Ultimate Security

Heinrich Hofmann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: Why is it so hard for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God? Jesus teaches us that it isn’t wealth itself that is the problem; it is our attitude toward our wealth that can cause us to feel estranged from God.

Scripture: Mark 10: 17-31

Click here to listen to an audio of this sermon.

In today’s world, security is big business. People spend a lot of money on security. They buy insurance policies, contribute to IRAs and 401Ks, and invest in the stock market. They buy virus protection programs for their electronic devices and put security systems in place to protect homes and businesses. For example, there’s a company called Ultimate Security Systems, Inc. Its by-line is “Your one-stop shop for all your electronic security needs.”

Most people don’t lack knowledge of the things the world offers to help alleviate our anxiety about the future. However, what they do lack is the knowledge of what will help alleviate our anxiety about the future forever – of where our ultimate security lies – the one-stop shop for all our security needs.

That is what our scripture reading for today is all about. First, some context. Jesus went up a mountain with Peter, James, and John. There these three disciples witnessed Jesus transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah. They return to the other disciples, and Jesus begins to prepare them for the last stage of his journey – Jerusalem and the cross.

On the road to Capernaum, the disciples had a heated discussion about who was the greatest among them. To deal with their pride, Jesus taught them that the greatest in his kingdom is humble like a child and welcomes the lowly. He also warned them of the grave cost of causing those who are vulnerable to fall into sin and of ignoring the sin within themselves.

Jesus left Capernaum and entered into Judea, where he is tested by the Pharisees with a question about divorce. People were also bringing children to Jesus to lay his hands on them and bless them. The disciples protested, but Jesus was indignant when he heard about it.

He told them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus is now in Judea, and he is setting out on a journey toward Jerusalem. A man kneels before him and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Unlike the Pharisees, this man is not asking this question to test Jesus. His words and actions demonstrate that he has a lot of respect for Jesus, so we can safely assume his question is sincere.

Jesus reminds the man that no one is good save God alone. He then lists the commandments, but notice that all of them are the ones concerning our relationships with one another, not the ones regarding our relationship with God.

The man responds that he has obeyed those commandments since his youth. What do we think of this man? Is he lying, or self-deceived? Is he a hypocrite? The text tells us that Jesus gazed at him and loved him, so perhaps we should love him too. Perhaps he was “blameless with respect to righteousness under the law” as Paul states about himself in his letter to the Philippians.

The man is obviously a devout Jew. He keeps the commandments – at least the ones related to human interactions. But what about the ones that Jesus didn’t list – the ones about our relationship with God? Was it truly God alone he worshipped, or were there idols hidden in his heart?

Jesus’ challenge made the answer to that question clear, and the man walked away very unhappy. His relationships with other people were good, but his riches had gotten in between him and God.

Jesus’ comment on how hard it is for the wealthy to enter into the Kingdom of God leaves the disciples perplexed. To drive home his point, Jesus uses a shocking exaggeration: It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle! We all know how small the eye of a needle is and how huge a camel is.

Why are the disciples so shocked? Well, they lived in a culture that associated wealth and power with divine favor. It’s that hard even for those who are the most blessed? If it’s that hard even for this man, an obviously law-abiding, socially-responsible Jewish citizen, who then can be saved?

Jesus’ response is perfect. “For mortals it is impossible” (We can’t earn our own way into the Kingdom of God), “but not for God; for God all things are possible” (We get there only through God’s grace).

You see, the man’s question itself revealed that he felt estranged from his Heavenly Father. Imagine if your children came to you and asked, “What must I do to earn my inheritance?”

They don’t have to earn it, right? They are entitled to it because they are your children. If they are asking you that question, you’d have to wonder if they had somehow forgotten who they are or if they believe that you have disowned them for some reason.

We are God’s children. We don’t need to earn the gifts God has graciously given us. He gives them to us simply because we are his children, and he loves us. The Kingdom of God is our inheritance, and that includes eternal life. All we need to do is remember who we are and God’s love for us. If we feel estranged, it is certainly not because God has rejected or abandoned us.

There’s nothing wrong with being wealthy, but if our wealth is more important to us than our relationship with God, then our attitude is keeping us estranged from God – not the wealth itself.

Peter asserts that he and the rest of the disciples had left everything behind to follow Jesus. Now, they were not rich like this man. Many of them were quite poor, like Peter, barely surviving as fishermen.

But whether they realize it or not, as followers of Jesus, they are now really living by God’s grace. They do not need worldly wealth because they are no longer estranged from their Heavenly Father and their ginormous family. All of Creation belongs to them, so they literally have everything they need: people (brothers and sisters; mothers and children) and things (houses and fields).

They will also face persecution because they reject the world’s values, but they will be the first to inherit eternal life because they are the last on the totem pole when it comes to who the world values. The world admires arrogant rulers, not humble servants.

What does this teaching have to say to us today? As with many of Jesus’ teachings, they are timeless, so this teaching is just as relevant today as it was in Jesus’ time.

Our relationship with God is just as important as our relationship with others, so if we somehow feel estranged from God, we can’t experience the bliss of our union with God.

We are a three-part being: body, mind, and soul. When we come into this physical existence, the soul takes on a body and a mind. Some call it the body-mind, and it’s written as “body dash mind.” The body-mind is what makes up the personal self: the body and what I call “the mind of me.”

The personal self is like a thread in the Tapestry of Life – a beautiful tapestry that expresses Who God Is. Think about how thin a piece of thread must be in order to fit through the eye of a needle. The thicker the thread is, the harder it is to fit it through there. If the Kingdom of God is like the eye of a needle, and the body-mind is like a thread, then if the body-mind is too thick, it won’t be able to fit through.

What makes the body-mind too thick? In short, anything that causes us to identify more with the personal self than with Who We Really Are. Those who practice Buddhism call these things “attachments.” The Buddha taught that attachments are the root cause of all our suffering. I believe Jesus is teaching the same timeless wisdom here.

The man in our scripture reading for today was attached to his wealth. Wealth gives us the ability to enjoy many worldly pleasures and material things. I’m sure this man didn’t want to give up the lifestyle that he had grown accustomed to. This is a bodily type of attachment. What would he do with himself if he wasn’t so busy indulging his desires and taking care of all of his accoutrements?

This man’s wealth not only kept him attached to pleasures and possessions, but it also kept him attached to his status. This is a mental type of attachment. Who would he be if he were not a rich man? If he was as poor as a pauper? He would be a nobody. He would be nothing – so he feared.

To better understand this rich man’s spiritual plight, imagine that you are an actor or actress. You are wearing a costume, and you are on a stage. You are acting in a play. Imagine that in this play, you are a very rich person. You are wearing very lavish clothing and jewelry. You are decked out like royalty!

And not only that, you also live a huge castle with a grand courtyard, and you get to go to feasts and eat and drink until you are about ready to explode. You get to take baths in luxurious hot tubs. You can have anything you want; people wait on you hand and foot.

As a good actor or actress, you really get into this role. You even do your best to think like this rich person with all his or her wants, needs, and fears. You take on the attitude of this rich person so that you can do a good job on stage. You want to do a good job expressing who this character is. That is your job, after all.

Now, imagine that this play is going on non-stop for many years, and because of that, you never really give yourself the chance to “get out of character.” Even when you step off the stage, you still feel the need to act, think, and feel as this character does. Over time, the memory of who you really are fades away.

That is the spiritual problem the rich man in our story has, and Jesus recognized this. The man is just playing the part of a rich man in God’s play so that God can experience what it is like to have and do all these things through him.

But since he has never taken the time to “get out of character,” he has forgotten who he is at the core of his being – without the costume and jewelry and other elaborate props. He has forgotten who he is without the “storyline” of a rich man’s life.

Jesus basically said to that man, “Step off the stage, leave all the props behind, take off your costume and jewelry, drop your storyline, and follow me. That is the only way to inherit eternal life – to experience the core of your being.”

If he had accepted Jesus’ challenge, he finally would have been free to find God within himself. The personal self can keep us quite busy if we let it – so busy chasing after all our worldly desires that we never have time to look within and find God there. We never “detach” from the world long enough to experience who we really are at the core of our being – within the eye of the needle.

