breathing. Do I need to do anything to make this happen? No. That is because of the presence of Christ, or Life, within me.

And have you ever felt a rush of energy – like full body tingles – that opened your heart, maybe released some pent-up emotions, made you suddenly feel very peaceful and happy – perhaps even moved to tears? That was the Christ within you making its presence known.

We are not just human. We are human beings. The “being” part is the Life, or Christ, within. It isn’t possible to be alive without Christ. When you go to a funeral with an open casket and see a body lying in there – that is human without being. That is just human. It is a deeply disturbing sight to those who do not know Christ.

Those of us who know Christ just know – when we see that body – that empty shell – that it is NOT our loved one who has passed. Our loved one is alive and well in Christ, and so are we – and will be for all eternity. Our consciousness is attached to the Christ, not to this human form.

In a story circulated among an ancient monastic community, a vicious warlord intimidated whole villages, sending its entire population into the hills to hide in caves, waiting for the ruler to move on. One day the warlord entered a small village and asked, I presume all the people have fled by this time?” “Well, all but one old monk who refused to flee,” the aide answered. The warlord was beside himself.

“Bring him to me immediately,” he snarled. When they dragged the old monk to the square before him, the commander shouted at him, “Do you not know who I am? I am he who can run you through with a sword and never even bat an eye.” And the old monk gazed up at the commander and replied, “And do you not know who I am? I am he who can let you run me through with a sword and never bat an eye.”

I think it’s safe to say that monk knew he had eternal life. It is our relationship with God in Christ that gives us that kind of certainty.

The second heresy was the opposite of the first – that Jesus was divine, but not human. If that were true, then we are not like him at all and never will be. As a divine one, he is immortal, but not us. We can only hope that by worshipping him, we will receive some type of reward in this life – maybe some things we want.

This is how many Christians today view Jesus. They place Jesus so high up on a pedestal that he becomes too out-of-reach to even try to follow. They believe Jesus is the only Son of God – no one else. This is a misunderstanding. When God called Jesus his Son, he was referring to the Christ within him – the Spirit, not the flesh. That Spirit is the divine spark present in all of life.

In John 14:1-3, Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Here Jesus says, “You can go where I am going.”

What’s most intriguing is that in the very next verse, he says to his disciples, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Doesn’t that imply that we’ve been there before? And if we’ve been there before, then we must be like Jesus. Like him, we must also be able to travel into the higher realms of Spirit.

In John 13, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, but Simon Peter initially protested. He said, “You will never wash my feet.” He said this because as far as he was concerned, disciples serve their masters, not the other way around. He saw the Lord as too far above him. Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” As long as you believe me to be different from you, you can never join with me in Christ.

If Jesus wanted to be worshipped, he would have followed a completely different path. This was one of the temptations in the wilderness that Jesus had to face. In Matthew chapter 4 we read that the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus replied, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Jesus knew that God alone is to be worshipped, so it is truly improper to worship Jesus. He was a human being just like us. Following Jesus – listening to his teachings and actually practicing them – leads to eternal life. Worshipping Jesus does not lead to eternal life. It’s easy to worship Jesus – not-so-easy to follow him.

The church has made the mistake of de-emphasizing Jesus’ humanity to the point where we view our own humanity in a negative light. Some Christians go so far as to believe that our human flesh is inherently sinful. But God fashioned humanity for a purpose and breathed the breath of Life (or Christ) into our bodies.

It is through our human forms and personal selves that God gets to have an exquisite experience of his own being. Our bodies and personalities are sacred expressions of Who God Is, but they are temporary whereas the breath of life within us – the Christ within us – is eternal.

So, Jesus as well as all of us are both divine and human. That is what it means to be a “human being.” It is important to acknowledge both parts of our nature – especially since one part is always in conflict the other part. That’s what makes being a human being tricky.

As one with Christ, we are Life itself, and there can be no death in life. It’s impossible for life to die just as it is impossible for cold to be hot. That’s logical, isn’t it? But even if we are certain that our consciousness survives the body’s death, that is little comfort if our consciousness is still trapped in delusion.