But how do we make ourselves thin enough to slip through the “eye of the needle” – to step off the stage so that we can experience the core of our being?

Some believe that only in death are we able to detach from the personal self. Neale Donald’s Walsch, the author of Conversations with God, wrote a fascinating book called Home with God: In a Life that Never Ends. In this book, Neale has a conversation with God about death.

According to Neale’s book, we go through three stages when we die. The first stage is when we release our identification with the body. This happens when we come to the realization that we have indeed died, but we’re somehow still alive.

The second stage is when we release our identification with the mind. We experience our idea of the afterlife until we get to the point where we say to ourselves, “Surely, there must be more to the afterlife than this.”

That is when we come to the realization that we create our reality with our minds, but we are not the mind. Once we release our identification with the mind and our ideas about the afterlife, we experience the afterlife as it really is – which is, of course, far better than any limited ideas we held about it.

The third stage is when we release our identification with the soul – yes, the soul. The soul is not destroyed; it is simply reintegrated. We melt into the light of God, and we remember our total unity with God. We experience untold bliss in this moment, and we can stay here for as long as we want.

When we re-emerge, all three parts are integrated – body, mind, and soul as one.  At this point comes the Holy Inquiry. It’s the most important question of our existence. The question is this: “Do you want to stay?” Do you want to stay in the spiritual world, or go back to the physical world? If we feel there is something incomplete about our last life, we can return to it. If we choose to stay, we can enjoy the spiritual world for as long as we wish.

But every soul eventually decides to be reborn into physicality and to continue to experience its divinity in whatever way, shape, or form the soul chooses. That is what God does; he makes himself known through his infinite expressions, and as much as our personal self grumbles about life, the soul finds it a great joy to be able to experience its divinity in grander ways for all eternity. That is what soul growth is all about, and soul growth is what life is all about.

So, if we believe that we must die in order to experience release from the body and mind, then that is what we experience. But the truth is that we don’t have to believe that. We don’t have to wait until death. We can do it while we are still experiencing the body-mind in physicality.

How can we do that?

Well, some of you have may have already experienced it – at least for a moment. You may have felt yourself melt away and joined with All That Is. If not, that’s OK. All that matters is that you are willing to experience it. If you are willing, then by God’s grace you will have that experience because there is nothing God wants more than for you to return to him.

We set up the blockades – not God. Our blockades are fear-based. We are afraid of God because we have been taught many mistaken ideas about God. That is one of the reasons why Jesus came – to teach us that we don’t have to be afraid of God. In God lies our ultimate security – not in our bank accounts.

We need not fear having nothing because God gives us everything we need. All we need to do is ask, believe, and receive. And we need not fear being a nothing because in God we are literally everything. Everything there is! We have everything because we are everything!

Since the blockades exist in the mind, we can’t think our way back to God. That doesn’t work, trust me. Because I am a thinker. I analyze everything to death. The hardest thing for me is to stop thinking so much, and that’s the fastest way to experience the core of our being – to just live in the moment.

This sounds so easy, but it’s not so easy for humans because we are so addicted to the mind of me. We believe the mind of me is a good guide, and the mind of me does everything it can to pretend to be a good guide. But don’t be deceived: it is like a wolf in shepherd’s clothing.

Most of the things the mind of me has us worrying about and imparting its “marvelous” advice about are illusions. They are about a future which isn’t here yet and can’t be known. The Mind of Christ is the life expert; it guides us in the present moment. We can deal effectively with what is actually showing up, but we can’t deal with illusions.

So be willing, don’t think about it too much, and live in the present moment. That is how we can open ourselves to experiencing the core of our being – our unity with God – and the peace, love, and joy of our ultimate security.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to experience the core of our being by dropping the attachments that are causing us to feel estranged from our Heavenly Father. Make these attachments known to us, and give us the grace to live in the present moment. AMEN.

Resources

Vitalis Hoffman, Mark G. “Commentary on Mark 10:17-31.” workingpreacher.org, 11 Oct. 2015, http:\\www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-7

Walsch, Neale Donald. “Home with God: In a Life that Never Ends.” Atria Books, 2006.

No Rest for the Unweary

Washington Allston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Synopsis: How can we serve humanity like Jesus did when we are worn out? When we are disheartened by all the trouble in the world and overwhelmed by so much need? Jesus lived in times much like ours, yet he served humanity so tirelessly and so loyally that people thought he was out of his mind. How did he do it?

Scripture Reading: Mark 6: 30-34; 53-56

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

In spite of people suggesting that things have going “back to normal,” many are still in pain as a result of the events of recent years. Not only are some feeling the pain of the loss of loved ones and jobs, but all of humanity has been fed heavy doses of fear and hatred from a variety of sources for quite a long time.

This has caused many to embrace indifference at best and animosity at worst. Those of us in this room may be in pain too, and we may be tempted to protect ourselves by closing our hearts. We might feel it’s time to take care of ourselves and forget about others for a while. We’re just too tired. Worn out. We may want to just stick our heads in the sand because living in this world has become too painful.

Jesus lived in times much like ours. His world was full of corruption and greed. His world was full of hypocritical religious leaders. They talked about loving God and one another, but they didn’t practice it. They didn’t demonstrate it through their actions.

How do I know? Because when Jesus actually demonstrated it, people thought he was out of his mind.

How is it possible be like Jesus in times like this? When we’re feeling so tired and worn out? When there is so much trouble in the world that it is disheartening? When there is so much need that it is overwhelming? I believe our scripture reading for today provides the answer.

Our reading comes from Mark’s gospel, the most chronological of the four, meaning that the events are told in the order that they actually occurred in time. Mark focuses a great deal on Jesus, the servant. It’s an action-packed gospel. Much of what we read in Mark is about Jesus healing people and performing other miracles.

In the previous chapter, chapter 5, Jesus and his disciples came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. There, he drove out a legion of demons within one man and healed a woman who touched the fringe of his cloak and a young girl who was at the point of death.

Chapter 6 begins with a lot of drama. First, Jesus is rejected at the synagogue in his own hometown because they thought they already knew him. They probably thought, “Who does he think he is, the Messiah? Hah! He’s just Jesus, Joseph the Carpenter’s son.”

That is what judgment does. It blinds us to the truth about people.

Then Jesus gave his disciples the authority to cast out demons, and he sent them out two-by-two, ordering them to take nothing with them but a staff, their sandals, and one tunic – no bread, no bag, no money, no extra tunic. The disciples went around the villages, proclaiming for all to repent, casting out demons, and healing people by anointing them with oil.

Finally, we read about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod, well – actually it was his wife Herodias who was behind it. She trapped Herod with an oath he had made. When the disciples heard about it, they came and took John’s body and laid him in a tomb.

That brings us to our scripture reading for today which begins with verse 30, “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” Notice that Mark uses the word “apostles” here rather than “disciples.” The word “apostle” means “one sent” as messenger, authorized agent, or missionary. It would become an official title for Jesus’ 12 disciples after his resurrection.

Jesus and his disciples were so busy with people coming and going that they didn’t get a chance to eat. This is common theme in Mark’s gospel. Jesus – the servant – so dedicated to his work of caring for the needs of those who came to him that people thought he was out of his mind.

Jesus was not a workaholic, and he was not a slave driver. He knew when he and his disciples needed to rest, so he suggested that they find a deserted place where they could all rest.

Well, that didn’t really happen. It’s not easy to get away when there is such great need. Jesus and his disciples got in a boat to go to a solitary place, but the crowds saw where they were going and rushed to arrive there first.

It’s easy to view people with needs as a nuisance. We feel we don’t have the time, energy, or resources to serve them. But there is no better use of our time, energy, or resources than to help others. In fact, God put us on this earth to help others – to be his hands and feet in this suffering world. Nothing gives us more energy and joy than fulfilling our purpose. We just don’t know that.

But Jesus knew that. When Jesus saw the crowd, he wasn’t like, “Oh, come on! We need to rest! Leave us be!” He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. Sheep are helpless without a shepherd. The shepherd guides them and protects them from predators. And if a sheep ever ends up on its back, the shepherd has to pick it up and place it on its feet because sheep aren’t able to “right” themselves.

If it were not for the Good Shepherd, we would die because we aren’t able to live “right” by ourselves. Humanity is suffering not because the shepherd is absent. He’s there for every one of us, but there are too many people who don’t know him or who know him, but don’t follow him. Instead, they use him as an object of worship, or to glorify themselves, or to obtain material possessions, or to justify their hateful behavior.

Now, this Sunday’s lectionary curiously skips over verses 35-52, where Jesus feeds the five thousand and walks on water. Instead, it focuses on what happens immediately before and after these two events. What’s the point of this scripture split? We shall see.

We read in verse 53 that after they crossed over, they landed in Gennesaret, which was a small, fertile plain located on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum, Jesus’ home, sat at the northern edge of this plain.

We read that the people recognized him, and brought people to him for healing, and he went all throughout the region healing people. I read verses 30-56, and the only time Jesus was able to rest was recorded in verse 46-47, where we read that he went up on a mountain to pray into the evening.

Can you imagine the energy in the air at that time – people’s immense faith and anticipation that Jesus can and would heal them – that he would free them from whatever it was that was keeping them from living their lives to the fullest? And he could! He was capable of doing that for them, and so he did. He served and served and served as if he somehow had an inexhaustible source of energy.

How did he do it, and how can we do it too as tired and worn out as we may feel right now? Well, first, let’s be clear. Jesus was out of his mind – out of the mind of me. He was operating out of the Mind of Christ. To the Christ, people’s call for love is irresistible. To respond to that call is as natural to the Christ as breathing is to us humans.

Many people believe that our strongest human instinct is survival, but the survival instinct is simply built into the physical brain. Since we are not really physical beings, our strongest instinct is actually spiritual: to express our Divinity. We express our Divinity by extending Love. That is one of the purposes for which God created us, but our human programming – the mind of me – often blocks that expression.

Now, I’m not saying that we “should” or “ought” to do anything. The “shoulds” and “oughts” come from the mind of me also. It’s the mind of me trying to tell us what to do and making us feel guilty if we don’t do it. It wants to control us so badly that it will even resort to disguising its ulterior motives as something spiritual.

The Christ will not tell us what we “should” or “ought” to do. If we truly get an impulse from the Christ to help someone, we will respond effortlessly and joyfully. We will not need to force ourselves to do it out of any sense of guilt or obligation.

We will also find no scarcity of time, energy, or resources to answer the call. That is why Jesus instructed his disciples to go into the villages with nothing but a staff, the sandals on their feet, and the tunics on their backs. It’s like he was saying, “I dare you to trust God to provide for your daily needs.”

Let’s go back for a moment to those skipped verses: the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and walking on water. What did Mark mean when he writes in verse 51-52, “Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

The answer is the point of our split scripture reading. When we are doing what it is that God created us to do – when we live fearlessly day-by-day, when we serve others in gratitude, we realize that we need not fear scarcity or the unknown. We need not fear running out of resources or energy or time or being faced with calamity without help. God is here for us and lovingly supplies all our needs.

Why wouldn’t he if we are doing what he created us to do?

Jesus didn’t have much time to eat or rest, but he obviously didn’t need it. Even though there was practically no rest for him, he was unweary. That’s because God supplies unlimited energy and resources to empower the Christ to do what Christ does – extend love. This is the lesson the Lord was teaching his disciples – and us.

That time of great trouble coupled with great need was the perfect time for Jesus Christ to come into the world the first time and do his work. We live in a time of great trouble and great need, so it’s the perfect time for the second coming of Christ and the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven.

When Jesus came the first time, most people were not awake. That is not the case this time. People are awake; they just don’t know it. They think they are crazy because the rest of the world doesn’t appear to think or feel like they do. The truth is they do; they just don’t have the courage to act differently from everyone else. They don’t have the courage to speak and demonstrate the Truth.

I recently read a post from someone I knew when I attended the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Poconos years ago. She made a suggestion on her community’s Facebook group. She suggested that two single-stall park bathrooms be labeled for both male and female use instead of having one for men only and one for women only. 

Certainly, that would eliminate the difficulties transgender individuals face under those circumstances, and that’s important. But that’s not the only issue. You know how it is, ladies. There’s often a line for the women’s bathroom, but no one in the men’s bathroom. So, there you are, a woman who really needs to go, standing right next to an empty bathroom that you’re not allowed to use.

It was a practical suggestion, but people in the Facebook group attacked and ridiculed her. She was shocked. I was not because the same thing often happened to me when I posted a suggestion on the Easton community page. All I suggested was that people try to be a little more patient with others and stop obnoxiously honking their horns at people for the slightest little thing – like not stepping on the gas pedal the nanosecond the light turns green.

It is not easy to be different. It takes courage. I know there are more people out there who are like us then there are like those hecklers. They are just afraid of the hecklers. They are afraid to be ostracized. What they don’t know is how much they are loved by God – so who cares what silly humans think?

Jesus warned us that we would be persecuted, so we shouldn’t be surprised when we are. That’s the price we pay for picking up our cross and following Jesus. If we are really doing that, then we should not be acting like everyone else. Being heckled is proof that we’re doing what Jesus called us to do.

Because you see, it is what we do that will startle people into seeing the Divinity within themselves. That is what Jesus did. His actions said to people, “You see, you have the same power, the same potential within you to change the world for the better if you choose.”

There is another purpose why God created us beyond extending love. That reason is to be co-creators with Him. God gave us the free will to create whatever we choose – but now, because of all the ugly stuff that is being revealed, much of humanity is crying out to God, “Please God, help us change. This is not the life we wanted to live. This is not the life we wanted to create.”

We created out of ignorance, out of a lack of awareness, out of being asleep. The mind of me is what caused this sleep, and it works hard to keep us asleep, so it’s so important for us to be aware of it so that we can stay awake, and not keep falling back into the sleep of our default human programming.

We have turned our creative power over to others instead of claiming it for ourselves. We do have the power to create the life we want if we chose to act out of our Divinity. First, in our personal lives, we need to follow the promptings of the Divine to change the way we are living our lives. If there is something that isn’t working for us spiritually, we will know it by experiencing discomfort.

So, if we’ve started to feel some discomfort when we eat certain foods, or visit certain people, or watch certain TV shows, or read certain newspapers or magazines, or engage in certain habits, it means that these activities are no longer good for us. It’s important to notice that and make changes so that we can be better aligned with our True Self.

We can make deliberate choices around the foods we eat, the people we surround ourselves with, and the media we consume. We can make deliberate choices about how and where we spend our money, where and what kind of health care we receive, and many other lifestyle choices. Once we make those deliberate choices, then we do what we need to do to create the life we want. We have that power.

We also have the power to create the kind of world we want if we choose. We may think that we are just one person, so how can we create global change? Jesus was just one person. So was Mahatma Ghandi. Mother Theresa. Martin Luther King, Jr. and many other remarkable individuals who changed the world because they had the courage to act out of their Divinity – to not be like everyone else.

The mind of me is afraid of change, but the Mind of Christ embraces it. So let us ignore the mind of me’s fear embrace the Mind of Christ’s courage by answering the call and extending love to those crying out for love. Yes, those hecklers and anyone else who behaves badly are crying out for love because they are frightened.

Let us create the life we want to live – a life in alignment with our Divine Self – our True Self – beginning with our personal lives, making whatever changes we need to make so that our light can shine brighter in this world. Let people think we’re out of our minds. Let them heckle us. Let them ostracize us.

Eventually, they will see themselves – their True Self – reflected in our loving eyes and in our loving actions and in the loving ways in which we chose to walk on this earth.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to take up our cross and follow you. We are willing to put our trust in God to provide for our daily needs. Help us to release our fears, open our hearts, and answer the call for love.

Resources

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.

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.