No one would want an eternally miserable life. Dying physically does not automatically catapult us into Christ Consciousness and into the higher spiritual realms. That is why some souls remain earthbound after death – because they still don’t know who they are. They may not even realize their bodies have died – just that things have suddenly and drastically changed in how they can interact with the world.

Just as we try to help those who are here on this earth to remember who they are, there are souls in the spiritual realm who work to try to help earthbound souls to release their fears and go into the light.

Yes, all have quantity of life in Christ whether they know Christ or not. But those who do not know Christ do not have a good quality of life. Those who identify with the personal self suffer from constant fear and striving for things like wealth and power because they believe these will free them from their fears.

What’s tricky about being a human being is that even those of us who know Christ still have to deal with the personal self, which is always in conflict with the Christ. Most of our thoughts revolve around the idea of “me, myself, and I.” These thoughts belong to the personal self, and they cause suffering.

Now, to a certain extent, these thoughts are natural and also part of God’s plan – to experience life through a multitude of personal selves. But within many human beings, the personal self has become too powerful. Over time, it has constructed a stronghold in the mind with its constant anxious chattering about “me, myself, and I.” Let’s call it the “mind of me.”

The mind of me keeps us distracted from the Mind of Christ and the peace, love, and joy it brings. The thoughts coming out of the mind of me do not belong to us. The mind of me is like a computer program designed to make us think that we are an individual when we really aren’t – along with all the ideas that support that idea. So, we don’t need to take them so seriously. In fact, the less seriously we take them, the more our quality of life improves.

I invite you all to pay attention to your thoughts and try to start sorting out which ones belong to the Christ and which ones belong to the mind of me. In general, if your thoughts cause you to feel negative emotions, they don’t belong to you; they belong to the mind of me. This is why Jesus taught us in the Sermon on the Mount not to worry about our life.

This week, observe how the mind of me makes up problems that don’t exist in the here and now and then tells you what to do about them. You see, taking its bad advice only creates more problems for it to tell you how to solve. It’s got quite a racket going, I tell you.

This is how it tries to dupe us into thinking we need its help when we really don’t. This is how it tries to convince us that it is a better guide for our lives than the Christ. Look at all the problems it’s helping us solve! The truth is that most of these “problems” are either made-up or caused by the mind of me.

The Mind of Christ doesn’t handle life this way at all, and it’s far better at handling life. The Mind of Christ handles challenges as they arise in the moment. That makes sense doesn’t it – especially since it’s not actually a problem yet and if it does become one, we don’t know the specifics of it until it actually shows up! Since the Mind of Christ is creatively unlimited, it is able to provide us with several options that the limited mind of me would never be able to come up with.

The mind of me makes demands of us. It demands we follow its advice by filling us with anxiety. It doesn’t matter to the mind of me if the advice is bad. All that matters is that we are following it instead of the Christ.

The Mind of Christ makes suggestions out of respect for our free will. If a thought is coming from the Mind of Christ, we will not feel pressured to do anything. If we trust and follow the Mind of Christ, we’ll have far fewer problems, and the ones that do crop up will be handled swiftly and brilliantly.

In Romans chapter 6: 20-23, Paul writes, “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So, what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We all have quantity of life in Christ whether we know Christ or not, so no one needs to worry about annihilation. However, our quality of life depends upon the degree to which we identify with Christ. Identification with the personal self and following the mind of me does not lead to the death of the soul, but it does lead to the “death” of a good quality of life.

So how do we know we have eternal life? We know not only because we do not fear death but also because we are free from the fear and striving of the personal self and able to experience the peace, love, and joy of our true Christ nature. That makes eternal life a true gift to be thankful for!

Let’s pray together: Father, we are grateful for the eternal life that you have given us. Help us to trust in Christ and listen to his guidance, knowing he alone is the Good Shepherd who guides us to green pastures and still waters. Amen.

Resources

Life Application Study Bible. Zondervan, 2011.

Raymond, Eric. “What Does It Mean to Have Eternal Life?” thegospelcoalition.org, thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/erik-raymond/what-does-it-mean-to-have-eternal-life/

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight, 2015, The Crown Publishing Group.

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

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

Artwork on the wall of the Saint Paul’s Community Church in Swiftwater, PA , shown above, is alluded to in this sermon. This artwork was created by Jackie Lima of Easton, PA.

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

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

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