Harvesting and Sharing

Philipp Peter Roos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Scripture Reading: Matthew 25: 32-46

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this parable have to teach us today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

Spiritual Resilience

Hieronymous Francken II, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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

Scripture reading: Matthew 25: 1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How can we apply this parable to our lives today?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resources

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

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

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

Courageously Stepping Out into Uncertainty

Ivan Aivazovsky / Public domain

Synopsis: We are living in uncertain times as we move through this pandemic storm. We don’t know what the future holds. How can the stories of Jesus calming the storm and walking on water help us face the unknown with courage and step out into uncertainty with faith?

Click here to view this message on my YouTube channel.

Scriptures: Matthew 8:23-27 and Matthew 14:22-33

We can all relate to these gospel stories for today, and I believe they hold important messages for us in these times when we are faced with many overwhelming challenges – so many challenges – both individually and collectively – that we may have found ourselves doubting God’s love for us.

Deep down, we may think that if we believe in God, go to church every Sunday, say our prayers every day, and try our best to do good, we won’t have to deal with any troubles. But that’s not how life is. We’re all in this together. As Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew 5:45, “God causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. People who are sick with COVID-19 are uncertain about whether they will fully recover. People who have lost loved ones are uncertain about how they will carry on without them. People who have been laid off from work are uncertain about when they will be called back to work – if ever. Many are uncertain about how the struggling economy will affect their assets.

There’s one thing we’re all uncertain about, and that’s the future. We have no idea what the future holds. We never did, really, but now, we really don’t. We can’t assume that anything about our life before coronavirus will go back to the way it was. The rug has literally been pulled out from underneath us, and there’s absolutely nothing out there to hold onto.

We’re experiencing quite a storm. The old boat we’ve been in is getting beat up, it’s starting to sink, and we’re terrified! Surely, the Lord must be asleep! How can he be sleeping at a time like this?

Lord, wake up! Save us!

In our first gospel story, the disciples were experiencing a quite a storm on the sea. Their boat was getting beat up, and they were terrified, but Jesus was asleep. After they woke him up, he commented on their lack of faith, rebuked the wind and the waves, and all of a sudden, it was completely calm. The disciples were amazed. Who is this man that even the wind and waves obey him?

Jesus could have answered that question directly saying, “I AM the Christ,” but he didn’t operate that way. He more or less let the disciples draw that conclusion for themselves. It wasn’t until almost the end of Jesus’ ministry when Peter would declare, “You are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”

But at this point, Jesus knew himself as the Christ, and if Christ is one with God and all of Life, then Christ is in the wind and waves. We identify with this helpless human form, so we can’t help but feel terrified when we perceive such awesome forces of Nature out there, separate from us, opposing us.

What if the truth is that there’s nothing out there opposing us? What if everything that occurs in Life somehow mysteriously supports Life – and therefore us – as part of Life?

Speaking of something to hold onto, we humans didn’t invent gravity to keep us from flying out into space, did we? No, we did not. Yet gravity exists and never fails. We humans also didn’t create the sun and command it to rise and set, did we? No, we did not. Yet it does – every single day. In so many countless ways beyond our ability to comprehend, Life supports itself.

Yet we scream, “Lord, wake up! Save us!”

Do we now see what little faith we have? Life doesn’t oppose us; we oppose life. That’s the problem. Instead of choosing to see Life as the enemy, how about choosing to trust that somehow Life has brought us this storm to support us as part of Itself – even though we can’t comprehend how? How might that shift in perspective help calm the wind and waves?

Our next gospel story takes place closer to the end of Jesus’ ministry after the death of John the Baptist. This time, Jesus is not in the boat with his disciples when the boat starts getting battered by the waves. They are on their own this time because Jesus went up a mountain to pray – way, way over on the other side of the lake – separated from them by what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle: the water.

The same is true with us: Jesus isn’t physically here in this boat with us because he left to commune with the Father. We may feel as if the Lord is far, far away – unable to help us. Like the disciples, we may feel totally helpless and hopeless in our little boat – in the pitch dark – tossed around by the strong winds and heavy waves of this pandemic.

But there are no obstacles that can come between us and the Lord. Jesus, walking on the water, came to the disciples. Now, I’m no physicist, so I can’t explain how, but I do believe it’s possible. After all, if who we really are is something like light projecting forms onto the screen of Life, then why not?

When the disciples saw him, they cried out, “It’s a ghost!” and screamed with fear. Jesus said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” In all fairness to the disciples, if we saw a human figure walking on water, we’d probably respond the same way, wouldn’t we?

We fear things we don’t understand. We fear the unknown. We fear it so much that we want to know – everything. In fact, we’re so addicted to knowing that we often pretend we know when we really don’t. We can’t handle not knowing; it makes us feel too vulnerable.

What if we gave up the notion that we need to know everything because we can trust Life to give us what we need in perfect timing – just as the Lord showed up at the perfect time to say, “Have courage! It’s not the boogie man! It is Life here to support you exactly when you need it.”

Peter’s options were scary. If he stayed in the boat, it might capsize or sink. If he got out, would he be able to keep his head above water in the tumultuous sea? With either choice, he could drown. After all, he didn’t have a lifeboat, and he wasn’t wearing a life jacket. He had nothing to keep him afloat.

He had nothing to hold onto.

But by this time, Peter had been Jesus’ disciple for a while. Only hours before, he had witnessed Jesus feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish. He had witnessed Jesus calm storms, cast out demons, heal the sick – even raise the dead. And wow! What if he could walk on water too? What if he had abilities he didn’t even know he had?

He said, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” There was no way that he was going to step out of that old boat until he knew for sure that it was the Lord. He trusted the Lord. He knew the Lord wouldn’t let him drown. He knew the Lord would support him. If we trust life, we’ll be fearless – like Peter.

So, Peter stepped out of the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus. What a miracle! But then, the wind and waves distracted him. Instead of keeping his eyes on the Lord, he focused on the wind and waves. He became afraid, and he began to sink.

The apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So, whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.”

Peter was frightened by what we saw out there, so he started to doubt, and then sink. How many of us, when we read or hear the news, get scared, and then get this sinking feeling in our gut? It’s the same problem Peter had. When we’re frightened, we make the mistake of looking for something out there to grab onto to make us feel better when the Lord’s right here, reaching out to us.

Now, it’s OK to feel uncomfortable with uncertainty. We’re only human. But it doesn’t have to keep us stuck in old ways of thinking and behaving that might not work anymore. What if that old boat is sinking – but what if we can walk on water? What if we have abilities we didn’t know we had? Perhaps this story is what we all need to help us to courageously step out of that old boat into uncertainty.

It’s scary, yes, but there are also infinite possibilities – and that’s exciting.

Because it is through challenges like this that we awaken the sleeping Christ within us to calm the storm and to give us the courage to step out of old boats and really live. And it is through these journeys that the Lord within us is glorified and our faith and trust is developed until we can exclaim with Peter and rest of the disciples: “Lord – you really are the Son of God.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to trust that you are within us, reaching out to give us help whenever we need it. May this confidence give us the courage to step out into the uncertainty, letting go of our old ways of thinking and behaving, so that we might really live. Amen.

What it Means to be Born Again

Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain

Synopsis: Many Christians claim to be “born again.” The term comes from the scene of Jesus’ visit with Nicodemus in John’s Gospel. When we Christians say we are “born again,” do we understand what Jesus meant, or have we created our own meaning?

Scripture: John 3: 1-17

Peace be with you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Imagine if a great preacher and healer came into our world at this time, and there was a lot of excitement and speculation about whether this person is the second coming of Christ. Now, imagine if Joel Osteen or Franklin Graham or any of today’s famous Christian evangelists came to visit this person, confessed their faith, and they were told, “Your belief isn’t enough to save you.”

Imagine how flabbergasted they would feel, and you can begin to imagine how Nicodemus might have felt in our scripture reading for today.

First, let’s look at the setting of this event, which might explain why Nicodemus visited with Jesus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the powerful Jewish council. He was one of the most prominent religious teachers of his day, and the power of Jesus’ teaching and healing got his attention.

Jesus astonished his audiences with the depth of his Scriptural understanding from the time he was twelve years old and continuing into his ministry as an adult. At the end of Matthew chapter 7:28-29, after Jesus had finished teaching the crowds, we read, “the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.”

Not only did Jesus astound the crowds with his teaching, but also with his healing. We read in Luke 5:17 “One day, while he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting nearby (they had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem); and the power of the Lord was with him to heal.”

At this point, the religious leaders were hard-pressed to criticize Jesus, but Jesus didn’t have any trouble criticizing them. In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5, Jesus taught the people that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Then he said in verse 20, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

If that wasn’t enough to get Nicodemus’ attention, then perhaps Jesus’ cleansing the temple was. Nicodemus’ visit is placed immediately after this event in John’s gospel. When the religious leaders asked Jesus to produce a sign to prove his authority to cleanse the temple, he replied, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

And that brings us to our scripture reading for today. Nicodemus was one of the most renowned Torah teachers of his day, yet when Jesus preached, he captivated audiences in ways that Nicodemus never could, and when Jesus preached, he answered questions that had puzzled Nicodemus for years. Jesus also performed many miracles, yet Nicodemus himself had yet to perform one.

Jesus made the Jewish teachers of the law look like amateurs – even ones as great as Nicodemus. Blinded by pride, most of them refused to believe that he came from God despite the obvious power of his preaching and healing abilities, and most of them would eventually join together to find ways to discredit Jesus and have him arrested.

Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night – alone. The Pharisees normally operated during the day – and in packs. Why is Nicodemus acting so unlike the other Pharisees?

Well … because Nicodemus was indeed unlike the other Pharisees. The first thing he says to Jesus is, “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 shows Jesus great respect by calling him “Rabbi,” a title reserved for teachers of the law like himself. But notice that Nicodemus doesn’t say, “I know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” He says, “We know that you are a teacher who has come from God.” Is he speaking for all the Pharisees?

The majority of the Pharisees ultimately rejected Jesus, so he must not be saying, “All we Pharisees believe in you, Jesus!” I think he’s saying, “Based on the way we Pharisees judge things like miraculous signs, the evidence suggests that your power must come from God.” He was drawing a logical conclusion based on the evidence according to his Pharisaic training.

At this point, I’m sure Nicodemus was looking forward to hearing Jesus talk all about himself and his divinely-inspired mission. I’m sure he had a lot of questions he would have liked Jesus to answer.

Instead, Jesus makes a statement that totally confounds Nicodemus. He says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” He’s essentially telling Nicodemus, “Thanks for the vote of confidence, but your belief is not enough to save you.”

I’m sure Nicodemus was shocked by this statement. He probably thought, “Wait just a minute here! I don’t need to be born again! I was born a Son of Abraham – an heir to the Kingdom of God. I follow Torah Law and teach others to do the same. How is that not enough?”

I’m sure today’s biggest Christian evangelists would be just as shocked. They might think, “Wait just a minute here! I was baptized a Christian, I say the Apostle’s Creed, I administer and partake in the sacraments, and I preach the gospel. How is that not enough?”

Nicodemus was not afraid to express his confusion and ignorance: “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

We Christians got the term “born again” from this story, so our Christian evangelists might say, “Oh, yes, Lord! I know exactly what you mean. I’m a born-again Christian.” When we call ourselves “born again,” what do we mean? Have we adopted Jesus’ meaning or our own?

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves two things: The first is water. I believe Jesus’ use of the word “water” relates to John’s baptism. Remember that John’s baptism wasn’t for the forgiveness of sins. It was a sign of God’s blessing on those who had repented and made a commitment to God.

Jesus liked using parables to make a point, and I’d like to do the same using one of his parables – the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. Jesus tells a story about a father with two sons. The younger son brazenly asks his father for his inheritance – basically expressing a wish for his father to die. In response, the father divides his inheritance between his two sons.

The younger son cashes in all his assets and goes to a “distant country.” When a famine strikes, he comes to his senses, repents, and begins to return home to his father. Along the way, he makes plans to ask his father to be accepted as a hired hand, but his father runs to meet him with open arms and throws a feast to celebrate his return.

The elder son becomes jealous and complains to his father saying in essence, “Here I’ve served you all these years, and you never rewarded me!” Now, it was the elder son’s duty to keep the family together, yet he gladly took his share of the inheritance and said “see ya!” to his younger brother.

Clearly, the elder son didn’t serve his father out of love; he served him for profit. He saw his father more as a boss whom he served only for a paycheck – for what he could get in return – not out of love – not out of gratitude – and with zero concern for him or his brother.

Rather than joining with his father and his brother, the elder brother exiled himself because he resented the fact that he couldn’t use his family for his own personal gain. He shook his finger at his younger brother while he himself despised his family and while he himself desired to be on his own every bit as much as his younger brother had – but without repentance.

The elder son was even more lost than his younger brother. We Christians can be deceived just like the elder son when it comes to our relationship with God and with one another. We can’t have a right relationship with God and with one another if our heart is in the wrong place.

In the wilderness, Satan tried everything in his power to get Jesus to abandon his commitment to God. Satan does the same thing to us – every single day.

I once said that I believe Satan is the ego. I’ve changed my mind. Satan is a fallen angel and the Prince of Darkness. He is real, but we don’t need to fear him. We do need to be aware of how he deceives us. His favorite way to deceive us to tempt us by appealing to our greatest weakness – the ego – our desire to be separate and to serve only ourselves.

Satan has no problem with people being religious. He can easily tempt people to use religion to profit themselves – to acquire more power, pleasure, prestige, or material possessions. Satan has no problem with religious belief at the shallow level of the mind. He can easily tempt people to mask their sins – their apathy, their arrogance, their greed, and their hatred – behind “religious beliefs.”

Satan has a major problem with people joining with Christ. Because once all of humanity joins with Christ, the Light of the World, the Prince of Darkness will have no more power over us.

Being “reborn of water” means a lot more than just admission into “Club Christian” through baptism. Our heart must be in the right place. We must be willing for the Holy Spirit to show us if it isn’t so that we can repent and make a new commitment to join with Christ.

Jesus explains to Nicodemus that to be reborn from above involves not only being reborn of water but also being reborn of Spirit.

Nicodemus responds to this idea with, “How can these things be?” Jesus gently rebukes him saying, “Eeeeya! And you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” We Christians should have some compassion for Nicodemus because we too are deeply ignorant when it comes to our true nature.

If we believe that we were born and will someday die; then, we believe we are of the flesh. But the flesh hardly scratches the surface of who we really are. The flesh is like the tip of an iceberg so vast under the surface that we can’t even begin to imagine how big it is, or how deep it goes.

We’ve focused for so long on the tip of the iceberg that we’ve lost awareness of the vastness of our Being beneath the surface, and now we wonder like Nicodemus, “Really? How can it be that we are more these individuals?”

Think about this: When winter comes, many things in the natural world die. We aren’t horrified by this at all because we know spring is coming. We love spring because life returns to the Earth. Everything is reborn. We accept that the natural world is all part of this cycle of Life, and Life never dies; it continues on in ever-changing forms.

Isn’t that glorious? Well guess what? We’re part the natural world and therefore part of this glorious cycle of life. When Jesus said, “I am the way the truth and the life,” he was speaking as the Christ, and he was speaking quite literally. In Christ, we are the Life! We are literally Life itself!

That’s how God created us, but we humans refuse to believe that. We’d rather believe we’re separate – maybe because we’d like to think we’re superior to the rest of the natural world. We’d rather believe that we are this individual that dies than simply take our humble place alongside the rest of Life.

We’d rather believe that we can be separate and exploit the rest of Life and keep all the goodies to ourselves. Of course, keeping all the goodies to ourselves is meaningless unless we can somehow figure out how to make this individual live forever. Since that is “mission impossible,” we live in constant fear.

We choose to believe in this illusion of separation and experience fear, suffering, and death rather than to believe in who we are as God created us, as One with Him and All of Life, and to gratefully accept our inheritance: peace, joy, and eternal life.

Jesus said to Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” He’s saying that the only way we can see the Kingdom of God is to join with Christ because Christ was born from above, not this thing (body).

Why in the world would we choose to believe we are these individuals and accept fear, suffering, and death when we have a far better choice? Perhaps, like Nicodemus, we can now draw a logical conclusion based on the evidence: We humans are spiritually insane.

Thankfully, God does not condemn us for our insanity. The insane can’t exercise their free will, so God had to intervene to save us. Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This verse sums up the Gospel, but it is usually taken out of context. Because of that, the word “so” is often mistakenly interpreted as “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son ….” But in the Bible, the word “so” is often used to mean “in the same way.”

A better translation would be “For God in the same way loved the world that he gave his only Son ….” In what same way? In the same way as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness. Jesus is using the word “so” to point Nicodemus back to an event in Israel’s history.

This event takes place in Numbers chapter 21. The Israelites were still wondering in the wilderness at this time, but they were growing impatient. They spoke out against God and Moses, so the Lord sent poisonous snakes among the people. Many Israelites who were bitten by the snakes died, so the people cried out to Moses, asking him to pray to God to remove the snakes.

God didn’t remove the snakes; instead, he instructed Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”

Jesus is telling Nicodemus that God has a plan to heal humanity in the same way he healed the Israelites in the wilderness. I believe the serpents represent this false idol (the body), and the poison is our belief in it. God in his love for us sent Jesus to take this false idol to the cross to prove to us that it is nothing and to show us who we really are in Christ. Those who look up to the Christ and believe will be healed of the poison that has caused our spiritual insanity.

To be born again requires more of us than a simple confession of belief on the level of the mind. First, our heart must be in the right place. Therefore, we must be willing to allow the Holy Spirit to examine our hearts and help us come to our senses if we are living in the filth of fear, suffering, and death – or feeling a sense of entitlement and bitterness.

Next, if our heart is in the wrong place, we must repent and turn our faces back toward home, never again to turn them back toward that “distant country.” We must make the journey back to God step-by-step, keeping our eyes fixed on Christ, as we wait for God to run to greet us and enfold us in His Arms.

It is only then that we will truly know what it means to be “born again.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to be born from above – to be reborn of water and the Spirit. Through the Power of Your Holy Spirit, bring to our awareness what is in our hearts that may need to be cleansed with the water of repentance so that we can turn our face up toward Christ once again and continue our journey Home. Amen.

Resources

Deffinbaugh, Bob. “8. Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21).” Bible.org, 19 Aug. 2004, bible.org/seriespage/jesus-and-nicodemus-john-31-21

The Tomb is the Womb

Titian / Public domain

Synopsis: Humanity is currently undergoing a time of great change, which is generating a lot of fear because human beings in general do not like change. The story of Jesus’ transfiguration can give us courage and hope as we face our personal and collective trials.

Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9

Peace be with you from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, has been quoted as saying “change is the only constant in life.” It’s strange that a statement containing two contradictory words, “constant” and “change,” can be so true.

What’s just as ironic – and true – is the fact that change is something we humans fear the most. Here we live in a world where the only constant thing is change, and we fear change. What a predicament!

And here we are in this time of great change in our world, and we can feel the fear in the air. I believe the story of the transfiguration of Jesus can help us to be less fearful of change – and maybe even learn to embrace it.

In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples entered the region of Caesarea Philippi, located about 30 miles north of the Sea of Galilee. This area was ruled by Herod’s brother, Phillip the Tetrarch, who changed its name to Caesarea Philippi to honor the Emperor, Tiberius Caesar, and – of course – himself.

At this point in his ministry, Jesus was beginning to face opposition from religious leaders who kept asking him to produce a miraculous “sign in the sky.” Jesus had already performed many miracles, but they dismissed them as magic tricks, coincidence, or the use of some evil power.

Jesus knew that producing this sign would not convince them because they had already made up their minds about him. They believed that he was not of God, so they would once again explain away even a miraculous sign in the sky.

Juxtaposed to their doubts is Peter’s famous confession of faith. When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

When Jesus asked them who they say he is, Peter declared, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praised him as blessed for having received this revelation from God.

After Peter professed his faith in Jesus, Jesus began talking to the disciples about what he was going to face in Jerusalem – that he would be turned over to the religious leaders, be killed, and on the third day, rise from the dead.

Peter believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but he didn’t understand why he had to suffer and die. So, he took Jesus aside and rebuked him saying, “Lord, this shall never happen to you!” Jesus responded with a strong rebuke of his own, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Peter had six days to think about that before Jesus took them up that high mountain in our scripture reading for today.

Why did Jesus take them up there? Luke’s gospel says that he took them up there to pray, which is most likely true. In ancient times, people often used mountaintops or the wilderness to remove themselves from the world in order to pray or to receive spiritual revelations or transformations.

What’s interesting is that Jesus didn’t take all of his disciples up the mountain, only Peter, James, and John. Jesus was praying within eyeshot of these three when he was “transfigured.”

The main focus of this passage is on this one word: “transfigured.” The Greek term is meTA-mor-phoh-see, from where we get our word “metamorphosis.” The word describes a complete change in the form and substance of something. We read “his face shone like the sun” – as if light were coming out of the pores of his skin” – and his clothes became dazzling white.”

If that weren’t startling enough, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear. Moses wrote the Law and represents those who obeyed the Law. Elijah was to come to prepare people’s hearts for the coming of the Lord, so he represents those who had fallen away.

The presence of Moses and Elijah on the mountain with Jesus emphasizes his link with the ongoing story of God’s journey with His People, Israel. Jesus is the main character in chapter three of Israel’s Redemption Story – a story that would be extended to the entire world.

We read that when Peter saw Elijah and Moses, he offered to build tents for them. What was that all about? Peter wasn’t being obstinate or irreverent. His offer directly relates to the Feast of Tabernacles. This is a yearly feast in the Jewish tradition commemorating the wilderness wanderings and finally settling in the promised land. The people would build little shelters (or booths) and live under them for a week until the last day – the great day of the feast – to celebrate the promises coming to fulfillment.

In the previous chapter, Peter heard Jesus say, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” Peter, upon experiencing this glorious vision of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, probably thought, “This is it – Jubilee! Can I make the tents?”

We certainly can’t blame Peter if his mind was a bit blown by what he had just seen, but he also wasn’t totally off. The prophet Zachariah wrote that in the Kingdom of God people will celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, or the fulfillment of all promises. Peter had the right idea – it just wasn’t the right time.

Peter’s offer was interrupted by a bright cloud overshadowing them, and a voice coming from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The Voice confirmed that Jesus embodied the Christ, so he was not merely a “son of God” like many people of royalty were called in those days, and he was not merely a “son of man,” like an ordinary human being.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the beloved and only begotten – and the Son of Man prophesized about in Daniel chapter 7: “I saw one like a human being (or a Son of Man) coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”

The Voice declared, “This is Jesus Christ, who sits at my right hand, to whom I have given authority over all things.” This is the claim Jesus will make at his trial in front of the Sanhedrin, the claim that will ultimately seal his fate.

The Lord’s transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah were not meant to frighten the disciples. It certainly made it clear to them that Jesus is what Peter declared him to be, not John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.

I’m sure those three disciples were at least awe-struck and from that point on and listened more intently what Jesus had to say.

After Jesus’ transfiguration, they came down the mountain. As much as it might have been tempting to remain there basking in all that glory, Jesus was ready to begin the final stages of his work as Savior.

He warned his disciples not to tell anyone about who he is until “the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” We can assume he didn’t want them to share this experience even with the other disciples. We don’t know why, but Jesus must have foreseen that sharing this with others before the right time would somehow interfere with his mission.

Now, how can this story help us deal with our fear of change in this time of great change?

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope for the future of humanity. God made us, and we are magnificent creatures. Just as Jesus’ transfiguration blew the minds of his disciples, we human beings all have the same mind-blowing potential in union with Christ, and Jesus came to prove it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:50-52, the apostle Paul wrote, “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

On the Mount of Transfiguration, God gave us a glimpse of that mysterious change. He revealed His Glory within Jesus. That glory is also within you as the Christ. That glory is within you. Do you believe that? Do you believe that you can morph into something entirely different?

When we think of the word metamorphosis, we often think of a butterfly. If I were to show you a caterpillar and a butterfly, would you ever believe in a million years that that little worm crawling around in the dirt would transform into a creature of such exquisite beauty and power, floating around in the sky with effortless grace and total freedom, if you hadn’t seen it for yourself?

Behold the power of God within His Creations! We take it for granted, but isn’t that magnificent?

And here we all are, with the same exquisite beauty and power within us that the disciples witnessed in Jesus. It’s hard for us to believe that we are not really this little worm, this physical body, this personal self, crawling around in the dirt of this world. We are really something else – something of unbelievable beauty and power – something that can soar with effortless grace and total freedom.

But the only way that we will ever believe it is to see it for ourselves. Herein lies the problem. We choose to wait in darkness for the “proof” that only our own light will deliver. The caterpillar is driven by its God-given instincts. When it is time, it begins to make its cocoon. The caterpillar’s tomb will become the butterfly’s womb.

We have free will, so we can choose to delay our transformation as long as we want, but not forever. Unlike the caterpillar, we are afraid of change. We’re a bit attached to who we think we are. We think we’re perfectly happy as a little worm. We don’t want God to show us the butterfly we really are.

We can be like the religious leaders who had already made up their minds about Jesus. We have already made up our minds about who we think we are, and the ego doesn’t like to be proven wrong. It also fears the unknown – at least it knows what to expect as a little worm.

But there’s only one way to become the butterfly we really are: We have to let the little worm go. Most people experience this “letting go” upon the death of their physical body, but we can experience this psychologically – without dying.

The timing is up to God, but we can allow God to give us this glimpse of who we really are in His Time by being willing to let go of all the ideas we have about ourselves – to let go of our beliefs, our desires, our likes, our dislikes, our past, our future, and all the other psychological “stuff” that separates us out and makes us “someone.”

I know that sounds strange, but it is believing all this “stuff” that has us convinced that we are the little worm – separate selves with separate lives – when we are really so much more. There is a purpose for this illusion. It’s how God experiences life as a human being – by temporarily “getting lost” in the human experience just like we get temporarily lost in a story by becoming identified with the characters.

We love getting sucked into a good story, don’t we? That’s because we never lose who we really are. God intends for Life to be fun that way – to be a joy – but when forget who we are, we become afraid, and then it isn’t fun anymore. Trials help us remember who we are. They encourage us to enter our cocoon – so that the tomb of our “character” may become the womb of Christ.

Jesus’ transfiguration gives us hope in times of trial. Peter tried to keep the Lord out of the tomb. During Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, Satan also tried to keep Jesus out of the tomb – to seek personal worldly glory, not Christ’s eternal glory.

But then Jesus would have remained Jesus of Nazareth and would never have become Jesus Christ. And we would not have his path to follow and the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.

Can you think of a time when you went through a very difficult trial? At the time, you might have thought, “Why are you doing this to me God? What have I done to deserve this?”

But there’s nothing like a difficult trial to destroy the false ideas we have about ourselves – especially the limiting ones. We often don’t know the strength within us until our personal self finally acknowledges complete loss of control and throws up its hands in surrender.

Unfortunately, to get it to that point usually requires a lot of pain. Arthur Burt once said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”

The good news is that we’re not left there in ruins. That’s when the Christ within takes over and takes care of what needs to be done effortlessly. That’s when God’s love and grace and mercy become most apparent. That’s when we realize that trials are not meant to destroy us; they are meant to make us stronger. They are meant to wake us up.

We not only experience trials individually, but also collectively. Humanity is in a lot of pain right now. Can you feel it? Are you shuddering to think how bad the pain might have to get before humanity’s collective ego finally throws up its hands in surrender?

Me too, but at the same time, I trust that we will not be abandoned.

Jesus’ transfiguration confirms our faith. While we don’t know specifically what was said between Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, we can assume that they were discussing his upcoming trial in Jerusalem. Jesus was not abandoned as he approached the most difficult part of his mission.

We can be sure that somehow his experience of being transfigured and his speaking with Moses and Elijah gave him the strength to face it.

Our faith is that strength. From the perspective of the world, Jesus’ march to the tomb was insane. That is why Jesus told his disciples in the previous chapter, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must forget about himself. He must take up his cross and follow Me. If anyone wants to keep his life safe, he will lose it. If anyone gives up his life because of me, he will save it. For what does a man have if he gets all the world and loses his own soul? What can a man give to buy back his soul?”

I’m quoting the NIV version of this verse because I believe this version makes it clearer what Jesus is talking about. The soul is the one consciousness that animates all living things. This one consciousness is Christ. Christ is the content within every living vessel.

Jesus was saying to his disciples, what have you gained if you protect this vessel but lose its contents? You become like a book with no words written within it. You not only become an empty book, but you lose your connection to everything. You lose the Word which is the very content of the Book of Life.

But the Truth about our loving God is that we can’t get lost; we can only experience ourselves lost temporarily. So, no matter what happens in our personal or collective lives, we should never lose hope, but abound in compassion for the pain within ourselves and all humanity as we struggle to wake up and become all God created us to be.

Let’s pray together: Lord, we are willing to enter the tomb of our personal selves that it may become the womb of Christ. Shine in us, around us, and through us, that the world may see your glory in the faces of your people – faces transfigured by the light of your love. Amen.

Resources

Ross, Allen. “25. The Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13).” Bible.org 31 Mar. 2006, https://bible.org/seriespage/25-transfiguration-matthew-171-13

Changing the World for the Better

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch, 1877 (Wikimedia Commons)

Synopsis: Changing the world for the better is a very complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective. From a spiritual perspective, however, it’s far less complicated. Jesus taught us how we can easily change the world for the better by being salt and light.

Peace be with your from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

On Tuesday, President Trump delivered the annual State of the Union address. Despite all the negative drama going on over the past four years, it’s been a long time since there has been so much interest in what the government is doing. That’s a positive thing.

People’s reactions to the President’s address demonstrated that some believe he is taking the country in a positive direction while others do not. It’s clear that everyone wants our country to be better; it’s just that not everyone agrees about how that can best be accomplished.

Changing a country for the better – indeed changing the world for the better– is an extremely complicated matter when viewed from a political perspective – with political parties often opposing each other tooth-and-nail.

Fortunately, when viewed from a spiritual perspective, it’s far less complicated. Jesus teaches us how we can easily change the world for the better in our Gospel reading for today.

In the previous chapter, Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum to begin his ministry. He called his first disciples: two sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew and James and John. He began preaching in the synagogues and healing the sick throughout Galilee. Matthew reports that his ministry in Galilee was very successful: large crowds of people began following him.

Chapter five opens with the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the Beatitudes we all know and love. When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain, sat down, and began to teach. He spoke about the blessings received by those who know they live in darkness and actually mourn over it.

Their sincere sorrow inspires them to earnestly seek righteousness, and as they seek righteousness, they naturally become more merciful, pure in heart, and peaceful. Unfortunately, these qualities are not ones the world values, so those who possess them will be persecuted. But even that is a blessing because it’s a sign that they are “not of this world.”

That brings us to our scripture reading for today. Jesus taught that if we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, then we are like the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We can boil down what he is trying to say to one word: influence. If we are blessed with these spiritual qualities, we can influence the world in a more positive direction. We can change the world for the better.

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “salt of the earth?” If Jesus said this today, we might think he is referring to salt as a type of “spice” to flavor things. I like salt. Salt makes a lot of things taste better. Is that what Jesus meant? That we help make life more palatable for people?

Some ministers might interpret it this way, but I think that’s missing the mark. We followers of the Lord do at times make life more pleasant with our compassionate words and deeds, but we also at times make people uncomfortable by challenging them to think and behave differently through our example.

To properly interpret what Jesus meant, we must consider what he said from the perspective of his time and culture. In his time, many households used salt as a preservative for fish and meat since there was no refrigeration. Jesus was most likely referring to salt’s function as a preservative. Those of us who follow Jesus’ example help to preserve righteousness and prevent moral decay.

Most people want to become better people. God created us that way; it’s part of our inherent goodness. Now, there are people in the world who are so lost that they are not in touch with their basic goodness. It’s not God’s Will for anyone to remain lost forever, so we can never give up hope for them. All we can do is pray for them, the main prayer being, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”

But they are the exception. Most people want to become better people – to become more rational and considerate human beings. They just don’t know what that looks like because they haven’t had good role models. They need people to influence them in that direction; they need us to be “salty.” 

We need to behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave. We may not realize how much our words and deeds make a deep impression on others, but people do take notice.

I recently read a story about a sixteen-year-old from Nebraska who lost control of his car on icy roads and took out his neighbor’s mailbox. What do you think he did? What do you think a typical teenager would do in that situation?

This young man walked up to the neighbor’s front door and rang the doorbell. When she answered the door, he explained that he accidently hit her mailbox when his car slid on the icy roads. Then he opened his wallet and offered her all of the cash in it. When she told him it was OK and to keep his money, he was so grateful that he returned three days later with a plateful of homemade cookies for her.

The neighbor was so impressed by this young man’s noble behavior that she posted his picture from her front door security camera on social media, wanting to know who his parents were so that she could tell them what an outstanding young man they raised.

When we behave in a way that is vastly different from the way people usually behave, people not only take notice, but they also do a quick inventory of their own morality. They can’t help but ask themselves, “Would I do that?” Virtuous acts throw up a mirror, forcing people to look at themselves and challenging them to “go and do likewise.”

This young man, though his words and actions, proved that it is possible for human beings to act with a high level of virtue. He raised the bar for all of us. It would have been so easy for him to just get back in his car and drive away. Most teenagers, even most people, probably would have done that. But if he had done that, he would have lost his “saltiness,” and I would not be sharing his inspiring story with all of you today.

Jesus taught that if salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It becomes worthless. Think about it. It’s impossible for salt not to be salty. There is no such thing as saltless salt. If it’s not salty, it’s not salt, and if it’s not salt, then it can’t be used to preserve anything, and that’s its main purpose. If it can’t fulfill its purpose, it is worthless.

It’s our main purpose to preserve righteousness in this world. If we’re going to continue to be salt – to be the kind of influence that makes the world a better place – we can’t lose our saltiness. We can’t do what’s easy. We can’t “sell out” and behave like everyone else.

The Rev. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “The glory of the gospel is that when the Church is absolutely different from the world, she invariably attracts it. It is then that the world is made to listen to her message, though it may hate it at first.”

What did Jesus mean when he said that we are the “light of the world?” Jesus is essentially making the same point twice, using two different analogies. The world is not only in a state of moral decay, but it is also in state of darkness. As salt, we preserve righteousness. As light, we drive away the darkness.

If we are blessed with the spiritual qualities Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes, we will drive away unrighteousness wherever we go just as the light drives away the darkness.

How do you know if you are the light? You know you are the light if you walk into a room and people automatically stop gossiping – or cussing – or arguing. Suddenly, people start behaving themselves; they start acting like better people. That’s when you know you are the light.

Dwight L. Moody once said, “A holy life will make the deepest impression. Lighthouses blow no horns, they just shine.” We don’t even have to say a word; the most powerful statement is to simply refuse to participate in or tolerate bad behavior by leaving the room.

We should never fail to take advantage of opportunities to influence people in a positive direction.

In Joyce Myer’s book “The Confident Woman Devotional,” she tells the story of Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister in Europe in the early 1800s. Ms. Fry was invited to do social work in England’s Newgate prison. She said she found “half naked women, struggling together … with the most boisterous violence … I felt as if I were going into a den of wild beasts.”

All she did was suggest a few things – that women and men be held in separate areas, that the more violent offenders be separated from the less violent, and that the prisoners be employed in some useful work – and she became one of the greatest prison reformers of all time. Her influence spread throughout France and the British colonies, and today we can’t imagine prisons without her reforms.

Joyce Meyer writes, “If you will do what you can do, God will do what you cannot do. You will also inspire others to do what they can do, and even though each person can only do a little, together we can make a big difference.”

And that brings us to the Law Jesus said that he came fulfill. What was he referring to? Was he referring to the entire Torah Law, both oral and written? Didn’t Jesus have an issue with Torah Law?

Jesus did not have an issue with Torah Law. He had an issue with those who didn’t practice what they preached. Many of the “Teachers of the Law” (i.e. Pharisees and Scribes) taught the people Torah Law but didn’t follow it themselves.

In addition to not following Torah Law, they also didn’t follow “the traditions of the elders” that they insisted others follow. Because they kept people so busy with the outward demonstrations of the Law, people’s hearts weren’t being changed by the Spirit of the Law.

Friday is Valentine’s Day, guys. Imagine bringing flowers to your sweetheart, and your sweetheart says, “Oh sweetie, these are lovely. Why did you do this?” And you respond, “Oh, I don’t know … I’m just doing what they tell me I’m supposed to do. I have no idea why. Seems like just another money-making scam holiday to me.”

Wrong answer.

The right answer would be something like: “How could I not, love of my life? I think of you always; I delight in you! I delight in doing this. What else would I rather do; where else would I rather be than be with you, showering you with my gifts of love?”

The same action coming from two very different places. That’s why Jesus said, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Many of them understood the Spirit of God’s Law as much as that “wrong answer” illustrated an understanding of the Spirit of Valentines’ Day.

And what about the Prophets? Was Jesus saying that he fulfilled all that was written in the books of the prophets, such as the books of Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel? I believe he was saying that he is the fulfillment of all that was written in those prophetic books – the Son of God who is to come to fulfill God’s Law. In other words, he is the Law of God in the flesh. He is the living, breathing Law of God.

That seems complicated, but Jesus simplifies what he means by the Law and the Prophets in Matthew chapter 20: 34-40. We read, “… One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God’s Law is Love: Loving God and loving one another. Following the Law of Love is about more than just going through the motions; it’s about letting it change our hearts and thus our behavior. The way to change the world for the better is to influence people to become better people.

That’s our job; surely, we can’t expect politicians to do it.

The problem with our world is not complicated – not enough love. How do we know that? Because there are people in this country and in the world who are suffering because of inadequate food, water, shelter, education, employment, or healthcare. If God’s Law of Love has entered into the hearts of enough people, this would not be happening. It wouldn’t be tolerated.

The solution is just as uncomplicated – more love. We need to love people more – enough to take advantage of any and all opportunities to be good to people – enough to speak out and insist that our national and world leaders find reasonable ways to ensure people’s basic needs are met.

That is – after all – the hallmark of an enlightened society. When everyone’s basic needs are met, then we can justifiably say a country or our world is “great.”

How can we love people more? We – as a people – need to get rid of the “us” vs. “them” mentality that so clearly dominates the political scene, often causing governments to be practically non-functioning. A society also can’t function well with this mentality. We can’t count on our governments to change, so we must change.

Everyone wants to live – and to live well would really nice. If God put someone on this earth, he or she is here for a purpose and therefore deserves to have his or her basic needs met and to be treated with the utmost respect.

They are not separate from us: They are one with us in Christ – and if they are not too busy struggling to survive, they have the potential, just like us, to become another glorious in-the-flesh expression of God’s living, breathing, Law of Love. Imagine a world where everyone is just that.

There is a wonderful story that I love to share that illustrates this concept. An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run, they all took each other’s hand and ran together, then sat down together enjoying the fruits.

When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, “Ubantu, how can one of us be happy when all the others are sad?” Ubantu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as “I am because we are.”

Let’s pray together: Lord, it is our desire to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. May the Law of God’s Love fully enter into our hearts and become manifest in our flesh as it did in Yours so that we may powerfully and positively influence the world as you did. Amen.

Resources

Anderson, David. “Lesson 10: Salt, Light, And Law (Matthew 5:13-20).” Bible.org, 23 July 2013, bible.org/seriespage/lesson-10-salt-light-and-law-matthew-513-20.

Meyer, Joyce. The Confident Woman Devotional (p. 43). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.

“Teen Praised for His Honesty After Heartfelt Apology (and Cookies) for Stranger Following Icy Road Incident.” GoodNewsNetwork.org, 29 Jan. 2020, www.goodnewsnetwork.org/teen-praised-for-honesty-after-hitting-mailbox/